Magazine | August 26, 2019, Issue

Rudyard Kipling’s American Years

Rudyard Kipling (Wikimedia)
If: The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years, by Christopher Benfey (Penguin Press, 256 pp., $28)

Back in the Dark Ages I used to ponder the name “Kipling” twice a day whilst sitting in the little tin chapel of my English boarding school. It was etched up in faded gold leaf on the honors board behind the altar, just under a dimly illuminated stained-glass panel bearing the school’s motto, which admonished us in Greek to “be manly,” a salutarily tall order when you’re seven years old.

The man so commemorated was Lieutenant John Kipling of the Irish Guards. He had been at our school in the early years of the 20th century before joining the army on the outbreak of the Great War. He fell in action in September 1915 during the Battle of Loos, shortly after his 18th birthday. Kipling’s was one of what must have been 80 or 90 names on display that we were urged to contemplate during worship. As our headmaster (himself old enough to have fought at the Somme) put it: “Always remember how many of your fellows died so that you might live. Two wars. It adds up.”

At the time that John Kipling was at my school, his father, Rudyard, was the most popular and financially successful author in the world. By around 1912 almost every literate Briton was familiar with The Barrack-Room Ballads or The Jungle Book and its sequel, knew how the leopard got its spots or why the female was more deadly than the male, and could quote from that paean to Victorian-era stoicism, “If.” At the height of his fame, the diminutive, tan-skinned Kipling was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, at 41 the youngest author ever to be so honored, and the first Nobel winner to write in the English language. Nearly a century after his death, he is still a writer who inflames passionate debate.

Over the years there have been Kipling biographies that have focused on his supposed nationalism or racism; on the traumatic childhood imposed by the his eccentric Anglo-Indian artist father; his suppressed homosexuality; his rampant heterosexuality; his addiction to opium; his personal ascetism; his furtive socialist sympathies; his espousal of the swastika symbol; his incestuous desire for his sister, Trix; his pathological dread of her psychic dabblings; his profound interest in the occult. The list goes on, each producing a different Kipling. It’s come to resemble something of a biographical freak show.

Underpinning all this is the consensus view of Kipling’s traditional, even tweedily English sensibility and his status as what George Orwell damningly called a “jingo imperialist.” Thanks largely to his nomadic early upbringing, it’s suggested, Kipling viewed the British Empire as a viable means to maintain stability, order, and peace among the heathen, to construct the physical and psychological groundwork for “civilization,” and above all to protect the mother country. 

In 1899, Kipling famously addressed an appeal to the United States to shoulder its own imperial responsibilities:

“Take up the White Man’s Burden,” he exhorted. “Send forth the best ye breed —  / Go bind your sons in exile, / To serve your captives’ need.”

No one would dare use such language today, even if we do find our armed forces mired in Afghanistan and based in as many as 70 other countries in the interests of preventing terrorism while simultaneously spreading the benefits of capitalism and democracy. The point is that Kipling wasn’t averse to the prospect of a new world power coming to join and in time even supersede the British. As a young man he admired American literary masters such as Walt Whitman and Henry James, adopted Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” as his personal credo, and kept a photograph of Emerson facing him on his writing desk. Kipling’s own influence permeates American literature, from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan franchise to Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. One way or another, this most “British” of authors travels surprisingly well across the Atlantic. 

Now Christopher Benfey, a professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, has chosen to inquire into Kipling’s 1890s exile in Brattleboro, Vt., where he and his American wife, Carrie, initially rented a small cottage with the enticing name of “Bliss Farm.” It was an Arcadian if somewhat threadbare existence. According to Kipling, “We bought, second- or third-hand, a huge, hot-air stove which we installed in the cellar. We cut generous holes in our thin floors for its 8-inch tin pipes (why we were never burned in our beds each winter I never can understand) and we were extraordinarily and self-centredly content.” 

Some readers may be especially charmed by Professor Benfey’s book. They would be those already acquainted with Kipling and such illustrious contemporaries as Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Bram Stoker, all of whom make cameo appearances here. The author assumes some familiarity with their generation, and other readers will be mystified by why, precisely, a well-bred Victorian Englishman should have chosen to immerse himself in the remote Vermont countryside. The success of a cultural fish-out-of-water tale like this one surely rests on whether its subject is convincingly presented to us in his temporal circumstances: Do we revel in his discoveries of his new home and wrinkle up our noses at what’s alien or repugnant to him? Benfey’s book will certainly appeal to the initiated but may not lead the young or general reader to take a greater interest in the energetically sustained idiom of Kipling’s luminous tales of life, love, identity, and faith.

Nonetheless, there are some good, even vividly touching, passages as we see Kipling interact with his New England neighbors. Here is Benfey’s account, mingled with his subject’s, of Kipling calling unannounced on Mark Twain one hot August morning in Elmira, N.Y.:

“What had I come to say?” Kipling asked himself, trying to get his bearings, and struggling to register the sheer momentousness of the encounter. “A big, darkened drawing-room; a huge chair; a man with eyes, a mane of grizzled hair, a brown mustache covering a mouth as delicate as a woman’s, a strong, square hand shaking mine, and the slowest, calmest, levellest voice in all the world.”

For Kipling, Twain was a teacher of genius, if not the first, the greatest of a series of instructive and protective father figures. Eventually Kipling himself took on this role for a string of tricky, needy, talented young men. It’s perhaps hard today to properly convey his influence on a young generation of poets coming up behind him at the time of the Great War. That other great literary Atlantic crosser, T. S. Eliot, saw in Kipling “an amazing curiosity and power of observation, [with] the mask of the entertainer, and beyond that a queer gift of second sight, of transmitting messages from elsewhere.” 

In 1893, Kipling and his family left Bliss Farm and traded up to a nearby home he called “Naulakha,” a narrow, wooden structure with a protruding front porch that looked like a beached houseboat. His three years there appear to have been idyllically happy: Children were born, more books and poems written, and in November 1894 Conan Doyle came to join his fellow author for a round of a curious new game called “golf” while puzzled villagers looked on. Kipling loved the Vermont scenery, describing the “flaming blood-red” maples that marked the sudden advent of fall, and spoke of his hopes to lead a “good wholesome life” in New England for the rest of his days. 

No such luck. The tragicomedy of the 1895 Anglo-American Crisis (whipped up over a contested Venezuelan border) made Kipling feel distinctly less welcome in his adopted home. He wrote that it was like being “aimed at with a decanter across a friendly dinner table.” A more private dispute then saw the author’s wayward brother-in-law confront him on the street and offer to “punch the soul” out of him. This concentration of events left the blameless Carrie to record in her diary: “Rud a total wreck. Sleeps all the time. Dull, listless and weary. These are dark days for us.” In July 1896 the Kiplings packed their belongings and returned to England, where their ill-fated son John was born a year later.

Benfey’s great talent, not immaterial in a biographer, is for observation and description. He captures neatly some of the physical contours of Kipling’s exile: the melting snows and flooded plains of Vermont in early spring; the pony-and-carriage rides across the swollen river; the small, red-painted farmhouses, low-angled hills, and lush valleys. We’re left with that odd mixture of the parodically stuffy Briton and the Americanized naturalist-philosopher one encounters in Kipling in early middle age.

It’s all a perfectly readable, scrupulously researched account, even if the author — or his publisher — may have overegged the case in the book’s title. Comparatively neglected, perhaps, but surely not “untold”?

This article appears as “Kipling’s American Idyll” in the August 26, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Christopher Sandford — Mr. Sandford’s books include Union Jack: John F. Kennedy’s Special Relationship with Great Britain.

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