Reclaiming Kipling from the jungle book of history

RUDYARD KIPLING: A LIFE By Harry Ricketts Carroll & Graf 434 pp., $28

About two-thirds of the way through his thoughtful and illuminating biography of Rudyard Kipling, Harry Ricketts takes time out to wonder what difference it might have made to Kipling's reputation if he had died in 1899 at age 33 instead of living on, as he did, for another 37 years into the 20th century. "English Studies," Ricketts speculates, "might even have found an honourable position for such a Kipling: as an early modern precursor perhaps; as the inventor (for the West) of India as a literary subject; as the champion of the working-class Tommy Atkins; as an important Nineties' vernacular poet; as a major innovator in children's writing ... as the leading exponent of the short story between Poe and [Katherine] Mansfield."

On the other hand, he would not have completed what many have regarded as his greatest and most deeply Indian novel, "Kim."

Born in Bombay in 1865 to English parents, the six-year-old boy and his younger sister were sent back to England to be educated. Although it may be tempting to believe that his heart-rending account of cruel treatment by his foster family in his story "Baa Baa, Black Sheep" is exaggerated, Ricketts would have us know that in the basement of the very house where Kipling and his sister were sent to live, "deeply scored into the whitewashed wall in capital letters, is the single word HELP."

Even before these scarring experiences, the two-year-old tot showed signs of a formidable character: "While his mother was away, Rud would apparently walk down the street ... shouting 'Ruddy is coming!' or, if anyone got in his way, 'An angry Ruddy is coming!' "

Kipling's teenage years were happier ones. Already he was demonstrating unusual precocity as a poet and storyteller. By age 17, he had returned to India, where he worked on a newspaper. It was not long before he burst onto the literary scene in prose and verse with "Plain Tales From the Hills," "Soldiers Three," "Departmental Ditties," and "Barrack-Room Ballads," followed in the next decade by his famous "Jungle Books" for children.

He was not only a great popular success, but also enjoyed the esteem of the literati, including, to some extent, that most discriminating and rarefied of cognoscenti, Henry James.

But as years went by, Kipling's increasingly harsh brand of imperialism came to seem ever more out of step with the times in which he was living. Not only his political opinions, but his very personality seemed to stiffen and calcify. Following the death of his six-year-old daughter in 1899, Kipling became, in his sister Trix's words, "a sadder & a harder man." The death of his only son in World War I further intensified the process, until this immensely gifted writer came to seem like a parody of himself.

"Sadder and harder" is a revealing phrase, because it reminds us of the sensitive inner soul of the artist that Kipling kept well hidden beneath the tough exterior he took such trouble to cultivate. Perhaps because his character presents such intriguing contrasts and contradictions, Kipling has managed, despite having become so unfashionable, to attract the attention of biographers: Lord Birkenhead, Charles Carrington, the brilliant novelist and critic Angus Wilson, and the erudite, if eccentric Martin Seymour-Smith. Meanwhile, a superb multivolume edition of Kipling's letters, ably edited by Thomas Pinney, richly conveys the dynamism of this complicated personality.

Biographer Ricketts is also a poet, and he brings to his version of Kipling's life a deeply informed and highly informative appreciation of Kipling's literary art. Indeed, it is important to remember that, although Kiplingesque became a byword for the bluff, heavy-handed, stodgy sort of fare that appealed to the average philistine rather than the aesthete or the intellectual, Kipling was an extraordinarily skilled craftsman and artist in prose and verse, steeped in literary tradition.

It may be a mistake to judge figures from other eras by the standards of our own time, but it should also be noted that Kipling often was reactionary even by the standards of his own day. Ricketts does not attempt to soft-pedal the unattractive aspects of Kipling's views, but he also takes pains to show his subject's more humane and open-minded side. Critical yet sympathetic, Ricketts's life of Kipling is a compelling and believable portrait.

*Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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