Christopher Benfey’s “If: The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years” draws its title from Rudyard Kipling’s most famous poem, which Benfey aptly describes as a “favorite of presidents and graduation speakers, of political conservatives and revolutionaries alike.” If none of this rings a bell, then the opening stanza probably will:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise...
Three stanzas later the poem concludes with what awaits the diligent soul who can navigate all those “ifs”:
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
Kipling’s poem seems to reflect the basic virtues that informed Kipling’s life and work as a Victorian Englishman. Born in colonial India to English parents in 1865, Kipling spent his early childhood there before going to England, the country where he died in 1936. India informed iconic Kipling works such as his “Jungle Books,” the children’s stories adapted into a blockbuster movie franchise.
But as Benfey points out, despite the celebrated author’s British pedigree, Kipling’s “If—” was meant as a homage to George Washington. Like much of his work, it was inspired by America, where Kipling spent some of the most creative years of his life. Benfey tells this little-known story of Kipling’s handful of years in Brattleboro, Vermont, an interlude he calls “the key creative period in his entire career.” (Although they were about India, the “Jungle Books” were written in Vermont.)
Benfey is shrewd to begin his story with “If—,” the Kipling poem a lot of readers can warm their hands around. One of my fondest memories of the poem is hearing it read aloud by the daughter of a friend at his funeral – her way of honoring the many times her father had read it to her.
That interpretation of Kipling’s homiletic verse required her to overlook its gender-specific language, which is directed exclusively to boys who want to be men. Its tacit assumption seems to be that the highest human virtues are manly ones.
Benfey is deeply aware of such challenges with Kipling, who can sound contemporary in some ways, but dated in others. Nowhere is this more true than in Kipling’s embrace of imperialism and racial hierarchy in “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands,” an 1899 poem in which he paternalistically refers to colonized people of color as “your new-caught, sullen peoples.” What Benfey calls the “unashamedly racist” title of “The White Man’s Burden” and its dehumanizing view of nonwhites is an obvious example of why Kipling’s literary legacy is so controversial today. Benfey recalls that a friend warned him that writing a book about Kipling could be career suicide, since he might be tarnished by association.
But as Benfey makes clear, he’s not writing in defense of Kipling’s cultural attitudes, but to explore his place in history. Although Kipling was a global celebrity, the Nobel Prize-winning author was intimately connected with the United States. “The White Man’s Burden,” in fact, was not meant as a hymn to the British Empire, but the emerging American one. Kipling, who had married an American woman and lived in Vermont, wrote the poem as “an explicit plea for the United States to adopt the Philippines as an American colony.”
Kipling was, for much of his life, a cheerleader of American culture and influence, embracing Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as early role models. He adored Mark Twain, too, and Benfey’s book begins with an account of young Kipling’s pilgrimage to Elmira, New York, to meet his idol.
Although the men quickly became friends, Twain was skeptical of his country’s imperial ambitions, a difference with Kipling that complicated their relationship.
Ultimately, other political questions dampened Kipling’s attitude toward America. In 1895, an obscure dispute between the United States and England over their interests in South America forced Kipling to choose sides, and he chose Britain. A scandalous falling-out with his troubled American brother-in-law further complicated his life in the States. In 1896, he relocated to England.
Benfey also poses the title of “If” as shorthand for “what if?” He asks us to consider how Kipling, whose love of reinvention had drawn him to America, might have evolved if he had stayed there. A closer reading of Kipling shows a degree of doubt about the merits of expansionist foreign policy, and more nuanced views about the implications of colonial rule.
“‘There are only two places in the world where I want to live, Bombay and Brattleboro,’” he said when he left New England. “And I can’t live in either.”