Rudyard Kipling: plagiarist?

Rudyard Kipling wrote in a letter now up for sale that 'it is extremely possible that I have helped myself promiscuously but at present cannot remember from whose stories I have stolen.' Kipling is most famous for his 1894 work 'The Jungle Book.'

Rudyard Kipling's novel 'The Jungle Book' was first released in 1894.

There's no hint that the author was particularly embarrassed or ashamed. In a letter to an unknown correspondent – a letter that is now available for purchase – Rudyard Kipling admits quite freely that he may have borrowed parts of his work “The Jungle Book” from another source.

Kipling writes that "the law of the jungle," famously shared by Baloo the bear with "Jungle Book" protagonist Mowgli, was partly taken from “(Southern) Esquimaux [Eskimo] rules for the division of spoils." And parts may be from other sources, as well, he adds.

“I am afraid that all that code in its outlines has been manufactured to meet 'the necessities of the case': though a little of it is bodily taken from (Southern) Esquimaux rules for the division of spoils," Kipling wrote. "In fact, it is extremely possible that I have helped myself promiscuously but at present cannot remember from whose stories I have stolen.”

Kipling turns the laws of the jungle into a poem for his book “The Second Jungle Book,” writing, “Now this is the Law of the Jungle – as old and as true as the sky; / And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die. The Kill of the Pack is the meat of the Pack. Ye must eat where it lies; / And no one may carry away of that meat to his lair, or he dies."

The letter, which is believed to have been written in 1895, is being sold by Adam Andrusier, director of Adam Andrusier Autographs, who said he purchased it from another dealer of manuscripts in New York. Andrusier pointed out that any letter from Kipling discussing his work is extremely rare, let alone one in which he admits that he may have taken his text from other works. 

“A letter that casts new light on an author's celebrated work tends to capture the imagination of the collector," Andrusier told the Guardian. "Personally, I rather like his candidness about the possibility of his plagiarism in The Jungle Book; I think people tend to have a misapprehension about writing needing to be unswervingly original, when so much literature is either consciously or unconsciously borrowed.”

In Kipling's defense, it is also true that standards change with time. More recently, when The Wall Street Journal found factual errors in Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” Larry Welch, the former director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, made the point that standards for journalism weren’t the same in decades past.

“In this day and age, we can't even recreate the proper context for these events,” Welch told The Wall Street Journal – a statement that applies at least as well to Kipling's rather nonchalant admission of plagiarism.

One way or another, the discovery can only help with the sale of Kipling's letter. It is now priced at 2,500 pounds or around $3,760.

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