Rudyard Kipling was, as Harry Ricketts shows, as diverse as his literary works. The author of such classic children’s stories as “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” (1895) and “Wee Willie Winkie” (1888), The Jungle Book (1894), and Just So Stories (1902) and the composer of some of the most famous poetry in the English-speaking world, such as “If” (1910) and “Recessional” (1899), Kipling also came to represent the British Empire in some of its most imperialistic moments at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Ricketts’ evenhanded biography captures “Kipling’s chameleon nature, the ability he celebrated in characters such as Mowgli and Kim to cross boundaries and switch identities,” reveals Kipling’s troubled childhood as the main source for his several personalities, but also uncovers the deep, often mythic literary elements in Kipling’s works which continue to draw readers, and especially younger readers, to him.
Kipling was the only child of British parents who followed a career in India. After early years with his family, Kipling and his younger sister Alice (Trix) were sent to live at Lorne Lodge, Southsea, near Portsmouth on the south coast of England. They would not see their parents again for five years and, while their surrogate family in Southsea provided for their creature comforts, the children were clearly deprived of love and affection. This “House of Desolation,” as Kipling later called Lorne Lodge, would come to haunt his life and many of his writings, not only in the twin themes of family and orphanhood that underlie his work, but in the hatred that fueled much of his fiction. “Hatred, and its consequences,” Ricketts argues, “formed the core of some of his greatest stories, and it was a subject that he explored with an insight and an honesty few others have matched.” Part of Kipling’s success would come from the successful ways that he transmuted “the Southsea legacy into imaginative gain.” For almost his entire career, in short, Kipling was tapping sources in his own painful childhood.
Kipling returned to India at the age of sixteen and was soon working as a reporter and editor for a series of Anglo-Indian papers. His poetry and fiction began appearing almost at once, and by the age of nineteen Kipling had published his first collection of poems and stories, Quartette (1885). Thus was established his pattern of serial and then book publication, and in the next few years, through collections such as Departmental Ditties (1886) and Plain Tales from the Hills (1888), and stories such as “The Man Who Would Be King” (1889) Rudyard Kipling became a recognizable literary personality. At the very same time, however, he was outgrowing his provincial Anglo-Indian audience, and in 1889, at the age of twenty-three, he left India for London.
Kipling was anxious about his literary future in his native country, but it did not take him long to establish himself in a number of newspapers and journals, to make lasting friends and contacts, and to start to publish works (such as The Light That Failed in 1890 and Barrack-Room Ballads in 1892) and build a reputation in England that, within a decade, would make him one of the most famous writers in the English-speaking world. In fact, the 1890’s would probably be the happiest and most productive period in Kipling’s life. As he came to be compared with older writers such as Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson, he also found personal happiness when he met and married the American Caroline Balestier. Three children would be born to the couple, although only one would survive into adulthood.
In one of the ironies of Anglo-American literary history, Kipling very nearly became an American writer. Rudyard and Carrie Balestier Kipling settled in 1893 in Brattleboro, Vermont, to be near his wife’s family, and in a few years built a house there, “Naulakha,” named after an adventure novel that Kipling wrote with his brother-in-law, Wolcott Balestier, in 1892. Kipling was putting down other American roots, reading and meeting American writers such as Henry Adams and William Dean Howells, and befriending political figures such as Theodore Roosevelt. Meanwhile, he continued to publish works which only expanded his reputation: The Jungle Book in 1894, The Second Jungle Book the following year, and Captains Courageous (the...
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