Rudyard Kipling

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Rudyard Kipling’s literary career began in journalism, but his prose sketches and verse brought him early fame. He wrote several novels, most lastingly Kim (1901), and he also wrote works of history, including a study of his son’s military regiment from World War I. In his lifetime as well as posthumously, however, his fame depended upon his poetry and short stories, both of which he wrote for adult audiences and for children. Kipling’s autobiography, Something of Myself: For My Friends Known and Unknown (1937), was published after his death.


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By his early twenties, Rudyard Kipling had become one of the best-known writers in the English language. His first poems and stories were written and published in India, but his popularity quickly spread throughout the English-speaking world and beyond. Although he published several novels, the short-story form proved to be his most successful métier. Drawing upon his experiences in India, many of his early stories featured the adventures of ordinary soldiers, junior officers, and civil officials, and his use of dialect was a recognized feature of his literary technique. Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907, he also received honorary degrees from many universities.

Kipling wrote extensively about the benefits of the United Kingdom’s paramount position in the world, and over time his public persona was perceived to be that of a political reactionary. Although some of his finest short stories were written in the last two decades of his life, by that time, to many of his contemporaries, he had become yesterday’s man, irrevocably associated with political imperialism, a dying creed even before his death in 1936. After his death, however, his stories received much critical study and acclaim, and Kipling is considered to be one of the major practitioners of the short-story art ever to write in English.

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Best known for his short fiction, Rudyard Kipling wrote more than 250 stories. His style of leaving a story open-ended with the tantalizing phrase “But that’s another story” established his reputation for unlimited storytelling. Although the stories are uneven in quality, W. Somerset Maugham considered Kipling to be the only British writer to equal France’s Guy de Maupassant and Russia’s Anton Chekhov in the art of short fiction.

Kipling’s early stories both satisfied and glorified the Englishman in India. The empire builder, the man who devotes his life to “civilize the sullen race,” comes off in glowing colors, as in the story “The Bridge Builders.” Some of his best stories skillfully blend the exotic and the bizarre; the early “The Man Who Would Be King” (1888), which is about two drifters and their fantastic dream to carve out a kingdom for themselves in Central Asia, is an excellent example of such a story. Some stories reflect the pain, suffering, and dark melancholy of Kipling’s later life: “A Madonna of the Trenches,” with its strange, occult atmosphere; “The Children of the Zodiac,” about a young poet who dreads death by cancer of the throat; and “The Gardener,” with its unrelieved sadness and autobiographical reflections on the death of a son.

The stories that make up The Jungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895) were written in Brattleboro, Vermont, when Kipling’s mind “worked at the height of its wonderful creative power.” They are in the class of animal stories and folktales that make up such world literary creations as the ancient folktales of Aesop’s Fables (fourth century b.c.e. ) and the Buddha birth stories known as the Jataka Tales. Into the Jungle Book stories, Kipling incorporated not only the clear and clean discipline of the British public school...

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but also his favorite doctrine of the natural law. This law had a great impact on the Boy Scout movement and the origins of the Wolf Cub organization, found in the Mowgli tales.

Kipling was a prolific writer, and, as a journalist, he wrote a considerable number of articles, stories, and poems not only for his own newspapers but also for a variety of literary journals in England and the United States. In addition, he was a prolific letter writer and carried on lengthy literary and political correspondence with such men as President Theodore Roosevelt, financier Cecil Rhodes, and writer H. Rider Haggard. His correspondence with Haggard has been collected in Rudyard Kipling to Rider Haggard: The Record of a Friendship, edited by Morton N. Cohen (1965). Two volumes of his previously uncollected works were published in 1938 under the title Uncollected Prose, and even some of his desultory writings, such as American Notes, concerned with his travels in the United States in 1891, was reissued in the late twentieth century with editorial notes.

Kipling personally supervised the publication of the Sussex edition of his work in thirty-five volumes (1937-1939). The Kipling Society, founded in 1927, publishes the quarterly Kipling Journal, which keeps Kipling enthusiasts informed of publications about Kipling. A great deal of biographical material on Kipling—including his autobiography, Something of Myself: For My Friends Known and Unknown, published posthumously in 1937—has been published, and the record of his literary achievement is now complete.


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Rudyard Kipling’s first book of fiction appeared in 1888. Since then, his works have undergone several editions, and several of his short stories and poems have found a permanent place in anthologies. Although England and India have both changed enormously since the beginning of the twentieth century, Kipling’s stories continue to attract and fascinate new readers. He was a best-selling author during his lifetime—one of his animal stories, Thy Servant a Dog (1930), sold 100,000 copies in six months in 1932—and his works continue to be extremely popular in the English-speaking countries of the world. Several of his works, notably Captains Courageous, Kim, The Jungle Book, and some short stories, have been made into motion pictures.

Throughout his lifetime, and soon after his death, Kipling was associated with the British Empire. He had become the laureate of England’s vast imperial power, his first book was praised by the viceroy in 1888, and the king used Kipling’s own words to address the Empire on Christmas Day in 1932. The day Kipling’s ashes were interred at Westminster Abbey—January 23, 1936—King George V’s body lay in state in Westminster Hall, and the comment that “the King has gone and taken his trumpeteer with him” appropriately described the image Kipling had projected.

Kipling wanted to serve the Empire through the army or the civil service. Because he had neither family connections with which to obtain a civil service job nor strong eyesight—required for military service—Kipling turned to writing. He wrote with a passionate intensity coupled with admiration for the soldiers, bridge builders, missionaries, and civil servants in remote places who served the Empire under “an alien sky.” Many of the phrases he used to narrate their tales—such as “What do they know of England who only England know?”; “East is East and West is West”; “the white man’s burden”; “somewhere east of Suez”—have become part of the English language and are often repeated by those who are unfamiliar with his writings. To have used the pen in place of a gun to serve the imperial vision and have such lasting impact on British thinking constitutes a major achievement.

In 1890, Kipling published or republished more than eighty stories, including the novelette The Light That Failed. At twenty-five, he had become a famous literary figure. At forty-two, he became the first Englishman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, for “the great power of observation, the original conception and also the virile comprehension and art ofnarrative that distinguish his literary creations." He had also become a controversial personality, as critics and readers saw in his work the effort to mix the roles of the artist and the propagandist. Kipling’s writings would continue to be controversial and generate extremes of admiration or condemnation. His works tend to generate a love-hate response, and Kipling scholars frequently evaluate and interpret his writings from new perspectives. His works are neither neglected nor ignored, which is a true testimony to his importance as a writer.

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Rudyard Kipling is best known for his short stories. His Just So Stories (1902), The Jungle Book (1894), and The Second Jungle Book (1895) are favorites with children and are among the most widely read collections of stories in the world. His novel Kim (1901) also ranks among the world’s most popular books. Kipling’s fiction, however, presents a critic with most of the problems that his verse presents, making it difficult to discuss one without the other. The fiction is often thought to be barbaric in content and representative of a discredited imperialistic point of view; too often, critics discuss Kipling’s political views (which are often misrepresented) rather than his literary merits. Kipling’s contempt for intellectualism makes him unfashionable in most critical circles, and those who admit to having admired him seem to be ashamed of their affection. Not all critics, however, have been ambiguous in their admiration of Kipling’s work; especially since the 1960’s, critics have made the short stories objects of serious study. In any case, Kipling’s fiction has remained immensely popular from the late Victorian era to the present. It has been made into no fewer than thirteen motion pictures, including Captains Courageous (1937) and The Jungle Book (1942, 1967, and 1998). Kipling’s fiction has the vigor and passion that appeal to the popular imagination, and a subtlety and brilliant prose style that are worthy of careful study.


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Henry James called Rudyard Kipling a genius; T. S. Eliot called him a writer of verse who sometimes ascended to poetry. His Departmental Ditties brought him extravagant praise and fame. Some scholars assert that he was the world’s best-known author from the 1890’s to his death. However, even his admirers have been uncertain of his achievement, particularly in poetry. Kipling often sang his poems while he composed them; they are often ballads or hymns, and all feature clear rhythms that urge a reader to read them aloud. Their surface themes are usually easy to understand; the language is clear and accessible to even casual readers.

Perhaps the accessibility of Kipling’s verse is the source of the confusion; twentieth century critics have all too often regarded poetry that is popular among the common people as automatically bad; obscurity has been the hallmark of much of the best of twentieth century poetry. Kipling’s verse is informed by the Victorian masters, such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Algernon Charles Swinburne. It is out of step with the modernist school, which may be why many readers think of Kipling as Victorian, even though he actively wrote and published into the 1930’s; his autobiography appeared in 1937, the year after his death. His harsh views of ordinary people; his angry polemics, political conservatism, and lack of faith in so-called utopian societies; and the Cassandra-like prophecies of war that fill much of his verse repel many aesthetes and political liberals. Kipling has been portrayed as a philistine. The truth is that he did not understand much of the social change of his lifetime, but he understood people, and in his verse, he preserves the thoughts, emotions, hopes, and despairs of people usually ignored by poets. If one approaches his verse with an open mind, one will likely find brilliant prosody, excellent phrasing, surprising metaphors, and a poetic ethos that transcends literary and political fashion.

Kipling won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907. The award was, in part, a recognition of Kipling’s worldwide appeal to readers; he touched more hearts and minds than anyone else of his generation. His work added phrases to the English language; few today realize that they paraphrase Kipling when they assert that “the female is deadlier than the male” or that “East is East and West is West.”

Discussion Topics

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Has Rudyard Kipling’s reputation as a “British Empire” man damaged his literary reputation?

Was Kipling too concerned with technique in his fiction?

Does it make sense to criticize “The Man Who Would Be King” because it lacks elements of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899, serial; 1902, book)?

Does Kipling’s verse deserve more attention than it now gets?

Does Kipling have unusual insight into India and its people?


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Battles, Pau. “‘The Mark of the Beast’: Rudyard Kipling’s Apocalyptic Vision of Empire.” Studies in Short Fiction 33 (Summer, 1996): 333-344. A reading of Kipling’s story as his most powerful critique of the Empire; argues that “The Mark of the Beast” is an allegory of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized.

Bauer, Helen Pike. Rudyard Kipling: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1994. Discusses the themes of isolation, work, the Empire, childhood, the supernatural, and art in Kipling’s short stories. Includes Kipling’s comments on writing and excerpts from a formalist and a postcolonial analysis of Kipling.

Birkenhead, Lord. Rudyard Kipling. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978. This work was initially completed in 1948 but was not published until much later because of the opposition of Elsie Bambridge, Kipling’s daughter. It contains some information from documents later destroyed.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Rudyard Kipling. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Essays on Kipling’s major work, his views on art and life, and his vision of empire. Includes introduction, chronology, and bibliography.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Contains nine essays ranging from general appreciation to detailed critical analysis, with an introduction, chronology, and bibliography.

Carrington, Charles. Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Works. 3d ed. London: Macmillan, 1978. A standard biography with access to unique inside information. The appendices to the 1978 edition contain information previously suppressed by Kipling’s heirs. Includes a chronology of his life and work as well as a family tree. Much stronger on his adult life than his childhood and concentrates on his life and the influences upon it rather than on literary critique.

Coates, John. The Days’s Work: Kipling and the Idea of Sacrifice. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997. Explores one of Kipling’s favorite themes.

Daniel, Anne Margaret. “Kipling’s Use of Verse and Prose in ‘Baa Baa, Black Sheep.’” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 37 (Autumn, 1997): 857-875. Argues that the story relies on a literary self- consciousness to bring under artistic control the possible untruths and chaos of memory; claims that Kipling’s use of both prose and poetry creates a comfortable connection with his audience.

Gilmour, David. The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling. N.Y., New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002. An interesting account of Kipling’s life and his complex and changing views of the British Empire, written with an awareness of the rise of terrorism emanating from the post- colonial developing world.

Hai, Ambreen. “On Truth and Lie in a Colonial Sense: Kipling’s Tales of Tale-Telling.” ELH 64 (Summer, 1997): 599-625. Argues that construction of the lie (as fiction) became a specific, serious mode for Kipling to rethink and re-present relations between empire and his own fiction, between power and (self-)censorship, and a coded form to negotiate the boundaries of the unspeakable; suggests that for Kipling the lie is an alternative form of truth-telling.

Laski, Marghanita. From Palm to Pine: Rudyard Kipling Abroad and at Home. New York: Facts on File, 1987. A lively, well-illustrated biography with a brief chronology, appendices on Kipling’s major travels and his important works, a brief bibliography, and notes.

Lycett, Andrew. Rudyard Kipling. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1999. Lycett’s exhaustive biography provides invaluable insight into the life and work of Kipling. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Mallett, Phillip, ed. Kipling Considered. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. This collection contains essays on Plain Tales from the Hills, Stalky and Co., Kipling and Conrad, and “Mrs Bathurst.” The most helpful for readers interested in Kipling’s short stories is Clare Hanson’s discussion of the meaning of form in Kipling’s short stories; Hanson establishes a theoretical framework for the short story as a genre and discusses Kipling’s “Mary Postgate” to illustrate her concepts.

Orel, Harold, ed. Critical Essays on Rudyard Kipling. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990. Sections on Kipling’s poetry, his writing on India, his work as a mature artist, his unfinished memoir, and his controversial reputation. Introduced by a distinguished critic. No bibliography.

Paffard, Mark. Kipling’s Indian Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. A discussion of the influence of India on Kipling’s writing. Analyzes the development of Kipling’s style along with his treatment of India and the literary and historical context of this treatment.

Pinney, Thomas. In Praise of Kipling. Austin: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin, 1996. A volume of criticism that is mostly positive.

Ricketts, Harry. Rudyard Kipling: A Life. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2000. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) In a detailed and lively account of Kipling’s life, Ricketts also analyzes the literary works that emerged from that popular but controversial career.

Rutherford, Andrew, ed. Kipling’s Mind and Art. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1964. Subtitled Selected Critical Esays, it includes commentaries by Edmund Wilson, George Orwell, and Lionel Trilling, among others.

Seymour-Smith, Martin. Rudyard Kipling. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. The author of this provocative and controversial work probes deeply into Kipling’s personality and sexuality and argues that they are the key to the understanding of Kipling’s writings.

Tompkins, J. M. S. The Art of Rudyard Kipling. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965. First published in 1959, this major critical study of Kipling’s literary work should be consulted in any discussion of Kipling’s art.

Wilson, Angus. The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Works. London: Martin Secker and Warburg, 1977. Wilson, literary critic and novelist, sees Kipling’s ability to remain in part a child as the key to his imagination. Wilson’s own background in fiction gives insight into Kipling’s own works.


Critical Essays