“When I was a boy of fourteen,” Mark Twain once noted, “my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
Like Twain, some children roll their eyes when parents or grandparents offer advice. The 1960s gave birth to the adage “Never trust anyone over 30,” which some young people believed until they hit middle age and found themselves parents or in positions of authority. That’s when the eye rolling abruptly ended.
The same holds true in regard to certain writers. In our age, some despise authors for their views on women, or race, or gender, and though they may be as gifted and wise as Shakespeare, Jane Austin, or Mark Twain, we’re willing to throw them and their work into the dumpster when they offend our culture’s standards of political correctness.
One early victim of such a cultural execution was Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936).
A Mixed Reputation
Kipling, who in 1907 won the Nobel Prize, was once one of the most popular writers in the world. Even after his death, his work inspired Hollywood films like “The Jungle Book” and “Gunga Din,” and his short stories and poetry regularly made their way into anthologies of English literature. My public library carries at least two dozen of his titles.
During the cultural upheavals of the last 50 years, however, Kipling’s reputation has suffered the blows and kicks of our progressive age. Schools removed his works from their curriculum, and he’s disappeared from certain textbooks—my sixth edition of X.J. Kennedy’s textbook, “Literature,” is 1,859 pages long but without a single reference to Kipling. And today many consider the author of such works as “Kim,” “Captains Courageous,” and the poem “If—” a racist, a jingoist, an imperialist, and a misogynist.
Of course, there is some truth to these charges. Kipling was, after all, a man of his time and a promoter of empire. On the other hand, if we judge any writer from the past by our present-day standards, we’ll likely find some electric socket that will shock our modern sensibilities, just as our own prejudices will no doubt appall or amuse our descendants a century from now.
If, however, we dig a little deeper into Kipling’s prose and verse, we discover a writer who has some words of wisdom for us, some caveats we ignore at our peril.
Let’s give it a look.
Imperialism and Nation Building
Many today condemn Kipling as an imperialist, an apologist for the British Empire.
Let’s grant them that point.
But perhaps they should then read “The Man Who Would Be King” or watch the movie by the same name as directed by John Huston. Kipling’s story focuses on two British ex-soldiers and con men, Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, who connive to set themselves up as kings of Kafiristan, today a part of Afghanistan. They intend to support one warring tribe against another, subvert the powers that be, make themselves monarchs, and then, as Dravot says in the film, “loot the country four ways from Sunday.”
Their plan nearly works, but in the end the native people execute Daniel, and Peachey returns to India broken in health and mind, where he dies shortly afterward.
This sounds less like a prescription for imperialism than a warning about its dangers. Given our recent catastrophe in Afghanistan, we might urge our leaders to visit Kipling’s tale of arrogance and its consequences before embarking on our next overseas adventure.
Given Kipling’s reputation, what, some might ask with a contemptuous laugh, could he possibly teach us about race?
In short, toleration and respect.
In “Gunga Din,” Kipling creates Gunga Din, a “regimental bhisti,” or water carrier, who rescues a wounded British soldier, plugs his wound, gives him water, and is then himself shot dead. The soldier and his comrades had looked down on Gunga Din, but the poem ends with these words: “Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,/ By the livin’ Gawd that made you,/ You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”
In “The Ballad of East and West,” Kipling returns to this theme of respect beyond race or creed at the beginning and end of his poem:
Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face though they come from the ends of the earth!
In “Kim,” perhaps the best of his fiction, Kipling brings an array of characters into his story of India, with special emphasis on the Irish orphan and vagrant boy Kim and his Buddhist mentor and friend, the lama. Though we witness some racial prejudice in the story, these sentiments are representative of the age. In general, Kipling presents all his characters of whatever caste or color race realistically, and in the lama we meet a saintly man who treats those he encounters with respect and goodwill, regardless of their beliefs or the color of their skin.
Raising Our Children, Particularly Boys
When it comes to educating young people and building their character, ours is an age of confusion. We lack a universal moral standard, we often fail by our words and deeds to set a good example for our children, and our teenagers in particular may fall under the adverse influence of our electronic culture.
Here again, Kipling may give us a star to steer by. His novel “Captains Courageous,” for example, tells the tale of a wealthy, self-centered teen who falls overboard and is rescued by Portuguese fishermen. In his essay “The American Boy,” Theodore Roosevelt says of this book that it “describes in the liveliest way what a boy should be and do. The hero is painted in the beginning as the spoiled, over-indulged child of wealthy parents, of a type which we do sometimes unfortunately see, and than which there exist few things more objectionable on the face of the broad earth. This boy is afterward thrown onto his own resources, amid wholesome surroundings, and is forced to work hard among boys and men who are real boys and real men doing real work. The effect is invaluable.”
In “If—,” Kipling gives us a more succinct formula for turning boys into men. In the 32 lines of this poem, we find distilled the magic of that transformation. You can find my take on this poem in my online essay at The Epoch Times, “You’ll Be a Man, My Son: Rudyard Kipling on Manhood.”
Forewarned Is Forearmed
Finally, Kipling issues several warnings about the troubles plaguing our nation right now. “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” with its admonitions against breaking or abandoning a moral code is more applicable today than when Kipling wrote it. These headings were the maxims or proverbs at the top of a page in a copybook, which students then wrote over and over again to develop their penmanship. After the poem’s narrator recites a litany of sorrows suffered when we ignore this timeless wisdom, the poem ends with this verse:
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
Tradition and common sense, Kipling tells us, trump the bogus ideas of the “Gods of the Marketplace.”
In 1897, Kipling wrote “Recessional” for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Here we see none of the jingoism of which he stands accused. Instead, his poem is a somber reminder about the impermanence of empire and power. Here is the final verse:
For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And, guarding, calls not Thee to guard;
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!
Humility, not hubris, is the theme of the poem.
Let’s Look Backward to Move Forward
In Ring Lardner’s short story “Zone of Quiet,” Miss Lyons, a hospital nurse, blathers on unceasingly to the poor man in her care. At one point, she tells him of a man she’s seeing:
“We were talking about books and reading, and he asked me if I liked poetry—only he called it ‘poultry’—and I said I was wild about it and Edgar M. Guest was just about my favorite, and then I asked him if he liked Kipling and what do you think he said? He said he didn’t know; he’d never kipled.”
That last line has stuck with me since my classmates and I read this story in a high school lit class. It was funny then and still brings a smile.
We put ourselves in grave danger when we ignore the wisdom garnered by our ancestors. Maybe it’s time we all tried kipling … or rather, Kipling.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.