Saturday, May 12, 2012

Kipling and America

Kipling, at home in Vermont
I've been reading some Kipling recently, for circuitous reasons (mainly Peter Bellamy), and it's highlighted to me just how much of a Kipling-dunce I really am.

Before cracking the (virtual) spine of Puck of Pook's Hill (1906), my knowledge of things Kipling-related probably extended to The Jungle Book (Disney's) and Spencer Tracy's Captains Courageous. I confess this realisation with both embarrassment and surprise. Then again, Kipling has been pretty much out of favour (hasn't he?) for at least the past few decades in one way or another, so I'll assume that I'm not alone in my ignorance. But intrigued by Bellamy's interpretations and what I was reading in Puck of Pook's Hill - both of which troubled my sense of who and what Kipling was - I started to poke around in his biography. As it goes, perhaps it was appropriate that my only previous encounters with Kipling had been Transatlantic interpretations. Reading around Kipling's life - of which, again, I knew little - I was truly astonished by the central role that America had played in it.

Kipling first visited America in 1889 - already famous at 23, though not as famous as he would be - en route to Europe from India. Perhaps most significantly, he met (the very famous) Mark Twain. You can read the ensuing interview courtesy of The Library of America, here. "I have seen Mark Twain this golden morning," Kipling boasted, "have shaken his hand, and smoked a cigar—no, two cigars—with him, and talked with him for more than two hours!" They remained friends and there's a chapter on their relationship in Leland Krauth's great Mark Twain & Company. Kipling might have been impressed with Twain, but his travel account of America, American Notes (1891), was less complimentary. The introduction to this 1899 edition describes it as "supersarcastic".

Nonetheless, America apparently wouldn't leave him alone. In London in 1891, a friendship developed between Kipling and the American writer Wolcott Balestier. The two men collaborated on a serialised novel, The Naulahka: A Story of West and East, which appeared in The Century Magazine in 1891 and 1892. You can read the first part (thanks to Making of America) here. Set in Colorado and India (really), it was their only collaboration - Balestier died in December 1891. But not long after, Kipling married Balestier's sister, Carrie. Fun-fact: at their wedding in London, Henry James gave away the bride.

Not only did Kipling marry an American, but - am I really the only one who didn't know this? - he went to live in America, in Vermont, near to Carrie's family. He built a house (also named Naulahka), which James Parker visited for The Atlantic last year. All told, Kipling lived in America from 1892 until 1896, at which point an argument with his brother-in-law became so acrimonious that he left the country (there's a useful run-down of what happened here). In that short space of years, he wrote, amongst other works, Captains Courageous (1896/7, his most immediately American text), and both Jungle Books.

Kipling's profound relationships with Americans is one thing - but what about America's relationship with Kipling? Here again, I was surprised about the significance of the connection. In James Hart's The Popular Book, he goes so far as to claim that "Kipling was America's unofficial poet laureate" in the 1890s, and a clear successor to Longfellow and Tennyson in the public's favour. As Hart put it, from Kipling "Americans picked up the catchword of imperialism - 'white man's burden' - and smugly applied it to the Spanish-American War" of 1898." Indeed, in Shadowing the White Man's Burden, Gretchen Murphy has very recently re-established the profound significance of that one poem on American culture and politics at the end of the nineteenth century. In short, abundant reasons why I (and, hey, perhaps more of us) need to pay more attention to Kipling.

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