“Do you think Kipling will live?” asks a character at the end of the 1945 Broadway play Dream Girl. Rudyard Kipling had died only nine years earlier, and the character was wondering if his work would hold up. Dec. 30 of this year will be the 150th anniversary of the poet and storyteller’s birth, and we’re still wondering how much his work has lived. “Kipling is always on the brink of coming back into popularity, but until now it has never really happened,” says Andrew Lycett, author of a 1999 biography of the English poet and storyteller.
Few authors ever fell as far, in terms of reputation, in their own lifetimes. Jack Little, a professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University, says that in Kipling’s prime he was “greeted like a rock star in his railway journeys across Canada.” By the time he died in 1936, he was considered not only old-fashioned, but a representative of British imperialism at its most unthinking. “During five literary generations every enlightened person has despised him,” George Orwell wrote not long after his death, and while Orwell defended him to some extent, he also called Kipling “a jingo imperialist” who was “morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting.”
That backlash didn’t completely erase Kipling’s work. Walt Disney chose The Jungle Book as the subject for his last animated movie, and other Kipling stories have been adapted for other media over the years. Even his appearance, with his glasses and moustache, are iconic from films like The Man Who Would Be King, where Canadian actor Christopher Plummer plays him.
The author still has enough unpleasant associations, though, that whenever Kipling comes into the news, an argument about his politics is sure to follow. When Disney announced it was making a new live-action musical film of The Jungle Book starring Scarlett Johansson, Idris Alba, Bill Murray and others (it’s due to be released next year), The Atlantic ran an article titled “How to adapt The Jungle Book (and not make it racist).”
If Kipling is still controversial, though, that at least means he still matters. And one reason Kipling matters is that he’s one of the most-quoted writers in the English language, often by people who have never read his work. “The only comparable writer for quotability is Shakespeare,” says Mary Hamer, author of Kipling & Trix, a novel based on his life. “Not a day passes without some echo of Kipling appearing in the media.” Many lines from Kipling’s poems have taken on the status of proverbs, like “East is east and West is west and never the twain shall meet,” or “The female of the species is more deadly than the male,” or entire poems like If and Gunga Din.
Daniel Karlin, Winterstoke professor of English literature at the University of Bristol, says Kipling “knew how to compress ideas into compact, resonant phrases,” and drew on “everything from Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress, Dickens, to ballads and music-hall songs.” The result is a body of work that has almost achieved the status of folk tales, and not just The Jungle Book. His last story, where Shakespeare turns out to be the secret author of the King James Bible, turned into an urban legend among people who never read the story. There’s no political monopoly on Kipling memes: A late poem, The Gods of the Copybook Headings, about how modern society has forgotten the importance of traditional morals and knowledge, has become a favourite of conservative pundits like Glenn Beck, but its denunciation of “the gods of the marketplace” is also quoted by the left. Almost everyone, it seems, has a Kipling quote they love to mention, even if they don’t know it’s Kipling.
But it’s one thing to be quoted and another thing to be admired, and for many years, Kipling hasn’t been very much admired, or taught. “He wasn’t on any curriculum even when I was a student in the 1960s,” says Jack Little (whose article “Our lady of the snows: Rudyard Kipling’s imperialist vision of Canada” will appear in his forthcoming book, Fashioning the Canadian Landscape).
Some of that decline was connected to the political turn against Kipling’s views. Many of Kipling’s most popular poems are from the point of view of English soldiers serving in India, who rarely question the morality of what they’re doing. His most notorious poem is The White Man’s Burden, which seems to suggest that since white people have had the good fortune to conquer the world, they have a duty to educate “new-caught, sullen peoples, half-devil and half-child.”
Lycett notes that after Kipling died, there was a sort of cold war “between those who had served in the British empire and who regarded him as their unofficial bard, and those who were ideologically opposed to all vestiges of imperialism, who took against him with equal vehemence.”
But Kipling may have fallen out of favour not only because of his ideas, but because he didn’t do enough with them. He was widely considered the most talented writer of his generation: the poet laureate Alfred Tennyson proclaimed him a writer with “divine fire,” and, when he was only 41, he became the first English-language writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. But most of his best work had already been produced by then, and he spent the rest of his life as a mild disappointment.
Kipling was also not able to turn his talent toward the big forms that writers need to master to be taken seriously. He was a great writer of short stories and short adventure novels like Kim, but he didn’t do many full-length novels, and almost all his poems are short: “They often draw on the traditions of music-hall entertainment and hymn,” says Janet Montefiore, professor of 20th century English literature at the University of Kent. “We know he wrote Recessional—the ‘lest we forget’ one—to the tune of Eternal Father, Strong to Save … and I think The White Man’s Burden is modelled on the hymn Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus! It could be sung to exactly the same tune.” That method made his work seem closer to songwriting than serious verse.
All that is still true, but he’s not as looked down upon as he once was, especially in the academy. One boost to his reputation may have come from the last place you’d expect: the rise of post-colonial studies, which looked at classic Western literature from the point of view of the non-Western peoples it had marginalized. This could have been the final blow for the man who rarely questioned the morality of imperialism, and sometimes seemed to celebrate it. But in fact it meant that more critics were willing to engage with Kipling’s work and consider it important.
Support came from some unexpected sources. Harish Trivedi, professor of English at the University of Delhi, says Kipling was helped by the fact that Penguin Classics persuaded Edward Said, author of Orientalism and one of the most influential post-colonialists, to write an introduction to Kim. “Said was surprisingly sympathetic to Kipling, or at least defensive,” Trivedi explains.
“Of course a lot of post-colonial commentary is hostile, but it has meant that people are reading Kipling and thinking about him seriously,” says Montefiore, who in 2016 will co-direct a “Kipling in India” symposium with Trivedi. “Also, the more self-conﬁdent post-colonial critics become, the more they’re willing to think about Kipling as an interesting and complex writer rather than writing him off as the bard of imperialism.” A few decades ago, academics might have ignored Kipling as a writer of doggerel; now they can’t just write him out of literary history. “Basically he’s just too good to sink—eventually the simplified, parodic image of him as a blustering jingoist was bound to be punctured,” says Bristol’s Daniel Karlin.
If Kipling is more respectable than he used to be, that doesn’t mean he’ll experience a major revival. Though there are still a lot of Kipling buffs in England, other countries may not have the same interest. “Most Indians just don’t warm to him, positively or negatively,” Trivedi says. “That was what I found to be the (non-)reaction of my students when I put Kipling in one of my graduate courses.”
Just because his views were more nuanced than they were once given credit for, it doesn’t mean we’ll agree with all of them. His views on Canada, for example, are unlikely to find much resonance these days: “He saw the Prairies as one of Britain’s greatest hopes,” Little says, “because the region had the potential, in his opinion, to absorb the idle members of the British working class, thereby undermining socialism and allowing England to return to its former glory.” But you can bet if he’d written a poem on that theme, it would have been a lot of fun to quote.