The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling, By David Gilmour. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26
By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in August 2002).
LIKE MANY one-time giants of Western literature, Rudyard Kipling has suffered a sharp fall in his reputation in recent decades. He's been reviled as a racist, exposed as a closet homosexual, and dismissed as a man of little talent; a propagandist for the elite. It wasn't always so: In 1907, Kipling was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature at the age of just 41.
Kipling was born of English parents in Bombay in 1865, at the height of the Raj. Throughout his career he recorded his wonder at the empire Britain built. In his work, he contributed more phrases to the English language than anyone since Shakespeare and described an India that, for many, is more real than any contemporary depiction.
A half-dozen of Kipling's books -- Plain Tales From the Hills, Kim, The Jungle Book, Just So Stories, Captains Courageous and Gunga Din -- are still regarded as classics, and for all the attacks on his reputation his defenders remain staunch: Many start off apologizing for his politics, as if excusing the behaviour of an outspoken, ill-mannered
but much-loved uncle. Others go further, suggesting that the great writer was neither a Tory nor an imperialist.
But to sustain such arguments, sympathetic biographers have tended to ignore at least half of Kipling's literary output -- poems like The White Man's Burden -- and have focused instead on his prose: Kim and The Jungle Book, for instance. Ironically, according to the laureate's latest biographer, David Gilmour, they have ended up doing as much damage to our understanding of Kipling's work as his detractors.
In The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling, Gilmour sets out to re-establish the author as the unofficial bard of the British Empire. He does not seek to pass judgment, but the portrait that emerges is not flattering. Kipling was not as skilled a political thinker as he was a dramatist. Moreover, though one finds occasional
brilliance in his prolific poetry, in cataloguing his political writing Gilmour draws attention to Kipling's immense output of doggerel. The best of Kipling's poetry and prose champions the achievements of Britain with light nostalgia; the worst with outsize sentimentality.
But, Gilmour says, Kipling "was not a reverential songsmith of national valour . . . [His] panoramic view of the Empire was closely followed by a realization of the perils that threatened it, so that in the mid-1890s Kipling added the role of national prophet to that of imperial laureate." In Gilmour's view, Kipling foresaw Britain's decline and sought to raise the alarm. His poem Recessional, for instance, warns the British against complacency:
If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law --
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget -- lest we forget!
The phrase "lesser breeds without the Law" has been viewed by many as incontrovertible evidence of Kipling's racism. It is difficult to defend the author from accusations of bigotry, but Gilmour argues that it is a misreading to assume that "lesser breeds" refers to non-white, colonized peoples. The Gentiles of the poem represent the Germans, Americans and Boers, whom Kipling "considered guilty of boastful lawlessness."
Gilmour's defence of Recessional is not entirely unconvincing, but his other efforts to excuse Kipling from charges of jingoism sometimes make the biographer sound absurd. In his eyes the "white" in The White Man's Burden, for instance, "plainly refers to civilizations and character more than to the colour of men's skins." Plainly? This is the poem that refers to America's new Filipino subjects as "Your new-caught, sullen peoples,/Half-devil and half-child" and warns against their "Sloth and heathen Folly." Gilmour's argument that Kipling meant America to pick up the civilized man's burden is laughable when set alongside the text of the poem. Gilmour himself seems to recognize he has gone too far with this reading as he eventually acknowledges that The White Man's Burden is "profoundly racist in sentiment."This turn-around illustrates the trouble with this biography. Gilmour does not explain Kipling's contradictions -- here identifying with Britain's colonial subjects, there with their rulers. Gilmour struggles with the puzzle, introducing and examining the pieces, but fails to fit them together. The book's weakness is not its defence of Kipling, but
rather that, in seeking to catalogue Kipling's political writing, Gilmour has generated a survey that although comprehensive is rarely illuminating.