Sunday, June 26, 2011

On taking Kipling seriously

Kipling, perhaps because of his (perceived) politics, still "can't get no respect" from middlebrow critics and the kind of hacks who enjoy making up dismissive one- liners. He has fewer problems with actual readers-- he is never out of print-- or serious critics; in addition to the ones mentioned below, good recent essays on him have appeared from Christopher Hitchens, who hardly shares his politics real or imagined, and from John Derbyshire.

Still, it was nice to see a celebratory Kipling essay, "The Storyteller", in the formidable Robert Gottlieb's new Lives and Letters. They don't come more haut- lit than Gottlieb-- he was head editor of Knopf, Simon & Schuster, AND the NYRKR, not to mention a director of the New York ballet, is old enough to have known all the giants, and is uniquely qualified to review things in three or four fields in the arts.

On Kipling, Gottlieb quotes a letter from the always ambivalent, yet reluctantly admiring, Henry James " '... His talent I think quite diabolically great.' (James Joyce, too, as Norman Page points out in his invaluable A Kipling Companion, cited Kipling -- along with D'Annunzio and Tolstoy -- as one of the nineteenth century's 'greatest natural talents.') Alas, James didn't live to read those stories in which Kipling's talent was to be applied to material that James would certainly have found more congenial than talking locomotives -- in fact, on occasion, to semi- Jamesian donnees, as in 'Dayspring Mishandled'."

He continues: "James's ambivalence about Kipling is particularly worth noting because it presages the ambivalence of so much of the criticism and comment to come. No writer of the period -- except perhaps James himself -- has been so worried over, so condemned and reclaimed. Certainly no writer of the period has had so many remarkable explicators, among them T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, C. S. Lewis, George Orwell, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Randell Jarrell, August Wilson, Kingsley Amis. And there is important work being done on Kipling today -- by dueling biographers and by outstanding critics like J.M.S. Tompkins and Craig Raine. Eliot was primarily concerned with reconsidering the poetry, but he shares with his fellow critics the urge to rescue Kipling -- or to place him, their efforts underlining the fact that, given his "diabolically great" talent, he has to be acknowledged and dealt with. However difficult a specimen he is to pin down, and however much one may dislike aspects of his mind and manner, he cannot be ignored."

The most interesting recent biographical work I have read is (India- born) Charles Allen's Kipling Sahib.


Anonymous said...

Man: "What do you think of Kipling?"

Woman: "What a rude question, I'm a decent woman and I've never Kippled!"


Chas S. Clifton said...

I read one critical bio -- Martin Seymour Smith's? -- and it seemed to be mostly about trying to argue that he was a repressed homosexual. Because if a man admires other men, you know he must be one of those.

Steve Bodio said...

You got it, Chas-- he actually seemed to argue that the lack of evidence was suspicious--!!

Most bios are actually pretty good-- I like Angus Wilson's. But Kipling Sahib and Peter Hopkirk's book on Kim are really rooted in India and a delight for that reason. Lib, who has actually been on the Grand Trunk Road, read and enjoyed that one recently.

Luisa said...

Got nuthin', except that RK wrote my fave dog story: Garm - a Hostage. Written when a fine specimen of "bull-terrier" looked like a lithe pit bull mix, rather than today's cobby, Roman-nosed, show-ring mutant.