He thought he was the man to write the Great American Novel
If: The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years. By Christopher Benfey. Penguin Press; 256 pages; $28.
“KIM”, RUDYARD KIPLING’S tale of an Anglo-Irish boy’s journey through British India (published in 1901), recalls another literary odyssey. Huckleberry Finn floats down the Mississippi river with Jim, a runaway slave seeking his freedom. Kim treks over the Grand Trunk Road with the Teshoo Lama, a holy man searching for spiritual liberation. Both defy prejudices to help their companions, even as their authors deal in ugly racial stereotypes.
As Christopher Benfey observes in “If”, his sensitive study of Kipling’s sojourn in America, Kim’s resemblance to Huck is not coincidental. It was Mark Twain who first attracted Kipling to the United States in 1889, when the young Indian-born Englishman made a pilgrimage to Elmira, New York, to meet his literary hero. Twain was dazzled by the unknown writer’s eloquence. He compared Kipling’s language to footprints, “so strong and definite was the impression which it left behind”.
“If”, which takes its title from Kipling’s celebrated poem, charts the decisive influence of his time in America on his life and writing. In 1892 he married Carrie Balestier, the sister of his late literary agent, and the couple settled in her home town of Brattleboro, Vermont. There, in a hillside house with a view of the Connecticut river, he laboured “to turn himself into a specifically American writer”. Indeed, Kipling believed that, as a perceptive foreigner devoted to his adopted country, he alone was capable of producing The Great American Novel.
He came close, Mr Benfey argues, with “The Jungle Book”. Far from the forests of Madhya Pradesh, Kipling composed his story of an Indian man-cub raised by wolves. Mowgli seeks “the proper balance between the claims of civilisation and the claims of the wild”, a favourite theme of the New England Transcendentalists. (Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” was, for Kipling, “a sacred creed to live by”.)
In his bid to join the American pantheon, Kipling pored over the work of Twain, Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He befriended Theodore Roosevelt, then an ambitious civil-service commissioner, with whom he visited the National Zoo in Washington. Roosevelt, a champion of big-stick diplomacy, admired the mighty bears. Kipling, who believed in imperial duty, preferred the diligent beavers.
Mr Benfey does not gloss over Kipling’s faith in colonialism. He considers the flagrant racism of “The White Man’s Burden”, a notorious call for America to occupy the Philippines, alongside denunciations of Western hubris in lesser-known texts such as “Recessional”. Long after Kipling’s death in 1936 reactions to his writing reflected these contradictions. During the Vietnam war CIA operatives read “Kim” for its lessons in international espionage, while film-makers such as Francis Ford Coppola and John Huston drew from Kipling’s work to critique imperial overreach.
Kipling’s hold on American culture has endured. He popularised themes—such as the virtues of an education in the wilderness—that pervaded American literature of his age; today his characters live on in Hollywood. But the Kiplings themselves reluctantly quit Vermont for England in 1896, when a row with Carrie’s ne’er-do-well brother became a media scandal (leaving was the most difficult decision of his life, Kipling said). Once again, the Indian-cum-Englishman-turned-American would have to find his place in the world. “Like all men, Rudyard Kipling was many men,” Jorge Luis Borges wrote in 1941, “but none with more conviction than the artificer.”