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The Prophet of an Empire's End

THE LONG RECESSIONAL: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling, By David Gilmour, Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 352 pp., $26

July 28, 2002|ROBERT F. MOSS | Robert F. Moss is the author of "Rudyard Kipling and the Fiction of Adolescence."

When Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling both received honorary degrees from Oxford in 1907, the aptness of the pairing went far beyond their internationally famous mustaches. Both pioneered the use of the vernacular, created adolescent adventure stories that have fascinated the adult world ever since and combined popular success with critical adulation. Each produced writing of genius and compassion, yet one figure is blessed by his consistency with contemporary left-liberal political values and the other damned by the absence of it. Ignored or derided by critics, banished from university syllabuses, Kipling suffers from what critic Edward Rothstein calls a "permanently sullied" reputation.

Born in Bombay in 1865, Kipling had an early life of radical departures: five years of bliss with his parents, followed by five years of misery in an English boardinghouse and a similar span at a public school in Devon, then back to India for a newspaper job in Lahore. The bombardment of influences, complemented by his artistic gifts, was bound to produce one of the world's most idiosyncratic literary personalities.

At 16, Kipling was squinting through his plate-glass spectacles at soldiers and civil servants of the Empire, mingling freely with Indians and recording all the voices in his head; at 22, he had published "Departmental Ditties" and "Plain Tales From the Hills" and essentially invented what came to be known as Anglo-Indian literature, a subgenre that includes works by E.M. Forster, W. Somerset Maugham, Paul Scott, J.R. Ackerley and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

Moving on to London and later to Brattleboro, Vt., he triumphed again with "Barrack-Room Ballads," melodious Cockney poems with Sousa-like rhythms that made him the "soldier's poet," and both volumes of "The Jungle Book," a rich fable re-imagining his own culturally divided boyhood. Critics enthused; James, Hardy and Tennyson were all impressed and Conrad was jealous. When at age 41 Kipling won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1907, he was--and still is--the youngest recipient ever as well as the first English winner. As if this weren't enough, he had a flawless ear and is the most prolific English phrasemaker since Pope, possibly even since Shakespeare.

None of this, however, could prevent the erosion of his critical stature that started after 1902, the result in large measure to his rabidly Tory politics but also of his increasing remoteness from modernist aesthetics, both as a poet and as a fiction writer. And yet, in some quarters, scholarly interest in the "bard of Empire" persists. Of the 50-plus books written about him since 1900, at least nine appeared in the last dozen years, and already we have another, "The Long Recessional" by David Gilmour, a versatile Scottish historian whose previous subjects include Giuseppe di Lampedusa and Lord Curzon.

Gilmour describes his book as "the first volume to chronicle Kipling's political life," aligning it with the rise and decline of the Empire which Kipling had come to epitomize. Of his many predecessors, Gilmour asserts, "Most of their work has concentrated on the prose ... a little on the poetry, and virtually none" on Kipling's "public role."

This overstates the case. Recent works by Harry Ricketts ("The Unforgiving Minute: A Life of Rudyard Kipling") and Andrew Lycett ("Rudyard Kipling") quite adequately acquaint the reader with Kipling's numerous polemical poems, topical parables, editorials disguised as short stories and pro-imperialist or war-related public activities. Nor does either biographer slight Kipling's nonpolitical ballads and resonant hymns.

As promised, Gilmour examines Kipling's work methodically, promoting his master theme that imperialism and conservatism were the seedbed of the poet's imagination, that "his politics could not be disentangled from his work." Unfortunately, Gilmour's readings, although sensible, are fairly pedestrian. His conclusions about "The Man Who Would Be King" ("a parable of Empire"), "The Ballad of East and West" ("two men of similar courage and ability ... can be equals" despite racial differences) and "The Jungle Book" ("the wolf pack is strong ... so long as it retains ... obedience to the Law") add little to received wisdom on these works.

But if Gilmour does not excel as a textual analyst, he is superb as a historian and biographer. His research encompasses 55 manuscript collections, dozens of books and articles on Kipling, histories of the Raj, memoirs of all the key players in Kipling's life and, seemingly, every word his subject ever wrote.

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