Over dinner with friends a few nights ago, I mentioned that Rudyard Kipling is a sadly undervalued author in these days of political correctness.
A wonderful novelist, writer of magnificent short stories and a great poet, Kipling has the reputation today of being a racist, an imperialist, the man who penned “The White Man’s Burden.”
He was certainly a man of his times, but he saw farther and more deeply than most of his contemporaries. Born in India, he brought to life in his stories and poems the vivid, colorful, multiracial world that seemed so exotic to European and American readers.
He certainly thought it was a good thing to offer British law and order to the sprawling, brawling collection of principalities that was India. There was no Indian nation until the British brought the entire subcontinent under their control. The modern nation of India has a British-style government and has industrialized and moved toward prosperity, thanks in no small measure to the British model it has followed.
An imperialist? Kipling consistently criticized the British government, from Queen Victoria down to the muddle-headed bureaucrats of the British civil service. He refused a knighthood twice, declined the Order of Merit (a highly-prized award) and turned down the post of poet laureate.
His poem “Recessional” is a reminder to Britain — at the height of its imperial splendor — that this too shall pass. Imperial pride will crumble into dust and only the virtues of humility and love are worthy to endure.
A racist? The man who wrote of the black-skinned water bearer, “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din”? Is that racism? His poem “The White Man’s Burden” was a warning to the United States, when we had acquired the Philippine Islands after the Spanish-American War, that it would be our task to educate the Filipinos and help them to achieve independence.
Of course, I may be prejudiced. I first happened across Kipling’s work as a 7-year-old when I watched the motion picture adaptation of “Gunga Din.” I’ve watched that film dozens of times since.
It’s a great adventure film, with brave heroes, vicious villains, elephants, cavalry charges and even a temple of gold. Beneath all that excitement, though, the film — like Kipling’s original poem — speaks of soldierly virtues, of courage, of comradeship among men regardless of the color of their skin.
From “Gunga Din” I looked into Kipling’s other works. His novel “Kim” is a classic about a British boy who grows up as a street urchin in India and passes himself off as a native Indian. It reminds me a bit of Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper.” It has a character who has always stayed in my mind: the simple, honest Tibetan monk, the Buddhist who would not harm any creature because “they are all bound up on the wheel of life, even as you and I.”
His novel “Captains Courageous” shows the lives of simple fishermen in the wild Atlantic and again deals with courage and honesty and the dignity of doing one’s work as best as you can.
Kipling wrote some of the best short stories in the English language, including science-fiction and fantasy tales. His story “The Bridge Builders” shows his narrative talents at their best. You can feel the tropical storm’s lashing rain and driving wind as you read his words.
Kipling had a strong, and often unappreciated, impact on the field of science fiction. He could write stories of future worlds with such authenticity that you felt you were there, flying the night mail or plowing through a North Atlantic storm in a ship that is more alive than its passengers.
Perhaps his most pointed work is his poem “Tommy,” in which he lays bare the way democracies despise their soldiers — until the shooting starts. Tommy Atkins is the British equivalent of GI Joe, a generic name for the nation’s soldiers.
“Tommy” includes the lines, “Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep/Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap.”
Kipling has a lot to say to us. Like all great writers, he far surpasses his own time and place.
Bova, a Naples resident, is the author of more than 120 books, including “The Return,” his latest futuristic novel. Bova’s Web site address is www.benbova.com