Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

Sierra Club


I have struck a city - a real city - and they call it Chicago... I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages.


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Joseph Rudyard Kipling (December 30, 1865-January 18, 1936). British author and poet. Kipling was born in Bombay, India. His father was John Lockwood Kipling, a teacher at the local Jeejeebhoy School of Art, and his mother was Alice Macdonald. They are said to have met at Rudyard Lake in Staffordshire, England, hence Kipling's name. His mother's sister was married to the artist Edward Burne-Jones, and young Kipling and his sister spent much time with the Joneses in England from the ages of six to twelve, while his parents remained in India.

After a spell at boarding school, Kipling returned to India himself, to Lahore (in modern-day Pakistan) where his parents now were, in 1881. He began working for as a newspaper editor for a local edition and continued tentative steps into the world of poetry; his first professional sales were in 1883. By the mid-1880s he was travelling around the subcontinent as a correspondent for the Allahabad Pioneer. His fiction sales also began to bloom, and he published six short books of short stories in 1888. One short story dating this time is The Man Who Would Be a King, later made famous as a slightly differently named movie featuring Sean Connery and Michael Caine.

The next year Kipling began a long journey back to England, going through Burma, China, Japan, and California before crossing the United States and the Atlantic Ocean and settling in London. From then on his fame grew rapidly, and he positioned himself as the literary voice most closely associated with the imperialist tempo of the time in the United Kingdom (and, indeed, the rest of the Western world and Japan). His first novel, The Light that Failed, was published in 1890. The most famous of his poems of this time is probably The Ballad of East and West (which begins "Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet").

In 1892 he married Caroline Balastier; her brother, an American writer, had been Kipling's friend but had died of typhoid fever the previous year. While on honeymoon Kipling's bank failed and cashing in their travel tickets only let the couple return as far as Vermont (where most of the Balastier family lived). Rudyard and his new bride would live in the United States for the next four years. During this time he turned his hand to writing for children, and he published the work for which he is most remembered today -- The Jungle Book -- and its sequel in 1894 and 1895.

After a quarrel with his in-laws, he and his wife returned to England, and in 1897 he published Captains Courageous. The next year he would begin travelling to southern Africa for winter vacations most every year. There he would meet and befriend another icon of British imperialism, Cecil Rhodes, and begin collecting material for another of his children's classics, Just So Stories for Little Children. That work was published in 1902, and another of his enduring works, the Indian spy novel Kim, first saw the light of day the previous year. His poetry of the time included The White Man's Burden. In the non-fiction realm he also became involved in the debate over the British response to the rise in German naval power, publishing a series of articles collectively entitled A Fleet in Being.

During the first decade of the 20th century, Kipling was at the height of his popularity. In 1907 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature; bookending this achievement was the publication of two connected poetry and story collections, 1906's Puck of Pook Hill and 1910's Rewards and Fairies. The latter contained what is arguably Kipling's single most famous poem If--, an exhortation to seize the day:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,

If you can wait and not be tired of waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise,

If you can dream -- and not make dreams your master;
If you can think -- and not make thought your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster,
And treat those two impostors just the same,

If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken
And stoop and build'em up with worn out tools

If you can make one heap of all your winnings,
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss;
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew,
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you,
Except the will that says to them "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings -- nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you -- but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute,
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And--which is more--you'll be a Man, my son!

Kipling was so closely associated with the expansive, confident attitude of late 19th-century European civilization that it was inevitable that his reputation would suffer in the years of and after World War I; Kipling also knew personal tragedy at the time as his eldest son, John, died in 1915 at the Battle of Loos. Partly in response, he joined Sir Fabian Ware's Imperial War Graves Commission (now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission), the group responsible for the garden-like British war graves that can be found to this day dotted along the former Western Front. His most significant contribution to the project was his selection of the biblical phrase Their Name Liveth For Evermore found on the Stones of Remembrance in larger war graves.

Kipling kept writing until the early 1930s, but at a slower pace and to much less success than before. He died of a brain haemorrhage in early 1936, and continued falling into critical eclipse afterwards. Today it is difficult to decide if Kipling has a rightful place in the pantheon of great writers. As the European colonial empires collapsed in the mid-20th century and the ideas of communism gained influence, Kipling's works were far out of step with the times; many who condemn him are really criticizing the imperialist ideal and not Kipling. His main literary legacy in the period immediately following his death was on American science fiction, as John W. Campbell considered him an ideal to be followed; many SF writers still consciously follow his example. Today, Kipling is most highly regarded for his children's books, while in his own lifetime he was primarily considered a poet (and was even offered the post of British Poet Laureate -- he turned it down). There are signs of rehabilitation in Kipling's reputation both as a writer of mature prose and of poetry, as public tastes change once again. Where the pendulum of regard will come to rest remains to be seen.

After the death of Kipling's sole surviving child in 1974, his mansion in Sussex was bequeathed to the National Trust and is now a public museum to the author. There is a thriving Kipling Society in the UK. [This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Rudyard Kipling.]

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