Kipling: Poet Laureate of Soldiers, Sailors, and Colonizers

Rudyard Kipling would not appear well suited to the 2020s. Poet laureate of soldiers, sailors, and colonizers, Kipling and his vast body of work seems a far better fit for the Cold War 1980s or the crusading early Aughts. This reviewer is surely not alone among youngish conservatives in having once penned a cringe-worthy collegiate column that favorably invoked “The White Man’s Burden.” The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have now dulled, hopefully for a long while, that inveterate Western temptation to nation-build with bayonets. 

Christopher Benfey, author of an engaging chronicle of Kipling’s American sojourn, claims that his decision to write about Kipling was a potentially career-killing one. A friend warned him, voice rising, that “Kipling is the most politically-incorrect writer in the canon!” (That Kipling is in the canon is a telling concession). Benfey assembles a diverse cast of luminaries—Said, Orwell, Auden, Borges—to briefly defend his subject. Then he is off, beginning with the charming story of a precocious young Kipling’s pilgrimage to meet Mark Twain in Elmira, New York, in the summer of 1889. Twain wrote later, “I believed that he knew more than any person I had met before, and I knew that he knew that I knew less than any person he had met before—though he did not say it, and I was not expecting that he would.”

Born and raised in India, Kipling was initially fascinated by an America that was just as vast and varied as the subcontinent. He soon found himself living in the United States, albeit by accident. In January 1892, Kipling had married the American Carrie Balestier, the steely sister of his best friend and collaborator, Charles Wolcott Balestier. The peripatetic young Wolcott, variously a mining investor, presidential campaign biographer, editor, and literary agent, had died suddenly of typhoid a month before in Dresden. Rushing back from India, Rudyard proposed to Carrie by telegram. After a hasty wedding in London in the grip of an influenza epidemic, the newlyweds departed on a planned around-the-world honeymoon. On a brief stop in Carrie’s native Brattleboro, Vermont, they purchased a few acres of land from her brother, Beatty.

After arriving in Yokohama, Japan, the Kiplings endured a pair of earthquakes: the first literal, the second financial. Waking one morning to find his empty boots moving across the bedroom floor, Rudyard watched in terror as “a clock fell and a wall cracked, and heavy hands caught the house by the roof-pole and shook it furiously.” Six days later, in a precursor to the Panic of 1893, Kipling’s bank, The New Oriental Banking Corporation, failed. Their entire fortune gone, the Kiplings beat a hasty retreat back to Vermont. They rented a cottage near Brattleboro for $10 a month and Kipling set to writing and earning.

Kipling was initially enchanted by Vermont. He loved the crisp, clean air, “as dry as the very best champagne.” The annual explosion of fall color was tough to do justice in words, while the winters could prompt moments of rapture: “The trees are Emperors with their crowns on and icicles five and six feet long hang from our eaves. It’s all like life in a fairy-tale—life when one sings and shouts for joy of being alive.” That year (1892), he wrote in Carrie’s diary on New Year’s Eve, was “the happiest year of my life.”

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