Frederick Andrew Lerner, D.L.S.
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The Tragedy of Rudyard Kipling

by Fred Lerner

“Seek not to question other than the books I leave behind.” That was the burden of “The Appeal”, the short poem that concludes the Definitive Edition of Rudyard Kipling’s collected verse. Kipling would have hated Thomas Pinney’s six-volume edition of The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, published between 1990 and 2004 by the University of Iowa Press. And were I properly obedient to my favorite writer’s last wish, I would have refrained from reading the 1,888 letters that Professor Pinney has selected and annotated. But I did not refrain, eagerly invading the privacy of that most private of men, the better to understand the experiences and opinions that helped to shape the extraordinarily diverse body of prose and verse that Rudyard Kipling left behind.

How can I so flagrantly disregard the desire of a writer whose work has so enriched my life? How can I justify this intrusion into his private correspondence? And, more importantly, did what I learned from reading his letters repay the time I spent with them and the trespass I committed?

Had Kipling written merely to entertain his readers, his private life would be none of their business. Had he written to instruct as well as to entertain, while remaining within the confines of the printed page, he would still be entitled to his privacy. But the artist who seeks political power, whether overtly or covertly, assumes the role of the public man, and any medium in which he advances his quest becomes fair game for the historian.

As a schoolboy poet Rudyard Kipling extolled the theory and practice of empire, and until his dying day he maintained that enthusiasm in his published writing and in his private correspondence. In the last two decades of his life he drew upon the influence that his immense popularity with the reading public had given him, and worked both in public and in private to shape the editorial policies of newspapers and the pronouncements of Tory politicians. The very man who spoke of “power without responsibility” as “the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages” himself worked steadfastly to achieve that power.

In the course of that pursuit, Rudyard Kipling came to discard the liberal sentiments that informed his youthful vision of empire. He became a reactionary and a racist and a vicious antisemite; only the French (“the most marvelous nation on the planet”) and a few of his fellow Englishmen found favor in his sight. And yet, to the end of his life, he continued to write some of the finest prose and verse ever produced in English. Many biographers have tried to explain his life and work, but it is from his own letters that one must discover the origins and the denouement of the tragedy of Rudyard Kipling.


When Rudyard Kipling returned to India in 1882, he was ready to appreciate its diversity of peoples and cultures. He had been born there sixteen years before, and as a child spoke the Bombay vernacular in preference to English. At the United Services College in the Devonshire resort of Westward Ho!, headmaster Cormell Price had introduced him to a wide range of literary influences: Hakluyt’s Voyages, Russian novels, The Rubaiyat (“a poem not yet come to its own”), and a panorama of English verse. As a journalist on the Civil and Military Gazette Kipling was exposed to aspects of Indian life that lay beyond the orbit of most of his fellow Anglo-Indians — and he reveled in it. In the stories later collected in Plain Tales from the Hills and In Black and White, he cast a satirical eye on his countrymen while writing lovingly about the peoples native to the land.

“I am deeply interested in the queer ways and works of the people of the land”, he told a fellow-journalist in 1886. But he was under no illusions of utopia. “When you write ‘native’ who do you mean?” he asked a cousin in England: “The Mahommedan who hates the Hindu; the Hindu who hates the Mahommedan; the Sikh who loathes both; or the semi-anglicized product of our Indian colleges who is hated and despised by Sikh, Hindu, and Mahommedan.”

His feeling for the land and people of India outlasted Kipling’s time in that country. Even after moving to London in pursuit of a literary career, travelling around the world, living in America for several years, and returning to settle for good in England, he retained an powerful connection to the land of his birth. Nowhere is this more evident than in Kim, which he completed in 1900 while living in the seaside village of Rottingdean.

Kim is many things: a spy story, a quest novel, a bildungsroman; but above all, it is a love letter to India, a celebration of the sounds and smells and colors of the subcontinent. Kimball O’Hara, the Little Friend of All the World, is Irish by ancestry and Indian by adoption. A master of disguise, he can pass for a Hindu or a Muslim, and he adapts with perfect ease to the life of a Buddhist lama’s chela. “I am now that holy man’s disciple; and we go a pilgrimage together — to Benares he says. He is quite mad, and I am tired of Lahore city. I wish new air and water.” And off they go along the Grand Trunk Road.

As Kim enters upon the Great Game as a spy for the British raj, he is inducted into a fellowship that embraces all of India’s races and creeds and vocations. A Pathan horse-trader invokes “God’s curse on all unbelievers” — and is willing to risk his life for a Bengali Hindu. Colonel Creighton, who supervises the exploits of this varied crew, respects his subordinates and their cultural traditions. And their universalism is shared by Kipling the narrator, who condemns the Anglican chaplain who “looked at [the lama] with the triple-ringed uninterest of the creed that lumps nine-tenths of the world under the title of ‘heathen’”.

Soon after his arrival in India, Kipling joined a Masonic lodge, and was an ardent Freemason for the rest of his life. He celebrated in verse the diversity of his lodge in Lahore:

We’d Bola Nath, Accountant
   An’ Saul the Aden Jew,
An’ Din Mohammed, draughtsman
   Of the Survey Office too;
There was Babu Chuckerbutty,
   An’ Amir Singh the Sikh,
An’ Castro from the fittin’-sheds
   The Roman Catholick!

India proved too small a canvas for Kipling’s art. His tales and verses were immensely popular in Britain, and throughout the English-speaking world. Upon his arrival in London he was received into the highest literary circles, and through his literary connections he met and impulsively married an American woman, Caroline Balestier. They built a house in her native Vermont, where the Kiplings planned to reside permanently; but life in Brattleboro became untenable after a run-in with Carrie’s scapegrace brother produced lawsuits and publicity. This, together with the death of their six-year-old daughter, soured Kipling on America. The Kiplings removed to England, eventually settling in an ancient house in a Sussex valley where they spent the rest of their lives between extensive travels.

Was it his disastrous experience in America that changed Kipling into an intolerant chauvinist, or was it his wife’s snobbery, as some biographers have alleged? Was Kipling unprepared for the public adulation that preceded him to London and to America — and for the way that adulation became transmuted into demands on his privacy?

Even as he found admittance into the highest literary circles in England, Kipling maintained that interest in the world’s work and sympathy for those who performed it that set him apart from most of his contemporaries. But over the years his sympathies shifted from those who actually did the work to those who planned and supervised and got rich from their endeavors. And as Kipling increasingly absorbed the values of the English establishment, as he became accustomed to the prerogatives of fame, he lost much of his appreciation for the Diversity of Creatures that populated God’s Creation.


If anything can be blamed for Kipling’s disavowal of his early universalism, it must be World War I. He saw it coming long before the Guns of August were heard, and stridently lamented England’s unpreparedness for the looming conflict. Once the war began he saw it as an unambiguous battle for the preservation of civilisation:

For all we have and are,
For all our children’s fate,
Stand up and take the war,
The Hun is at the gate!

Anyone who failed to share this view was to Kipling’s mind part of the problem. The Americans, who did not understand the relevance of this European conflict to their own security; the Irish, who felt no reason to prefer British imperialism to the German variety; and the Jews, whose German and Austrian compatriots had been better treated by their governments than their pogrom-ridden coreligionists in the Russian Empire — all these were shirkers, or worse.

He blamed “the German and German-Semitic elements of the population” for the reluctance of America to enter the war. A decade later he had not forgiven “the unhumourous race that told us what we ought to have done in Gehenna, while they looked over the rim of it.”

There is no way to ignore Kipling’s disdain for Jews. “Israel is a race to leave alone,” he intoned in his valedictory memoir, Something of Myself. “It abets disorder.” One example of this was “one Einstein, nominally a Swiss, certainly a Hebrew, who (the thing is so inevitable that it makes one laugh) comes forward, scientifically to show that, under certain conditions Space itself is warped and the instruments that measure it are warped also.…” When Lord Montagu, the Secretary of State for India, advocated in his Report on Indian Constitutional Reform the transfer of limited powers from the Governor-General to provincial governments, Kipling refused to believe “that this particular Yid wants to save the British Empire. Racially, he does not care for it any more than Caiphas cared for Pilate: and psychologically he can’t comprehend it.”

I had often wondered what Kipling was about in his comic masterpiece “The Village That Voted the Earth Was Flat”. In that story a London music-hall proprietor, caught in a rural speed trap, is gratuitously insulted by an antisemitic magistrate (“‘He told me’ he said suddenly, ‘that my home address was Jerusalem. You heard that?’”), and extracts a vindictive revenge on him and his village. A letter to his sometime collaborator, the Oxford historian C.R.L. Fletcher, makes it clear that the story was not meant to show disapproval for the victim’s bigotry, but rather to prove that “You can’t defeat the Jew — or the pimp.”

And yet Kipling’s attitude toward Jews and Judaism was not entirely negative. At the beginning of the war he wrote to a journalistic colleague, “The strain on you must be awful but there is the ancient text of the Rabbi (I think t’was Hillel or Ben Meir) to console one with. It says, substantially, that the worst that men and women meet in this world is just men and women and their actions. The old boy was a bit of a free thinker like so many of the old Rabbis were at heart.” And, writing to a Jewish historian who asked about his description of Jewish life in mediŠval England, he had noted that “They, after all, ran the fabric of such civilization as existed at the time…”

The derogatory comments about “Hebrews” and “Yids” in Kipling’s letters are too numerous to mention. He was no fonder of “Micks” and “Dagos”, and Dutchmen and Welshmen and Greeks came in for the occasional barb. And in one letter, after observing that “the last disabilities on Dissenters were removed in 1867 or there abouts,” he complained that “those disabilities are now transferred to England and 42 years…have seen the justification of our ancestors’ prudence.” Strange words from a man descended on both sides from Methodist ministers.

“As you are perfectly aware,” he told Theodore Roosevelt in April 1918, “civilization’s great enemy is the Papacy. Not the R.C. religion of course but the secular political head, unaltered in essence since the beginning. In Canada, in Australia, and above all in Ireland, every place where there is allegiance paid to the Papacy, there is steady, unflinching and unscrupulous opposition to all that may help to win the war.”

But his true hatred was directed toward the Germans. The wartime Kipling spoke of them in terms that we are accustomed to associating with Nazi language about Jews: “…the one thing we must get into our thick heads is that wherever the German — man or woman — gets a suitable culture to thrive in, he or she means death and loss to civilized people, precisely as germs of any disease suffered to multiply mean death or loss to mankind”. To another correspondent he wrote, “The Hun is outside any humanity we have had any experience of. Our concern with him is precisely the same as our concern with the germs of any malignant disease.”

He urged his American publisher, Frank Doubleday, and the editors of British newspapers to deny the very humanity of Germans, suggesting that “the word hun be set up lower case always — never capitalized: and in referring to the animal it be spoken of and written as neuter — not ‘he’ ‘his’ ‘whom’ etc. but it, its and which”. He forgot himself a month later, when he described with approval the “small riot” that ensued when “a party of Huns — dog and three dry bitches — occupied a boarding house” at Newquay. (Two weeks later, quite without irony, Kipling asked Sir Herbert Baker whether an anecdote the latter proposed to include in his biography of Cecil Rhodes “is a sound thing to release in a world still populated by little people who hate?” But by that point it would not have occurred to Kipling that Germans fell under the category of “people”.)

Whether in Ireland or in India, “a certain amount of the Home Rule Movement must be part of Hun-propaganda”. But Kipling’s opposition to Irish and Indian self-government predated the war. In 1912 he sided with the Ulster Covenanters, who threatened armed revolt should Ireland be granted Home Rule:

We know the wars prepared
On every peaceful home,
We know the hells declared
For such as serve not Rome —

Home rule in India, he warned, “will mean more oppression and a firmer riveting of caste privilege on the necks of the people” — and besides, “Russia and Ireland are helping actively in the fomentation of ‘disorder’.” This was in 1933, when someone other than the Huns had to be held responsible for the empire’s troubles. (But Kipling’s hatred had not abated. “Personally, I am delighted with Herr Hitler. It confirms my theory that if we only trust and believe the Boche when he thinks aloud, he will save us.” Alas, too few of his contemporaries shared his apprehensions.)


Kipling’s early letters are full of his delight in the world. At twenty-three he boasted that in Montana “I’m moving among the lordliest scenery in a wilderness of Indians, cow punchers, herds of horses wandering loose over the prairie, pink and blue cliffs, cascades, tunnels and snow clad mountains that would make your very camera’s mouth water with envy. Each day I meet some new character madder than the last.” Four years later in Vermont he found “sunshine and a mind at ease, peace and my own time for my own work and the real earth within the reach of my hand, whenever I tire of messing with ink”.

But in the postwar years the epistolary Kipling became something of a bore. He sent frequent suggestions to H.A. Gwynne, the editor of the arch-conservative Morning Post, as to how the paper might advance their mutual political goals. “I want a list in the M.P. of all the heads of the Unions on the T.U.C. and the extent to which each of them were affiliated with Moscow.” “Can’t you start an awkward correspondence in your letter columns of folk who draw parallels between the Soviet and our Govt, and who want to know how close the relationship really is.” Professor Pinney’s annotations often read “I do not find that any of these suggestions was taken up”.

And when his daughter Elsie married and left home, his frequent letters to her were full of dinner parties and country houses and grand hotels. “Another plunge into the gay life in town this week. We went up to lunch…with the Duchess of Montrose, and I sat next to that Miss Graham the Duke’s sister, who is the home Lady in Waiting to the Duchess of York.” At a “dinner at the Salisburys to meet the K[ing] and Q[ueen]…there was Lady Helen Brockhurst and the Duchess of Portland and Lady Dabernon and Lady Middleton and Lady Cranbrook…” Professor Pinney suggests that all this was more for Elsie’s benefit than her father’s; she had married an aspiring diplomatist, whose advancement much depended upon social connections. But it’s a far cry from the young writer who hung around in music halls and consorted with physicians and soldiers and engineers.

It's a one-sided conversation that we see — Kipling had the habit of burning the letters that he received, so we seldom know what his correspondents had written to him. But Professor Pinney’s footnotes explain many things, for he has been assiduous in tracking down senders’ copies of letters to Kipling where these have been preserved, and in searching through old newspapers and magazines to track down material that might have provoked a Kipling letter, or been influenced by one. Professor Pinney’s annotations do a splendid job of identifying the people to or about whom Kipling is writing, and the incidents or utterances upon which he comments. And he is not ashamed to admit when he has been unable to track down an explanation that a reader might reasonably expect.


The tragedy of Rudyard Kipling is that he not only outlived two of his three children, but also he outlived himself — that earlier younger Kipling who found in Allah’s Diversity of Creatures something to be praised rather than an unfortunate error in Creatorial judgement. The irony is that he failed to take the advice that he offered to the world at large in what has become the most popular poem in the English language. “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue / and walk with kings nor lose the common touch…” The young Anglo-Indian whose greatest gift was an intense curiosity about the world and all its peoples, whose greatest emotion was gratitude to “…Allah Who gave me two / Separate sides to my head”, grew over the years into a man whose lengthening walks with kings indeed lost him the common touch.

None of this touches upon my admiration for The Books He Left Behind. If reading 2,864 pages of his letters diminishes my regard for Rudyard Kipling as a person, that is the penalty I have earned for disregarding his explicit wishes. But I am not entirely disillusioned. I have gained something valuable from the experience: not only a greater understanding of the man who gave me more pleasure than any other of the world’s writers, but also a greater understanding of the contradictions that add depth to our experience and enjoyment of this world and the Diversity of Creatures within it.


This essay originally appeared in Lofgeornost #86, February 2007. It also appeared in Kipling Journal vol. 87 #328, September 2008.