"The Long Recessional" by David Gilmour

A biography of the writer who possibly had the greatest influence on the 20th century argues that Rudyard Kipling was no mere racist, warlike champion of empire.

By Allen Barra
Published April 30, 2002 5:52PM (EDT)

Next time you're playing literary parlor games, try this question: What author has had the most influence on the 20th century? Not influence as in the ability to inspire imitative neurotics or gossipy biographers or as in the tendency to top end-of-the-millennium reading lists. I mean influence as in shaping the outlook of a generation of world rulers. Influence as in adding more phrases to the English language than anyone since Shakespeare.

I submit the possibility that the most influential writer of the 20th century was the most popular writer of the 19th century: Rudyard Kipling, whom Mark Twain once named as "the only living person not head of a nation, whose voice is heard around the world the moment it drops a remark, the only such voice in existence that does not go by slow ship and rail but always travels first-class by cable."

Kipling's image has so faded that many educated people today know him, if at all, only as a writer of books for children (though never let us underrate the influence of books for children). Nonetheless, the work of the man whom George Orwell identified as being despised by "every enlightened person during five literary generations" (better make that at least seven, since Orwell wrote that in 1942) -- lives on. David Gilmour's fascinating new biography, "The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling," tells you why.

Influence? It wasn't Walt Whitman or Henry James who fired the imagination of Teddy Roosevelt, the president who dragged America kicking and screaming into the mainstream of world politics. It wasn't Hemingway who was credited with being the spirit behind the Boy Scouts. It wasn't Shaw who was the lifelong inspiration for Winston Churchill and his famous "never surrender" speech. "The spirit of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain," writes Gilmour, "owe much to Kipling. From Churchill ... to the non-commissioned officers and the ranks, [Kipling] had remained an inspiration." (For his part, Kipling regarded Churchill as the "most untrustworthy man in British politics" and actually preferred Neville Chamberlain as prime minister.)

Both the Spanish fascist leader de Rivera and the Duke of Alba kept framed copies of Kipling's famous poem "If" on their walls; W. Somerset Maugham related that the king of Siam once translated "If" into Thai. (Can T.S. Eliot claim a more eclectic readership?)

Try counting, in the course of a year, how often you see or hear the following phrases: "The white man's burden," "You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din," "The Thin Red Line," "Lest we forget," "The female of the species is deadlier than the male," "East is East and West is West," "The road to Mandalay," "East of Suez," "What do they know of England who only England know?" And my own personal favorite, the chilling lines from "Tommy": "Makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep."

Though Gilmour doesn't get far into a discussion of Kipling's influence on popular culture, it isn't much of a stretch to see his imprint on American icons such as Walt Disney (whatever serious students of Kipling might think of the animated version of "The Jungle Book") and John Ford. If the latter connection doesn't come into focus quickly, think of Ford's cavalry films and try the phrase "Thin Blue Line." Think of films like "Drums Along the Mohawk," "The Searchers" and perhaps "The Long Gray Line" and "Sergeant Rutledge" as Ford's take on America's inheritance of the white man's burden.

We can find influence more current than that. Vietnam War films from "Go Tell The Spartans" (1978) to Mel Gibson's recent "We Were Soldiers" emphasize America's good intentions and the self-sacrifice of American soldiers and their families. How to tell the Vietnam films influenced by Kipling's vision from, say, John Wayne's "The Green Berets"? The former don't dehumanize the NVA and Viet Cong, but respect them in the classic Kipling "'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy" mold.

That isn't to say that everyone, from Churchill to John Ford to Mel Gibson, who has been influenced by Kipling agrees with Kipling, or at least with all of Kipling. As Gilmour skillfully illustrates, there were a great many times when Kipling did not agree with Kipling, or, stated another way, "A great deal that Kipling said and wrote can be contradicted by other things he said and wrote."

The apostle of white civilization, for instance, was no racist. In fact, he was ecstatic on visiting Brazil to find that the mixture of "Red, Black and White" had "managed to knock out the Colour-Question altogether." The Great Imperialist had no illusions as to the superiority of the individual white man -- the Fuzzy-Wuzzy is "a pore benighted 'eathen but a first-class fightin' man," and the singer of "Gunga Din" knows who is the greater man in "Gawd's" eyes.

As it turns out, the man who immortalized the common British foot soldier wasn't very interested in war, or as G.K. Chesterton put it, "The fact is that what attracts Mr. Kipling to militarism is not the idea of courage, but the idea of discipline ... He sings the art of peace much more accurately than the art of war." C.S. Lewis saw Kipling not as a poet of war but as "a poet of work."

Happily, Gilmour allows Kipling his contradictions. He is no apologist for the man, whom he often finds personally disgusting, or much of the work, which he treats with a great deal less enthusiasm than many of Kipling's defenders. There's no high literary double talk used in defense of Kipling's propagandistic poetry; Gilmour even rejects T.S. Eliot's clever but unconvincing argument that Kipling wrote not poetry but "verse." Gilmour may not know poetry as well as Eliot, but he knows doggerel when he reads it.

Nor does Gilmour try to mount some convoluted defense of Kipling's imperialistic chauvinism -- on the whole, he seems to agree with the socialist Orwell's famous evaluation that "Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting. It is better to start by admitting that, and then try to find out why it is that he survives while those who have sniggered at him seem to wear so badly." Kipling bequeathed many phrases to the English language, admits Gilmour, "But mercifully, they do not include his political terms," which included "Boschialist" and "Hunnomite," both words for socialists "with Hun leanings." And what is remarkable is how much Gilmour has found in Kipling that is worth saving.

There is, for instance, Kipling the fable-writer. In his greatest stories, Kipling often transcends his own literal meaning. For instance, "The Man Who Would Be King" is at once "an adventure in its own right worthy of Stevenson" and "an allegory of imperialism ... a warning that empires can be overthrown when the customs of subject peoples are too greatly violated." It's doubtful that Kipling would have seen the story as an allegory of anything; so many of his most sympathetic readers can see it as nothing else. (Borges thought that Kipling's works were "more complex than the ideas they are supposed to illustrate," and thus the reverse of Marxist art.

Gilmour also finds in Kipling a compassion and fairness lacking in most of his critics, possibly stemming from his membership in the Masons, where Kipling's "brethren" included Christians, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs. Of all writers of his era, T.E. Lawrence excepted, Kipling might have had the best things to say for Islam. "Where there are Muslims," he was known to say, "there is a comprehensible civilization." Oddly enough, considering Kipling's love for India, much of which he knew better than England, it was Hinduism that drew his scorn as an "infinity of trivialities." Given his admirable tolerance for regional beliefs and customs, his anger at Hindu treatment of women is both surprising and progressive.

Because Kipling's literary output declined after the Boer War, most accounts of his life and work leave off virtually everything after the Edwardian era. Yet, Kipling's role as the "Grand Old Man of Imperialism," the man sought after for comment on nearly every public issue, continued. But the role had changed. Though he prophesied the coming of both world wars, he was "no longer the apostle whom everyone wanted to hear," but was instead "consigned to the role of Cassandra, condemned to utter prophecies that no one would heed."

In point of fact, though, Kipling's prophecies were never much heeded, not in the days of Lord Kitchener and certainly not today. As Gilmour puts it, "At the age of 19 Kipling identified a truth which the next century largely failed to recognize: that, when all appropriate qualifications are made, minorities usually fare better with an imperial or multinational system than in nations dominated by the ethos and ethnicity of a majority." As we ponder our own future role in Afghanistan, we might consider Kipling's concept of the white man's burden a bit more sympathetically, and hope, at the very least, we show the same sense of responsibility toward the, shall we say, technologically challenged nations as this unapologetic Western supremacist. If we can keep our heads.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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