Rudyard Kipling (1907 Nobel Prize Winner)


Via Wikimedia Commons, from the biography Rudyard Kipling by John Palmer, first published in New York by Henry Holt and Company in 1915

Anne Tingle followed her in-depth presentation on Rudyard Kipling by asking Club members to share their reflections on the influence this writer has had on them. Thank you Flora, for capturing so many details of this event!

Rudyard Kipling was a complicated person with as complex a personal story as any fiction he created. He was a journalist, essayist, novelist, short story writer and poet.  He is regarded as a major innovator in the art of the short story. He is so embedded in our culture that his influence is ubiquitous.

Joseph Rudyard Kipling was born on December 30, 1865 in Bombay, India. In 1871, at the age of six, he and his sister Trix were brought home to England and placed in the care of a couple who boarded expatriate English children from India. This unhappy period of Rudyard’s life lasted five and a half years. In his autobiography, he referred to it as “the house of Desolation”.  In 1878, Rudyard was sent to an unpretentious public school that had been founded by Indian Army Officers to provide an education they could afford.  He liked and admired the headmaster and enjoyed the rest of his school years.

When he finished school he went immediately back to Lahore, India where he worked for a small English newspaper catering to the English establishment in the Punjab. During this time, Kipling wrote at a frenetic pace on his newspaper assignments as well as other works that interested him. In 1888 he published several collections of short stories which included the popular “Wee Willie Winkie”.

In 1889 Kipling returned to London where within months his name was known everywhere. There he met and married Caroline Starr Balestier (Carrie), sister of American writer and publishing agent, Wolcott Balestier, whom he collaborated with on a novel. Following their honeymoon, they rented a small cottage on a farm in Vermont where Kipling began writing the Jungle Books. Lord Baden-Powell’s Scouting program has used themes from the Jungle Book since 1916. In the next four years he also produced a collection of short stories, the novel “Captains Courageous” and a profusion of poetry, including “Gunga Din”.

Their first child, Josephine, was born in the US in 1892 and a second daughter, Elsie in 1896. Sadly, his marriage to Carrie began to lose its lustre at this time, although they would always remain loyal to each other. In 1896 the family returned to England, where their son John was born in 1897. The decade that followed was a marvellous time for Rudyard, his output matched only by his increase in fame.

In 1897-99 two poems, “Recession” and “The White Man’s Burden” became quite controversial.  “Some found them to be about enlightened and duty-bound empire building while others saw them as propaganda for brazen-faced imperialism and its attendant racial attitudes”.

On a visit to New York, Kipling became gravely ill with pneumonia, only to be told as he recovered that daughter Josephine had succumbed to the same illness. Kipling could never bring himself to visit the US again. In the wake of his daughter’s death he began collecting material for what would become “Just So Stories for Little Children”, the set of stories that explain the origins of natural phenomena.

Kipling was at the height of his popularity in the first decade of the 20th century. In 1901 he wrote and published “Kim”, the story of an Irish orphan who follows a Tibetan monk on a picaresque journey of discovery, that is generally considered his best novel. (Author Laurie King wrote a novel that features a grown-up version of Kim who is deeply engaged in border espionage in India). Some interesting trivia: Kipling became friends with a French soldier whose life had been saved in the First World War when his copy of “Kim” that was in his left breast pocket stopped a bullet.

Kipling was not a man who accepted the role of Poet laureate and other civic honours, but in 1907 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his “power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas and remarkable talent for narration which characterize the creations of the world-famous author.”  At the award ceremony, the presenters praised him by saying, “The Swedish Academy, in awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature this year to Rudyard Kipling, desires to pay a tribute of homage to the literature of England, so rich in manifold glories, and to the greatest genius in the realm of narrative that that country has produced in our times.”

Kipling was asked by a friend to intervene in the 1911 Canadian election on behalf of the Conservatives. On 7 September 1911, the Montreal Daily Star newspaper published a front-page appeal by Kipling to all Canadians against a reciprocity agreement with the United States.  His appeal was reprinted in every English newspaper in Canada and is credited with helping to turn Canadian public opinion against the Liberal government that signed the reciprocity agreement.

Kipling became a Freemason before he was 21. His famous poem, “The Mother Lodge.” memorialized its ideals. He also used Masonic symbols in his novella “The Man Who Would Be King”.

World War I brought profound grief to the Kipling family, however his disdain for the Germans resulted in his encouraging his son John to go to war. John died at the Battle of Loos at age 18.  He is said to have assuaged his grief over the death of his son through reading Jane Austen novels aloud to his wife and daughter. He also volunteered with the Imperial War Graves Commission where his selection of the biblical verse “Their Names Liveth For Evermore” and the phrase “Known Unto God” were etched on the gravestones of unidentified servicemen.

In 1936, Rudyard Kipling died of gastritis, an illness that he fought for over twenty years, suffering with disabling pain, anxiety, depression and general wretchedness. In 1933 he was diagnosed with a duodenal ulcer, which haemorrhaged, causing his death. Ironically, his death had previously been incorrectly announced in a magazine, to which he wrote, “I’ve just read that I am dead. Don’t forget to delete me from your list of subscribers.”  His ashes were buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Critics have been deeply divided about his writings, but his books continue to be read by thousands and his books and poems have lived on in the consciousness of succeeding generations.

Anne opened up the meeting for a discussion of the influence that Kipling has had on members’ lives.

Della Mae Wood told about how a full leather bound collection of Kipling’s works had been destroyed in the flood two years ago.  She also recounted how her husband Tom had grown up with his grandfather reading from these volumes to his grandchildren. Della Mae also told about a friend and her family who lived in up-state New York without electricity and read Kipling every night by kerosene lamp.

Lillian Tickles told about how, as a Jr. High English teacher and librarian, she would be asked to cover various classrooms until the Substitute Teacher arrived by reading Kipling, specifically Riki Tiki Tavi.

Sue Carscallen told about how her grandmother studied English literature through the book of the month club, and Kipling’s works featured prominently in her grandparents’ library.

Carol Blyth mentioned that in her autographed book there was the famous quote by Kipling, “If you can keep your head if all about you are losing theirs” that was written by her mother.

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