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A major new biography of Rudyard Kipling
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was a unique figure in British history, a great writer as well as an imperial icon whose life trajectory matched that of the British Empire from its zenith to its final decades. Kipling was in his early twenties when his first stories about Anglo-Indian life vaulted him into celebrity. He went on to be awarded the Nobel Prize, and to add more phrases to the language than any man since Shakespeare, but his conservative views and advocacy of imperialism damaged his critical reputation -- while at the same time making him all the more popular with a general readership. By the time he died, the man who incarnated an era for millions was almost forgotten, and new generations must come to terms in their own way with his enduring but mysterious powers.
Previous works on Kipling have focused exclusively on his writing and on his domestic life. Here, the distinguished biographer David Gilmour not only explains how and why Kipling wrote, but also explores the themes of his complicated life, his ideas, his relationships, and his views on the Empire and the future. Gilmour is the first writer to explore Kipling's public role, his influence on the way Britons saw themselves and their Empire. His fascinating new book, based on extensive research (especially in the underexplored archives of the United States), is a groundbreaking study of a great and misunderstood writer.
Gilmour attempts the difficult task of distinguishing Kipling's (1865 1936) concepts of English patriotism and the civilizing mission of the British empire from those of his jingoistic contemporaries. This biography is liveliest when recounting Kipling's early successes as a chronicler of Anglo-Indian society in the short stories of Plain Tales from the Hills and Soldiers Three. In analyzing Kipling's work, Gilmour employs the efficacious strategy of looking first to the reactions of the writer's contemporaries, finding, for example, that the sentimental favorite "Mandalay" was initially excoriated by old Malay hands for its inaccuracies. While Gilmour (Curzon) gives convincing readings of such warhorses as the cautionary "Recessional," he can't meliorate the paternalism of "The White Man's Burden" (in passing, he dismisses "If" as an "unintended parody of public school" stoicism). The hortatory verses to which Kipling turned after settling permanently in England reached their apex in the Boer War fund-raising ditty "Absent-Minded Beggar," which Kipling himself thought awfu, though he was proud of its receipts for war widows and orphans. If Kipling warned against "the Hun" before the Great War, the bitterest irony of his last phase was that after the Tommy Atkinses he celebrated in Barrack-Room Ballads had been wiped out in Flanders, as Gilmour keenly observes, Kipling's only lasting literary contribution to the war was the War Graves Commission's official epitaph for unknown soldiers. By the 1930s, Kipling's Germanophobia seemed prescient, but Gilmour builds his case for Kipling's pessimistic political insights into the future of Europe and the dissolution of the empire solely on Kipling's intuitions which don't carry the same moral weight compared to his early meritocratic, optimistic "The Ballad of East and West."