(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
By Rudyard Kipling
Book #51 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
Rudyard Kipling has taken a big hit in reputation since the rise of Postmodernism in the post-colonial period, becoming in many people's eyes the veritable poster-child for the gleeful embrace of the British Empire seen in the last half of the Victorian Age; so it might come as a surprise to learn that his 1901 Kim, which many people consider his undisputed masterpiece, is not a paean to imperialism at all, but rather a deeply complex and surprisingly judgement-free look at Kipling's birthplace of India, set firmly during the "Raj" years of British rule there but with the imperialists often coming off as corrupt buffoons, a deeply spiritual tale that concentrates mostly on the ways that locals tried to live their daily lives back then even with the interference of all the various interloping white people there. It's told mostly through the eyes of our titular hero (full name Kimball O'Hara), who despite being the child of a dead Irish couple has grown up like any other tough Hindu beggar child on the streets of Lahore, albeit an unusually smart and cunning one who at the beginning of the book decides to become the personal assistant of a visiting Tibetan lama, because of his deep superstitious beliefs combining with his fascination over the exotic-looking and -sounding Himalayan monk. While traveling with the lama across the country in his spiritual quest, then, we also have a chance to see Kim act as a low-level informant for various parties involved with the "Great Game," a term for the cold war of sorts that Britain and Russia quietly and unofficially waged against each other during the 1800s in the rural wilds of eastern Europe and western Asia. (So in other words, if you think of this as the 19th-century version of the fight between the US and the Soviet Union, then the Crimean War would've been their Vietnam. And yes, by the way, it was Kipling who invented the actual term, to describe a group of people and activities that both governments denied for decades even existed.)
But after spying a specific British regiment flag (from the battalion of his dead father) that he had been told as a child would be a portentous sign of his destiny if he was to ever see it, Kim does what he was instructed to do as a child and shows its commander his father's old papers, kept in a locket that Kim has worn around his neck his entire life; and that sends Kim on a new journey through the formal educational system of Raj Britain, against his will at first but then with a growing enthusiasm, when discovering that his past and his demeanor makes him a perfect "secret agent" for these Great Game activities, even while being trained on the sly in the eastern versions of treachery within the back rooms of shady local shops during his school holidays. This then gets him sent out on his first official assignment at the end of school, right at the same time that his old Buddhist master has decided to finally revisit the mountainous villages of the Himalayans from where he came; but after a series of violent adventures during the journey there, plus a belated achievement of enlightenment by the Tibetan lama, Kim is left at the end of our book a confused soul, not sure whether to follow the call of Duty and Queen or to strike out and pursue his own Great Wheel of Time.
The argument for it being a classic:
Well, for starters, Kipling was the very first English-language writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature; and many consider Kim to be the best of all his long-form work, a fine example to pick if you're planning on reading only one of his books. (Of course, others argue that it's actually his short stories and poems that are better than any of his long-form books, while yet others argue that it's better to primarily think of Kipling as a children's author, although we'll shelve these debates for a later day.) And like I said, that's because this is a surprisingly complex story, a truly sweeping tale that uses the entire vast width and breadth of the Indian subcontinent as its canvas, looking at the complicated mix of cultures, classes and religions that made up this area at the time, which let's not forget had been a whole series of autonomous warring kingdoms (or rajas) before the British came in and arbitrarily made the entire place one big geopolitical state. The self-professed favorite novel of independent India's very first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, this subtle and moving late-career tale is the product of an older and more mature Kipling, able to get across his points in a more nuanced way than the "Rah Rah God And Country" stuff he's best known for, a hyper-realistic look at a specific time and place in history that still easily deserves to be included in the list of the world's classics.
The argument against:
Oh, and did I mention "The White Man's Burden?" DID I, YOU HORRIBLE IMPERIALIST MONSTER?! That seems to far and away be the biggest online criticism of Kipling you find, frankly, much more than any complaints about the quality of Kim itself; that the man was the undeniable champion and apologist for the idea of subjugation of native populations by a benevolent yet all-powerful British Empire, with for example the "burden" of his infamous poem mentioned above being that white people have a literal spiritual duty to go to places like Africa and India and keep the bloodthirsty native heathens from all chopping each other up into little pieces, an attitude that still silently influences a surprisingly large amount of US foreign policy to this day. This pall hangs over Kipling so much, in fact, that many are unable to look past it and judge the man's individual works on their own merits, a case of simply too much baggage which critics say ethically recuse him from being included in any classics lists at all, a writer not to be studied and admired but rather held up in shame as an example of our dark past.
Today's book brings up a topic we're often having to discuss here at the CCLaP 100, of how much a writer's personal life or political views should be tied to his worthiness as a literary figure; because to be frank, everything Kipling's critics say about him is true, and it's in fact hard to find anyone else of his stature and fame who was as such a dyed-in-the-wool fanatic of the idea of Empire and imperial inclinations. And so like I said, that's what makes Kim's complexly balanced look at global culture such a shocker, and I think says quite a bit about what exactly audiences most respond to over the long haul; it's gratifying, truthfully, to see that as the decades progress, the public is largely letting Kipling's most pro-imperial work fade into the obscurity it deserves, while it is the fairest and most complex book of his career that a century later is being considered more and more his best. Because I gotta say, for a book that's about to celebrate its 110th anniversary, this still has a tremendous amount of power to suck you right in, and to quickly make you feel like you're right there on an overcrowded train car rumbling its way across the desert along with our traveling heroes, debating the issues of the day with a whole rainbow of other passengers, a book better thought of not as a champion of Empire but simply a great record of what it was like to actually live during this imperial age, even as the writing on the wall was first starting to appear regarding this empire's eventual downfall.
And in fact, I think it's no coincidence that this came out right at the beginning of what I call the "Interregnum" of contemporary literary history, the twenty-year period between the end of Victorianism in 1900 and the mainstreaming of Modernism in 1920, a period of stagnation in Western Europe in which every project in the arts seemed to be either a fluffy piece of Genteel Edwardianism now largely forgotten, or a daring underground experiment not yet recognized for the brilliance that we now see it contains; and much like the US in the 1990s and 2000s, this also was the period when the first truly serious grumblings about the limits of the British Empire started appearing, not nearly as pronounced here specifically in Kim but certainly with that kind of darker tone flavoring the book's entire mood. It was only a hop, skip and jump from a novel like this to Joseph Conrad's much more damning Heart of Darkness, which was in bookstores at the exact same time; and of course just a few years away from World War One and the Suez Crisis and all the other disasters that led to the actual demise of the British Empire, all of it just starting to come to a head when a revered, elderly Kipling died in the 1930s, and was promptly interred in Westminster Abbey, one of the highest and rarest honors an artist can receive in Western civilization.
While I certainly understand why the post-colonialists of the 1960s through '90s tended to have such a tough stance towards Kipling as they did, in order to break some of that automatic fawning he received from general society in the first half of the 20th century, I also think it's high time that we in our 21st-century "post-racial" society do a close re-examination of Kipling yet again, and to understand when exactly he was an obvious supporter of imperial stereotypes and when he was a sly breaker of them; because when all is said and done, Kipling has a lot to teach us about the history of that age, especially now that his attitudes can be placed better in a historical context instead of being automatically seen as an extension of the current status-quo. I encourage you to read through this rousing adventure tale, proto-spy-thriller and deeply informative history book whenever you have a chance, and without hesitation I call it as a classic that deserves its second moment in the sun.
Is it a classic? Yes
The next four books scheduled to be read:
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
The Executioner's Song, by Norman Mailer
Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)