Sunday, September 06, 2009


Kipling, Doing Groucho ...

Bob Hicks has an article in the Books Section of today's Oregonian I found interesting. Concerns a conversation with a check-out clerk at the supermarket regarding Rudyard Kipling versus Jack London. Fascinating thing, and going to what it's like to live in a town wherein a clerk can bring such literary topics up while scanning your groceries.

Worth a read.

Hicks also talks about both Kipling and London, and how they were men of their day. Kipling at times has been thought to be no more than a saber-rattling proponent of the dying British Empire; London a racist and advocate of American Imperialism and Manifest Destiny. Hicks refers to Kipling's poem, "White Man's Burden," and London's essay "The Yellow Peril," and they are also interesting reading. Have a look. Nasty stuff from literary greats of our not-too-distant-past.

Of course, you have to read them in the context of a hundred years ago; using today's sensibilities, you can't really understand how, even among the intelligentsia of the time, these were not considered far-fetched positions, but quite reasonable for the day.


What was said, when, by whom, for what reasons, against what background, these all matter when it comes to understanding the intent of a statement. Things that horrify us today would have seemed worth less than a shrug two hundred, a hundred, even fifty years ago. If we don't blow ourselves up or die off from some man-made plague, I imagine that fifty or a hundred years from now our ancestors will be equally horrified at how barbaric we all were.


Anonymous said...

Of the two Kipling was much more complex and nuanced. The Poet Laureate of Imperialism also wrote many poems and stories with radical notions. From East is East to Gunga Din and The Female of the Species we find examples of "lesser sorts" given much more due for basic human worth than was fashionable in his day.

He was also one of the few authors with a real audience who wrote anything about the plight of the common British soldier which was terrible in those days. And pieces like When the Sealers Came were an embarrassment to the Right Sort.

When war touched him personally - his son died - he wrote his the famous

Common Form
If any question why we died
Tell them because our fathers lied

and the Epitaphs of War including:


I could not dig: I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?"

The war to end all wars.

London never seems to have achieved that capacity for change or for seeing more than one perspective

Steve Perry said...

London spent much of his time drunk, and that no doubt affected his outlook.

I enjoyed reading both when I was younger, and Kipling more, though "White Fang," and "To Build a Fire" were spellbinding when I first read them.

They were men of their time, and that's the context part.

Some guy said...

I started out to write what Anonymous did, but much less cogently, so I'll just add this instead. I also thought that Kipling gave "much more due for basic human worth than was fashionable", and that he used considerable irony in some of the poetic statements he made. Gunga Din also came to mind for me, as did The Fuzzy-Wuzz - (think that was the title) - and the soldiers poem about "we ain't no thin red 'eroes and we ain't no blackguards too" (or something like that). I know nothing about his life, but judging strictly from the poetry I've read, he did seem to be pretty aware of non-Englishmen as sharing basic humanity. At the time it may not have been exactly PC to express it directly...

J.D. Ray said...

Some years back, a local "beer and a movie" theater played Saturday Night Fever as a celebration of the film's 20th year since release. We went to see it, thinking there would be a few other people there, with the house maybe half full. It's a good thing we got there early, because the place was packed.

Watching the movie, which I remember seeing as a teenager and thinking, "This is cool stuff," I was horrified at the things the main character said and did, and even more horrified that I once liked it. Nowadays, I think the best thing about the movie is the soundtrack, which is still outstanding.