Some of Mr. Kipling’s Defects
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[ 15 Some of Mr. Kipling’s Defects1 As the novelty of certain innovations dies away, as the school of literature of which Mr. Kipling is the most illustrious representative, the exotic school, passes with its blemishes exaggerated, more and more into the hands of less able practitioners, so Kipling’s fame is fading, and his unique charm is diminished. Kipling himself has made little effort to increase his reputation in his own special province of literature, the Anglo-Indian Orient, and in his late writings has turned to other subjects. This may well be the wiser part. The popularity of his work was due not more to his emphatic and vigorous style, his unquestioned technical brilliance, than to the unfamiliarity and picturesqueness of his background. Now that a score of writers can boast of a familiarity with the equator, we are no longer so spellbound by the Kiplingesque. We are not awed by the Oogly; the China sea, or the Kyber pass.2 Local color is always a dangerous tool, dangerous in proportion to its remoteness from our knowledge and observation; the colorist is liable to become infatuated by brilliant landscape and description. He is liable to overestimate its importance, to subordinate characterisation and action to background; and under the influence of strange scenery to exaggerate the strangeness of his men and women. And the reader also is deceived; what is so unusual, he argues (unconsciously perhaps), must be true. True to the setting, but not always true to humanity. Yet truth and strangeness of setting have a possible conjunction; and a story is often all the better for it. If you lay your plot in Hindustan or Africa, and still create men whose title to existence rests on more than violent action, whose world is more than a tropical phantasmagory, then you have achieved a genuine triumph. Such is Stevenson’s “Ebb-Tide.” In this story vivid description of tropical scenery is united with fine analysis of character , justice of proportion, and the power to seize the moral significance of a situation. Compare the “Ebb-Tide” with most of Kipling’s Oriental stories , and see how much more control had Stevenson over his material. The real reason for the dissatisfaction which I cannot but feel with Mr. Kipling’s work is not the Oriental obsession, which was merely an accident, but a weakness as evident in the early stories of diplomatic life at Simla, as 1909: harvard university 16 ] in his more highly decorated work. There is one fatal weakness marring almost everything to which Kipling sets his hand; accounting for several minor blemishes; it is a restless immaturity. Always more anxious for the appearance of life than for life itself, the appearance of truth rather than truth, Mr. Kipling has maintained successfully the pose of a man of the world, a pose of the young and egotistic. He has seen everything and done everything. The discursive observer of life, the cosmopolitan like Kipling, often misconsiders that intimacy with sailors, barmen, stokers, thieves, all the world of Argot–he thinks that such acquaintance gives the knowledge of life. To the properly equipped it will; most men will gain from such observation only the delight in superficial phenomena, the bizarre and the brutal. In The Light that Failed and in Kim, as in many of the shorter stories , there are characters and events which are bizarre and brutal. Kipling is striking rather than convincing. So, even in the earlier work, the middle-class society tales of which I spoke, one cannot feel perfect confidence. One can never be sure of Mr. Kipling’s accuracy. And if these Simla stories are not trustworthy, their only excuse is that they are always interesting, and always effective. What is the reason that Kipling’s stories never lack interest? Surely the vigor which galvinizes every character into action, almost into reality. Aside from Kipling’s incontestably brilliant technique, it is the most admirable quality in his work, this vast energy. Kipling, not so profound or so tragic as Balzac, approaches that novelist in this respect. His people are justified by the energy and the daring of his characterisation. These people are always interesting; they are not always real. I have often heard that the British soldier of Kipling is not in the least like reality, and I haveheardfromthelipsofGloucesterlongshorementhatCaptainsCourageous is quite incorrect, the product of three weeks lounging about the wharves. The true masters of realism conquer it by grasping the vital fact, searching its...