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A Universal Foreignness: Kipling in the Fin-de-Siècle Stephen D. Abata University of Virginia HOW, ASKED T. S. ELIOT AS LONG AGO AS 1941, are we to read Kipling? The difficulty arises in large part from the relation between tradition and this particular, to Eliot's mind this peculiar, individual talent. If Kipling can be excluded from the canon of great writers—and by 1941 that exclusion was complete—he can still exercise and trouble the most sophisticated readers, Eliot among them. "I confess," he writes, "that the critical tools which we are accustomed to use ... do not seem to work" in Kipling's case. In Eliot's view, Kipling runs astride, without quite ever joining, the main currents of English literary history, and in this lies both his fascination and his difficulty. Despite his importance to late Victorian culture, Kipling strikes Eliot as "the most inscrutable of authors," a "unique" figure without literary ancestors or heirs. He is distinguished by what Eliot thinks of as a "universal foreignness," as well as by a "peculiar detachment and remoteness" from his audience, his material, and his milieu. All of which makes him a writer "impossible wholly to understand."1 Eliot's is not the Kipling we are likely to be familiar with. It is certainly not the Kipling of contemporary criticism, which invariably places this late Victorian author at the untroubled center of an era whose most interesting activities occurred almost exclusively on the margins. Studies of the period have always stressed, with good reason, the transgressive quality of fin-de~siècle writing, its calculated and often spectacular déviances. Déviances require norms, however, and Kipling traditionally has been invoked as their most visible embodiment. He is taken as "a spokesman for the age/ a "profoundly representative consciousness " who gave "expression to a whole range of national experience ." 2 He is made to stand for that gallery of crumbling certainties— aesthetic, moral, political, sexual—which others triumphantly rejected. ELT 36 : 1 1993 Yet, as Eliot realized, Kipling was himself in many ways eccentric from the culture he wrote for, particularly in the early stages of his career. The familiar image of Kipling as popular apologist for the dominant ideology has obscured our view of the turbulence which his initial appearance on the literary scene provoked. The response in England to Kipling's early work in fact betrayed a deep ambivalence. Kipling reciprocated the feeling, never quite losing the sense that Great Britain, as he wrote to Rider Haggard as late as 1902, was merely "the most wonderful foreign land I have ever been in." 3 For the India-born Kipling, it was never home. In attempting to recover the terms of this mutual ambivalence, I want both to relocate Kipling in the field of our critical perception—to dislodge him just a little from the stagnant center·—and to open up some larger cultural and aesthetic issues of the British fin-desiecle. For the response to Kipling in 1890 was every bit as fraught, every bit as contradictory, every bit as revelatory, as the more celebrated "trials" of a Hardy, a Gissing, a Schreiner, a Wilde. I Some facts to recall. Kipling arrived in London in October 1889, aged 24, with seven years as a journalist in India behind him. His short fiction and verse, published in colonial newspapers and collected in a series of inexpensive paperbound "railway editions" published in Allahabad, had won him a moderate success within a rather restricted circle of AngloIndian readers. His reputation in England was slight at best. By mid1890 , however, he was being hailed as "a new star out of the East," the rejuvenator of English fiction, the slayer, in Henry James's ironic phrasing, of spurious "immortals" among the London literati:4 I spent an afternoon reading Soldiers Three [wrote Sidney Low, the editor of the St. James's Gazette] and when I went out to a dinner-party that evening I could talk of nothing but this marvellous youth.... My host, a well-known journalist and critic of those days, laughed at my enthusiasm which he said would hardly be justified by the appearance of another Dickens. "It...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 7-38
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Archived
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