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  • The Stalky Kipling
  • James Kilroy (bio)
Being Kipling, by William B. Dillingham. (Macmillan, 2008. 256 pages. Illustrated. $85)

The continuing appeal of Rudyard Kipling’s work is owing not merely to nostalgia for the values of an empire that has disappeared. His works attract the attention not only of colonial historians but of literary scholars, who regard his subtle implications and skeptical attitudes as evidence of protomodernism. Such revisionist approaches may make the writer less authoritative, but make the works more complex and so worthy of closer study. Kipling’s short stories, arguably the quintessential modernist literary form, have thus earned particular scrutiny; so that “The Gardener,” for example, can be seen as a convoluted evasive interrogation of Christian consolation instead of an endorsement of it. What now strikes us as the story’s curious strength is the audacity of its forcing us to a final inference, even while we recognize it to be insufficient and incompatible with the author’s private beliefs about warfare and religion.

The enduring popularity of Kipling the man has been similarly subjected to revision. The figure once regarded as the paragon of imperial manliness was, we now acknowledge, a tortured soul, a victim of frequent and severe physical and mental ailments, as well as one tortured by his changing attitudes toward the acts of Empire, particularly the world war in which his son was killed. For most of his life Kipling suffered from his celebrity; he resented the public interrogation, and to questions about his inner self he was evasive, even deceitful. The version of his past that he constructed was a heroic one in which a boy nearly abandoned by his parents in childhood rose to become a model of manly courage and wisdom. But he turns out to have been a disillusioned pessimist whose doubts and mistrust drove him to covert defenses. This [End Page lxxv] characterization has been convincingly argued in an earlier work by William Dillingham, Rudyard Kipling: Hell and Heroism (2005), an impressive, superbly detailed analysis of a set of his writings. Now, to amplify and sharpen his cogent interpretation, Dillingham has returned to probe more deeply. He takes up a single text, Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides, in which, he argues, Kipling covertly revealed the most basic aspects of his character.

The choice of this text initially seems odd since it is a collection of stories, poems, and prose pieces, many previously published, intended for an audience of Boy Scouts and their leaders. Accordingly its didactic intent is overt, but the exposure of his inner concerns and convictions is discovered only by subtle detection. But the indirect, almost cryptic approach is effective, Dillingham argues: using the context of writing for young readers, Kipling can reveal submerged fears and convictions that otherwise could not be articulated. He can send covert messages about vital subjects, as do his fictional schoolboys and Masonic lodge fellows. In this volume his intended readership, scouts and guides, are such initiates; and they serve his purpose in suggesting surveillance and detection as necessary for survival. To that extended readership, the Boy Scout motto, repeated throughout the text, Be Prepared, is amplified to become an alert call, warning both against enemies and against admitting internal weaknesses that make the nation, no less than the self, vulnerable. Such a project requires concealment, even wile. As the poetic preface puts it, this is “one grand secret in your private ear” exhorting the reader to be wary as well as fit.

Each of the entries endorses defensive precaution, in which concealment of one’s fears is especially lauded, as is facing challenges with a calm demeanor. They purportedly offer models of behavior, and are amplified by interspersed poems and prose pieces of a hortatory sort. But implicit in the text, Dillingham argues, is Kipling’s covert apologia for his life. The strongest pieces that support this claim are several narratives that treat conflict between fathers and sons, or at least those male superiors who serve at parental figures. John Trevor, the title character of “An Unqualified Pilot,” does, literally, follow his father’s lead in steering a junk through a treacherous piece of the river, but...


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