- Kipling for "Non-Essentialists"
Lisa A. F. Lewis opened an essay ELT published in 50.2 (2007) by citing Rudyard Kipling's sly remark that he hoped child-readers might consume the tales of Rewards and Fairies "before people realised that they were meant for grown-ups." But Rewards and Fairies merely capped Kipling's long-standing experimentations with the "tints and textures" that would allow him to offer multigenerational readers a diversity of meanings "which," he claimed, "might or might not reveal themselves according to the shifting light of sex, youth, and experience." Indeed, for seventeen full years, from his Vermont fictions for children—the 1893 "The Potted Princess," the Jungle Book tales of 1894 and 1895, and the 1896 Captains Courageous (his last "American" venture)—to the five books he published after his return to England—Stalky & Co. (1899), Kim (1901), Just So Stories for Little Children (1902), Puck of Pook's Hill (1906), and Rewards and Fairies (1910)—Kipling created child-texts whose hybrid nature enabled him to experiment with "cross-references" and cross-generic mixtures as complex and innovative as any of those works ostensibly designated for "grown-ups."
The shrewd readings of Kim, the Mowgli tales, the three Taffy "just-so" stories, and "The Knife and the Naked Chalk" (in Rewards and Fairies) that Sue Walsh offers in this new book convincingly dispute the notion that these narratives are "unambiguously" designed "for children" (24). Her persuasive analysis valuably complements the recent efforts of critics who have similarly tried "to trouble" the problematic "division between 'children's' and 'adult' literature" (1). Ever since Children's Literature devoted its entire 1997 volume to this topic, an ever-increasing number of publications have taken up the "cross-writing" of child- and adult-texts. Walsh's endeavor thus is not quite as novel an enterprise as she seems to imply. Although she spends far too many pages attacking Perry Nodelman for the non-Derridean stance of a 1992 article that posited "childhood as having existence prior to [End Page 244] the description: childhood" (37), she curiously disregards Nodelman's seminal The Hidden Adult: Defining Children's Literature (2008), by far the most sophisticated and most comprehensive interrogation of the dubious boundaries that her own book so rightly questions.
Nor is Walsh quite the solitary she appears to be when she relentlessly distances herself from over sixty Kipling critics, whose "humanist" and "realist" simplicities she doggedly exposes. She claims that their "serious attention to how the play of words and illustrations in the Just So Stories may be interpreted" makes Lisa Lewis and U. C. Knoepflmacher the sole "exceptions that prove the rule" (7), but then quickly rules out even these "exceptions" by noting that both have allowed some form of extratextual "reality" to creep into their textual analysis. The pair must therefore join the other miscreants she bans—Nodelman, Daniel Karlin, Edward Said, Sandra Kemp, Judith Plotz, J. M. S. Tompkins, and a host of others. By contrast, Walsh's allies are few in number: these are, preeminently, Jacques Derrida and Jacqueline Rose, the latter as updated and reinterpreted by Karín Lesnik-Oberstein, Walsh's senior colleague at Reading University, whose "encouragement and support" are graciously acknowledged (xi).
Given the felicitousness of her textual readings, it seems ungenerous to harp on Walsh's fierce deconstruction of the "essentialist" proclivities of Kipling scholars and biographers. To be sure, the smothering effect of her book's excessive number of polemical pages and footnotes (there are 832 of the latter in a 155-page text) may prevent sympathetic readers from appreciating the handsome dividends it can offer. That their patience is to be rewarded, however, already becomes evident in the second half of Walsh's thirty-page introduction, where fifteen pages of dense denunciations suddenly give way to a brilliant discussion of Kim that convincingly demonstrates how that polyglot novel's linguistic ambiguities totally dismantle "any notion of a secure link between language and identity" (19). Similarly, Walsh's chapter on "Translating 'Animal,' or Reading the...