- Kipling’s Children’s Literature: Language, Identity, and Constructions of Childhood
Among general readers, Rudyard Kipling has been seen preeminently as a writer of children’s books. Literary criticism of the last thirty years, however, has often treated him less as a children’s writer than as the author of colonial fictions. It is a welcome development, then, to see increasing critical attention paid to Kipling as the creator of tales for children, such as The Jungle Book (1894), The Second Jungle Book (1895), Kim(1901), Just So Stories (1902), Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), and Rewards and Fairies (1910). Sue Walsh’s book represents an incisive contribution to this heightened interest.
In this forceful, closely argued monograph, Walsh challenges not only current critical approaches to Kipling as a colonial writer but also recent biographical readings of his works within studies of children’s literature. Guided by Jacqueline Rose’s important book The Case of Peter Pan, or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction (1984), she sees in both postcolonial and biographical interpretations of Kipling’s children’s fiction a common ontological failure: a tendency, at once sentimental and condescending, to regard childhood as a realm sharply divided from that of adulthood, a realm in which children possess an innocent, natural, unmediated relationship with the world that they lose as they grow into adults. More important for her, postcolonial and biographical critics mistakenly see childhood as a space where language is purely oral, where words join seamlessly with their [End Page 115] referents, free of the schism between signifier and signified that afflicts the written language privileged by adults. For Walsh, whose methods are Derridean, the language of and about children is never so transparent.
The consequences of these errors are, according to Walsh, similar for both kinds of critics. Postcolonial scholars like Edward Said implicitly deny that works such as Kim are children’s literature tout court. Since such scholars regard childhood as untouched by the political forces that roil adulthood, they must see a novel such as Kim as more than a boy’s adventure story in order to read it from a postcolonial standpoint. Only by approaching the novel as a crossover, adult narrative can they then read it as colonial fiction. For them it is as if children’s books “cannot bear the weight of an in-depth political and theoretical analysis” (11). For Walsh, children’s literature is complex enough as children’s literature to invite the kind of serious scrutiny that one directs at mature readers’ fare. Biographical critics of children’s books suffer from a similar limitation. Like postcolonial readers, they cannot address children’s literature on its own terms but distort it into adult shapes to satisfy their adult needs. Here, Walsh objects most strenuously to U. C. Knoepflmacher’s argument that the Just So Stories represented “therapy” for Kipling, who addressed these tales to his dead daughter, Josephine, to heal his grief (84). In reading these stories primarily in reference to the adult author—a concern outside the stories—Knoepflmacher misses the complex specificities within the text. For Walsh, both kinds of critics need to treat Kipling’s children’s literature, in strict Derridean fashion, as texts of great richness in which child-adult binaries—the oral and the written, the self and the other, the colonizer and the colonized, the past and the future, and the primitive and the civilized—are continually being deconstructed.
Despite its rigor and ingenuity, I find two related problems with Walsh’s analysis. (Here, in the interests of full disclosure, I should admit that she includes me among the postcolonial readers who are guilty of romanticizing childhood.) The first problem concerns the attribution of blame. She holds critics responsible for projecting onto Kipling’s texts a view of a pristine childhood that, to my mind, is pervasive in the author’s works themselves. In his memoir, Something of Myself (1937), Kipling describes his own childhood play as having unfolded within a magical space cordoned...