- Two Kiplings:The Ongoing Battle
In an interview with George Plimpton published in the Paris Review in 1958, Ernest Hemingway mentioned several writers who had influenced his own work. The list included, among others, Mark Twain, Tolstoy, Maupassant, and “the good Kipling,” as he put it. That phrase “the good Kipling” was picked up almost immediately and became a way of separating the wheat from the chaff in the Kipling canon. So drastically had Kipling’s popularity and reputation fallen by that time from the zenith of his acclaim—he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907—that any possible way of giving Kipling credit for being the original literary genius that he clearly was, the very ultimate example of the happy merging of a remarkable imagination with unsurpassed craftsmanship, was snapped up and used by those who still held the English Bard of India in great esteem but who at the same time felt compelled by an almost universal opinion to admit that much of his writing, namely that large segment that deals with the virtues of the British Empire, was distasteful, didactic, and wrongheaded (not to mention, dreadfully out of fashion).
It is most doubtful that Hemingway intended to suggest any such distinction between the writings that praise Western culture as superior to all others and that laud British colonialism and the Empire (“the bad Kipling”) and the writings that focus on other more universal and acceptable matters (“the good Kipling”). Hemingway’s choice of words was most likely an expression of what he found genuine and moving in the writings of Kipling as opposed to what he found strained and less effective, whether it be politically oriented or not. That he was not thinking of and deploring Kipling’s values when he suggested there was a bad Kipling but merely judging on artistic grounds is indicated by the fact that in the same interview he referred to “the good [Gertrude] Stein.” He simply thought that her work was of uneven merit. Politics had nothing to do with it, and he was probably not thinking one way or the other of Kipling’s politics when he used the term “the good Kipling.” [End Page 388]
Some twelve years after Hemingway used that term in the interview with George Plimpton, the phrase turned up as the title of a book by Elliot L. Gilbert dealing with selected short stories of Kipling. Gilbert’s idea of “the Good Kipling” was that Kipling who managed to relate and subordinate his “extra-literary ideas” (such as his approval of the Empire) to “aesthetics.” In other words, Gilbert made a distinction between works that were long on the virtues of British colonialism (but relatively short on fictive art) and those in which the political theme was negligible or non-existent but which reflected a high degree of artistic achievement.
By the time The Good Kipling was published in 1970, Kipling’s reputation had slipped drastically from those halcyon days when his name was on the lips of all those who appreciated a vital new author of extraordinary vitality and talent breaking new ground in subject matter. His name had become anathema to a large segment of readers, especially the intelligentsia. Gilbert opened his book by referring to an incident in which a prominent poet, Karl Shapiro, began a public reading with, in effect, an apology for quoting an excerpt from Kipling, stating “Not at all my favorite author,” to which the audience, mostly college students, expressed their approval first with laughter, then with applause. As if to to give credence to the idea that there were good reasons for the groundswell of disapproval of Kipling, Gilbert wrote that he was not “denying the existence of ‘the bad Kipling’” but suggesting the validity of the assumption that “an artist should always be defined by his best work.”
The noble but difficult battle to reestablish the reputation of Rudyard Kipling, to remind all fair-minded lovers of literature that, as Gilbert put it, “an artist should always be defined by his best...