Last reviewed: June 2017
English journalist, poet, novelist, and short-story writer.
December 30, 1865
Bombay, British India (now Mumbai, India)
January 18, 1936
Joseph Rudyard Kipling was born in what was then Bombay, British India, on December 30, 1865. Born far from what he once termed “the provincialism of London,” he became a major voice for a multicultural empire—or, in later years, an Anglo-French federation of homelands and former colonies. Sometimes he sought to win followers for these visions by compromising with the ethnocentrism of his age, as in his notorious 1899 poem “The White Man’s Burden.”
Kipling was the first child of John Lockwood Kipling, architectural sculptor at the Bombay School of Arts, and Alice Macdonald Kipling. Both of his parents were children of Methodist ministers, and this religious background contributed to the biblical accent in many of Kipling’s works. Like many other Anglo-Indian children, Kipling was sent to England for his education. As depicted in his story “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep,” first published in 1888, the contrast between his permissive Indian servants in Bombay and the first hellfire-threatening Britons with whom he was left at six years old was traumatic for him, especially because his eyesight then began to fail. Highly myopic thereafter, Kipling could take little part in athletics; instead he spent his spare time writing for and editing the school paper at the United Services College at Westward Ho!, North Devon, the school that is portrayed in Stalky and Co. (1899). Rudyard Kipling.
His school journalism led to professional journalism when Kipling returned to India at age seventeen and joined the staff of the Lahore Civil and Military Gazette. Various assignments for both this paper and the Allahabad Pioneer gave him the opportunity to travel and provided abundant material for his books. From the publication of Departmental Ditties in 1886, the young writer found a wide audience for his poetic and narrative impressions of the Indian subcontinent as viewed from a certain distance. It was a distance, some later critics have suggested, in which full knowledge and considerable condescension were mingled and in which sympathy and impatience were paradoxically mixed, except in Kipling's best work, particularly his masterpiece, Kim (1901).
In 1889 Kipling left India and spent three years traveling to every continent except Antarctica. During his travels, he met Caroline Starr Balestier, the sister of American author and editor Wolcott Balestier, with whom he collaborated on The Naulahka: A Story of East and West (1892). In 1891, upon hearing of Wolcott Balestier's death, he returned to London and reunited with Caroline; the two were married in January 1982. They lived together in Vermont, near the Balestier family estate, until 1896, when, following a disagreement with Caroline's brother, the Kiplings moved to England and settled in Torquay, Devon.
Kipling continued to win both great financial rewards and fame from his work as a writer, both literary and journalistic. He did not (and here he differed from many writers who are taken more seriously by contemporary criticism) turn aside from the chance to cover newsworthy events. Thus, he went as a newspaper correspondent on English naval cruises, made a second visit to the United States, and went to South Africa to report on the English forces in the Boer War. So great was the popular veneration of Kipling that his checks were preserved rather than cashed, his signature being worth more than the amount of the check. In his later years, Kipling continued to mingle writing and action while covering events in World War I.
Kipling’s greatest honor lay in the indefatigable public that responded to his vivid, decided insights into the role of beneficent imperialism and, more sensitively, into the differences between cultures brought into startling contact by conquest (as in Kim). He was the recipient of many specific honors, such as a doctor of laws degree from McGill University (1899) and doctorates of letters from Oxford (1907) and Cambridge (1908). In 1907 he became the first Englishman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, whereupon it became apparent that his special sort of greatness was recognized beyond the confines of the English-speaking world. He failed to become poet laureate on three possible occasions, at least two of which were the result of temporary difficulties rather than a reflection on his eminence; in 1892 he was in disfavor with Queen Victoria, to whom he had referred as “the widow of Windsor,” and in 1930 there was concern over Russia’s reaction to honors accorded a poet who had once referred to Russia as “the bear that walks as a man.”
Kipling died in London on January 18, 1936. He was buried in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey, beside Charles Dickens, another storyteller and journalist who had managed to serve popular tastes while still achieving greatness. On the day after Kipling’s death, General Sir Ian Hamilton wrote in the London Observer, “His death seems to me to place a full stop to the period when war was a romance and the expansion of our Empire a duty.”
On the surface, Kipling’s whole literary output was a brilliant expression of an attitude later out of favor. Apparently, he urged action at the expense of refinement of perception and rigorous analysis of the presuppositions on which action rests. He prolonged Thomas Carlyle’s gospel of work and the hero. He seemed unsympathetic to democracy and many liberal causes, such as the emancipation of women, and his veneration for the signs and tools of material progress has seemed to some persons uncritical.
Consequently, by the 1940s, Kipling’s defenders consisted principally of conservatives, such as T. S. Eliot, who held that Kipling wrote transparently, “so that our attention is directed to the object and not to the medium.” Read thus, he might be praised for great economy of words and an “unsurpassed” ability with ballads. Kipling’s energy was poured out in a variety of forms in a way that few more recent writers can imitate. Though The Light That Failed (1890) was Kipling’s only attempt at the conventional novel, he wrote tales for adult readers, tales for children (The Jungle Book, 1894; Just So Stories, 1902; and Captains Courageous: A Story of the Grand Banks, 1897), and poetry stirring to people of all ages.
It is this variety that seemed his distinguishing mark. It was possible to accuse him, as did Richard Le Gallienne, of honoring “everywhere the brute and the bully.” More recent literary studies, however, find in Kipling less an extrovert, optimist, and champion of bullies than an introvert, pessimist, and advocate for the oppressed. His writings seem not transparent sagas but subtle psychological allegories, rich in previously unsuspected allusions, ironies, and even feminist insights. Instead of being a British Theodore Roosevelt, he now seems more the little boy of “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” who lied as defense against violent hypocrites and learned such fictionalizing so well that decades have been required to penetrate his protective coloring.