A jingo imperialist” as George Orwell called him, or “the most complete man of genius” that Henry James held up as an ideal, how does one solve a conundrum like Rudyard Kipling? Over eight decades after his death, Kipling’s literary reputation continues to see-saw. The latest in this debate has seen Britain’s first Nobel Laureate’s 20th century ode to stoicism, If, being scrubbed off the walls of Manchester University’s recently renovated Students’ Union, as a protest against his endorsement of the British Empire.
This negation of Kipling’s literary legacy as a by-product of his political views can, however, only be seen as cultural grandstanding. Admittedly, a lot of the criticism for the India-born author is directly linked to the propagandist views that he espoused in works such as his now (infamous) poem, The White Man’s Burden (1899), but to read contemporary meaning into products of a bygone era is mere moral posturing that is shorn both of context and substance. If Kipling was a champion of imperialism, he was also one of the most versatile writers of his time, whose mastery over forms such as the short story and the novel remain undisputed, and who wrote for adults and children with equal proficiency. His stories for children, be it The Jungle Book (1894) or Kim (1901), brim with a fabulist’s temerity for adventure and satire, and continue to enthrall generations of youngsters.
One of the fulfillments of literature is the opportunity to view the world from a different time and place, from perspectives that may or may not match our own. Literature teaches us nuance and the importance of engagement and forewarns us of the pitfalls of easy judgements — crucial lessons that erasure as a form of dissent misses.