For those who lack the luxury of time to read all of Kipling’s works and draw their own conclusions, myself among them, the complexity of the man is suggested most evocatively, perhaps, in his own poem The Two-Sided Man, and articulated more clearly and directly by George Orwell. (Commonalities between the two authors inspired a debate earlier this year at the Oxford Literary Festival.)
An excerpt from Orwell’s eulogy of Kipling in 1936:
Rudyard Kipling was the only popular English writer of this century who was not at the same time a thoroughly bad writer. His popularity was, of course, essentially middle-class. In the average middle-class family before the War, especially in Anglo-Indian families, he had a prestige that is not even approached by any writer of to-day. He was a sort of household god with whom one grew up and whom one took for granted whether one liked him or whether one did not. For my own part I worshipped Kipling at thirteen, loathed him at seventeen, enjoyed him at twenty, despised him at twenty-five and now again rather admire him.
And another from Orwell’s essay on Kiping’s legacy, penned in 1942:
Kipling is in the peculiar position of having been a byword for fifty years. During five literary generations every enlightened person has despised him, and at the end of that time nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten and Kipling is in some sense still there…Kipling is a jingo imperialist, he is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting. It is better to start by admitting that, and then to try to find out why it is that he survives while the refined people who have sniggered at him seem to wear so badly.
Orwell wrote the first, brief piece only five days after Kipling died. In the second, longer piece, he argues that the “storyteller who was so important” to his childhood may have been a 19th century imperialist and (he says) a sadist, but that he was certainly not a fascist; that he had a sense of “responsibility” that more “enlightened” people typically lack; and that he produced “the best” and “the only literary” picture of Anglo-India, an accomplishment that stands out even more against the “great dearth” of so-called colonial literature. The essay is much more than a piece on Kipling himself though, it is a telling meditation on the “overlap between the intellectual and the ordinary man.” Both pieces are well worth reading in full.
Images of George Orwell