Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was not yet 25 when he burst onto the literary scene in London, where his stories of Anglo-Indian life made him an instant celebrity. He won the Nobel Prize in 1907, but by then his critical standing was already in decline, marred in part by popular poems like "The White Man's Burden," which stereotyped him as a tub-thumping jingoist, a reputation he cemented with the distasteful racism of his patriotic appeals during World War I. Poet Harry Ricketts rescues Kipling from cliché in perceptive critical exegeses that remind the reader just how fine a fiction writer he was, pointing out the nuanced appreciation of racial and cultural boundary crossing that informed such masterpieces as Kim. In this brisk narrative, Kipling emerges as a charming, genuinely warm man and a devoted, delightful father; it's no surprise that the children's books Just So Stories and The Jungle Book remain his most beloved works. Without scanting the nastiness of Kipling's reactionary politics, Ricketts suggests their source in personal sorrows that included his 18-year-old son's battlefield death in 1915 and the agonizing demise of his 6-year-old daughter, after which, said Kipling's sister, "he was a sadder and a harder man." --Wendy Smith
From Publishers Weekly
Kipling's biographers are still trying to find a balance between his reputation as an imperialist writer and his actual life. After Martin Seymour-Smith's psychologically speculative 1990 biography (also titled Rudyard Kipling), the more conservative approach of New Zealander Ricketts (editor of Kipling's Lost World) gives some redress to the fiction writer and poet--although in the process his account downplays many of Kipling's late reactionary opinions. Like many sons of the Empire, Kipling's childhood was divided unevenly between England and India (primarily Bombay), but he was effectively orphaned when he was sent at age six to live in an evangelical household in Southsea. Although that experience instilled a permanent sense of abandonment in Kipling, evident in his fiction, Ricketts points out that it also ingrained in him the indefatigable work ethic that sustained his long literary career. Ricketts's insights into the ironies of that career also challenge the assumptions of Kipling's posthumous reputation. Kipling became an ardently propagandizing imperialist only after he settled permanently in England and lost contact with his "native" India. The Nobel notwithstanding, Kipling, Ricketts recounts, precipitously lost critical standing as he gained international popularity. These points are enlivened by Ricketts's selection of letters by such rival authors as Henry James and Max Beerbohm, which provide amusing gossip as well as literary context. Much of Ricketts's portrait of Kipling as a man with many internal contradictions ("devoted son/damaged' orphan,'" "scholar gipsy/rule-bound conformist") seems astute, but his treatment of the author as a complicated colonial isn't as successful as his assessment of Kipling's personal affairs and poetry. Photos not seen by PW.(Mar.)
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