Kipling In America

Christopher Benfey explores the English writer’s “four-year sojourn in Vermont, from 1892 to 1896, [which] was a remarkably productive period for this versatile poet and short-story writer, and established patterns, aesthetic and political, for much that came later”:

During his American interlude, Kipling initiated his lifelong practice of adding verse epigraphs to stories, and sometimes verse epilogues and interludes as well, knitting whole books together with an alternating current of verse and prose. The main inspiration, as Charles Carrington, Kipling’s official biographer, pointed out long ago, was probably Emerson, an overwhelming influence on Kipling’s poetry and prose. It was in The Jungle Books, written in 1893 and 1894, that Kipling first systematically adopted a complicated mix of poetry and prose. Much of the main narrative of the book is built on a contrast between upholders of “The Law,” inculcated by Mowgli’s tutors, the kindly bear Baloo and the severe panther Bagheera, and those who undermine the Law—above all, the monkeys, or “Bandar-Log,” whose herd mentality prevents them from accomplishing anything of significance. Much has been written about The Jungle Books (with Kipling’s encouragement) as in part a political allegory, in which the monkeys figure as American populists, always promising great things and achieving nothing.

Other inspirations for The Jungle Books:

One source that Kipling is thought to have drawn on for his Mowgli narrative is titled “Wolves Nurturing Children in the Dens,” first published in 1852, and written by a British official named William Henry Sleeman. The stories are relentlessly downbeat. When the children adopted by wolves are returned to their families, they have callouses on their elbows and knees from crawling on all fours; they prefer raw to cooked meat; they feed among the dogs; they are incapable of learning human language; they die young, and so on. The responsible parties in Sleeman’s suspiciously similar stories are never the villagers, with their negligent parenting that allows wolves to “carry off” their children, but rather the British officials and those employed by them. The need for European “paternalism” is demonstrated at every turn. The local Hindus must be taught to value their children. To teach them such values, one might say, is another of the White Man’s Burdens.

How Kipling’s narrative differs:

It is a mark of Kipling’s originality that he departed from his Indian sources in several key ways. This supposed guardian of empire and the White Man’s Burden chose a native child for his hero and portrayed Mowgli’s native birth mother sympathetically. … He grows up not with callouses on his knees and elbows, cowering in the shadows, but rather as a virile and sensitive leader, powerful in mind and body, who can kill a tiger, make complicated moral choices, and right the wrongs in both human and animal communities.