BookMarks: The importance of Kipling's Vermont years

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Naulakha is a shingle-style house built in 1893 that sits on a tall hill in Dummerston, overlooking the Connecticut River. You can rent this four-bedroom property from the Landmark Trust for a family vacation and not be aware that it was designed, built, and lived in by the most famous and financially successful writer of the last decades of the 19th century, an Englishman who moved to America because his wife had deep roots in the Brattleboro area — Rudyard Kipling.

The story of Kipling's decade in Vermont, as well as dozens of other fascinating and enchanting stories, are woven together into an outstanding biography by Christopher Benfey, in his new book, "If: The Untold Story of Kipling's American Years." (Penguin Press, 2019).

Benfey, the Andrew Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, examines the ten years that Kipling lived in Vermont with a discerning eye for the interesting detail. Taking a single decade, in this case 1889-1899, out of the context of an individual's life is a challenge for any historian. In addition, writing a biography of an author who is largely dismissed today as a colonialist, imperialist, militarist, misogynist relic of the past is even more daring.

Yet, Benfey successfully makes a strong case that Kipling was a complex and accomplished writer whose poems, stories, novels, and essays have important relevance for our own time.

In order to do so, he reaches back to Kipling's early years as well as those which follow his departure from Vermont in order to provide context for the man and the writer. But the focus is clearly on the years when Kipling lived full time in the Brattleboro area. Benfey vividly describes scenes such as Kipling driving his buggy or sleigh into Brattleboro to pick up his mail (that is until the U.S. Postal Service agreed to establish an actual post office at his home to handle the 200 or so letters he often received each day!), welcoming Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame to play golf in the hills around his house, and traveling to Washington, D.C. to hobnob with congressmen and with writers Henry James and Mark Twain.

My favorite episode in the book takes place in Elmira, N.Y., where the 23-year-old Kipling, working as a reporter for the Lahore, India (now Pakistan) newspaper, finally tracked down Twain for an interview. What began as an uninvited intrusion became an energetic conversation that lasted hours as the two exchanged ideas and stories.

That meeting began a life-long relationship important to both men and finally reaching a climax when they both received honorary degrees at Oxford University in 1907. That same year, Kipling became the youngest man and the first Englishman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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Benfey makes the strong case that what he refers to as "Kipling's extra-ordinary American decade" was critical for his development as a writer as well as for his influence on American letters. Kipling extolled Vermont as a `place of promise, of freedom, of experimentation — a place he could re-invent himself' in contrast to the strictures of the caste system in India and the class system in England. It was also a place where he could re-establish his financial security after a disastrous loss of his assets in a bank failure in Japan while on his honeymoon.

During his Vermont years, Kipling was quite productive, writing "Captains Courageous," "The Jungle Book," the first draft of "Kim," many of his "Just So Stories," and some of his best poetry. This work influenced a number of important American writers including Stephen Crane, Jack London, Willa Cather, and later Ernest Hemingway. His political views were sharpened in his conversations with William James, the Harvard philosopher, who agreed that non-military service was important for young men to develop responsibility and maturity. Those views had a significant influence on his friend Teddy Roosevelt's approach to America's newly acquired empire in the Philippines and Cuba.

Kipling ultimately left Brattleboro because of a lawsuit which threatened his emotional state. The suit arose out of a clash with his wife's brother and was so disturbing to Kipling that he moved back to England. He is said to have claimed that the only places he ever wanted to live were Bombay and Brattleboro, and he was unable to live in either. Once back in England, he was to return to America only once, and that visit proved tragic, when his first-born child Josephine died in New York City in 1899.

Kipling's poem `If' remains popular with presidents, commencement speakers, and graduation card designers, but remains controversial. Some claim it is an anthem of the imperialist, militarist "White Man's Burden" school of thought, a term that Kipling coined in acknowledging the passing of the imperial torch from England to the United States. Others see "If" as an important message for today's youth caught in a web of fake news, social media, and uncertain political and natural world environments. Despite this conflict, the message of being true to yourself and being strong in the face of conflicting advice, pressure, and temptation is one that continues to have universal appeal.

Benfey conveys Kipling's years in Vermont with both broad brush strokes and the telling details of these events, with an incisive eye and a readable style. He provides the broad historical and literary contexts to enable the reader to understand a man whom he describes as demonstrating "complexity as a writer and an historical figure."

Whether Kipling emerges from this 21st century re-evaluation as a full-fledged member of the Western canon, and indeed if the Western canon emerges at all, remains uncertain. What is clear, however, is that our own Vermont was an important element in the development of this prolific writer, who in turn exerted a major influence on the ideas, politics, and literature of the 20th century.

(Benfey will  discuss his work at the Brattleboro  Literary Festival Oct.  17-20. For more information, visit brattleboroliteraryfestival.org.)

Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Cambridge, Massachusetts and in Brownsville. He can be reached at www.EpsteinReads.com where you will find more than 1000 ideas for what to read next.


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