RUDYARD KIPLING: SOMETHING OF MYSELF AND OTHER AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL WRITINGS; edited by Thomas Pinney; Cambridge University; 330 pages; $39.50.
Born in Bombay in 1865, Rudyard Kipling grew up in the years that the British Empire reached its fullest height, made his name in the last two decades of the Victorian era, became the first Briton to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, and lived on until 1936, by which time his imperialist sentiments and bluff style of writing were long out of fashion in literary and academic milieu. But his colorful stories and robustly rhymed poems continued to hold broad popular appeal.Even after his star had waned, voices were raised on his behalf. The British novelist and critic Angus Wilson, who had no use for Kipling's racism and anti-Semitism, offered an insightful and appreciative biographical study, "The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling," in 1977, and the following year there was a biography by Lord Birkenhead. Just before he died, Kipling himself had written an autobiography, which was published posthumously (in 1937), heavily edited by his widow: "Something of Myself."
To say that self-revelation was not Kipling's strongest suit is an understatement. But it also gives the somewhat misleading impression that the author of "The Jungle Book," "Captains Courageous," "Kim, " "Danny Deever," and "Mandalay" was too reticent to write expressively and directly when the subject was himself.
Still, "Something of Myself" proves to be an accurate title.
The "something" that Kipling chose to describe, however, includes much that is of interest: his schooling in England, his apprenticeship as a journalist in India, his travels, and his thoughts about writing as an art, a craft, a way of making a living in the world, and a way of living in the world of imagination.
In addition to "Something of Myself," Pinney has included two brief articles, "My First Book" (1892) and "An English School" (1893), providing further accounts of Kipling's education and his venture into literary life.
The volume concludes with a previously unpublished diary that Kipling kept as a journalist in India in 1885: a terse record of hard work, discomfort and difficulty that is anything but the kind of reflective diary kept by someone like Virginia Woolf.
But when Kipling chose to do so, he could write powerfully about his more private emotions.
The experience that continued to exercise the strongest hold on his imagination was that of being separated from India and his beloved parents at the age of 5 and sent (as was the custom among colonials) to England to receive his education. Kipling and his younger sister Trix were boarded with strangers. For him, the experience in this home was so horrible as to make the time he later spent in boarding school seem a positive joy and delight.
Kipling describes his stay in the place he calls "The House of Desolation" in "Something of Myself," draws on it in his novel "The Light That Failed" (not included in this collection), and makes the most memorable use of it in his previously unpublished illustrations to it. It is a story well worth reprinting.
Yet, for all his early love of art and his passion for escape into the world of literature, Kipling grew up to become the "manly," outgoing antithesis of the 1890s aesthetes: the hard-headed working writer who championed the cause of the "tommy" - the ordinary British soldier charged with shouldering the burdens of empire without reaping the benefits of power or personal glory.
Although nothing he writes in his autobiography quite captures the strange blend of opposites that makes his work so compelling, the bluntness of Kipling on Kipling cannot completely disguise the more enigmatic boy beneath the man.