- - Thursday, August 29, 2019


As a teenager in the 1960s I was caught up in the spy craze created by the James Bond films. In addition to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, I read many other spy thrillers and I watched spy stories on TV and at the movies. But it was as a pre-teen in the 1950s that I read my first great spy story, which was Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim.”

I later met many military and civilian intelligence officers who also read and loved “Kim.”

In Kipling’s 1901 novel, the son of an Irish soldier in India named Kimball O’Hara, known as Kim, is a wayward street urchin living in Lahore. He meets Mahbub Ali, a horse trader and spy, who has Kim deliver a secret message to a British military intelligence officer. And so Kim’s adventures in espionage and what Rudyard Kipling coined “The Great Game” began.

Although “Kim” takes place in India, where Kipling was born and later worked as a newspaper reporter and short story writer, he wrote the first draft of “Kim” in America.

In Christopher Benfey’s “If: The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years,” we learn of Rudyard Kipling’s affection for America and his life here.

Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay in 1865 and educated in England. Readers have always associated this towering writer with colonial India, where he spent his early childhood and his literary apprenticeship, and with England, where he lived, in relative isolation, during the final decades of his life. Few readers are familiar with his exuberant American years, however, during the heart of the American Gilded Age. 

And yet Kipling wrote “The Jungle Book,” “Captain Courageous,” the first draft of “Kim,” his first “just so stories,” and some of his greatest poems on the crest of a Vermont hillside overlooking the Connecticut River, with a view of Mount Monadnock “like a gigantic thumbnail pointing heavenward,” Christopher Benfey writes in his prologue. “A principal aim of this book is to introduce today’s readers to a largely unfamiliar writer: The American Kipling.”

He goes on to state that Kipling’s involvement with America on a personal, political and aesthetic level has not received the attention it properly deserves.

“From around 1890 to 1920, Rudyard Kipling was the most popular and financially successful writer in the world. At the height of his fame, in 1907, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature; at forty-one, he was the youngest writer ever to win the prize and the first in the English language,” Mr. Benfey writes. “That same year, in the company of his idol Mark Twain and the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, he was awarded an honorary degree at Oxford, to raucous applause of an adoring crowd.”

He influenced a generation of American writers, such as Stephen Crane, Jack London and Ernest Hemingway. Mr. Benfey calls Rudyard Kipling a fascinating writer and a complex historical figure. I agree.

And yet, today, Rudyard Kipling is out of favor and dismissed as a reactionary and racist imperialist. Yes, Kipling wrote “The White Man’s Burden,” a plea for America to assume the British imperialist burden, but as Mr. Benfey notes, Kipling “retained a deep sympathy for the despised, the marginalized, and the powerless. Kim is himself a homeless child, cared for by his father, a down-and-out veteran addicted to opium, and a mixed-race prostitute.”

Mr. Benfey looks back at when Rudyard Kipling, an unknown reporter for an Indian newspaper, traveled to America and looked up his literary idol, Mark Twain. He walked up to the famous author and humorist’s home unannounced and asked to see him. Mark Twain invited the young writer in, and they talked for two hours. Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling, despite their political differences, became lifelong friends and correspondents.   

Kipling married an American, Carrie, and they lived in New England. Rudyard Kipling received many notable guests, such as Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and he also met and befriended future President Teddy Roosevelt.

Mr. Benfey tells us Rudyard Kipling would have remained in America, but he left in 1896 due to a public quarrel with his brother-in-law and because of the American and British dispute over the border of Venezuela. Rudyard Kipling died in England in 1936.

I enjoyed “If,” but I take issue with Mr. Benfey’s epilogue, in which he uses Kipling’s phrase from a poem, “A Fool lies here who tried to hustle the East,” to somehow link the late author to anti-Vietnam War and anti-Afghanistan War critics. Rudyard Kipling was a staunch enemy of communism and I believe he would have supported the Vietnam War, as well as our anti-Taliban/al Qaeda efforts in Afghanistan.    

• Paul Davis covers crime, espionage and terrorism.  

• • •


By Christopher Benfey

Penguin Press, $28, 256 pages

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