Mowgli, the little boy raised by wolves and befriended by Baloo the bear and Bagheera the panther, first came to life during a winter in Vermont in the imagination of Rudyard Kipling.
Kipling was in Vermont because that’s where his wife’s family lived; the couple had taken up residence there and started their own family. It was American hubris, however, that soured Kipling on living in the United States.
The focus of all the dissension was British Guiana, which was in a border dispute with Venezuela. Richard Olney, the American Secretary of State, declared that the United States had a right to mediate all disputes in the Western Hemisphere. Because of the Monroe Doctrine, you know.
In other words, the United States ruled the Western Hemisphere.
This didn’t sit well with the British, including Kipling. Anti-British sentiment in America, followed by family troubles, sent him back to England.
It was a period when both Britain and the United States were settling their weight upon all kinds of native peoples around the world. Someone observing the actions of both nations might have been amused by Kipling’s distaste for American interference in Britain’s interference in South America.
“If anybody’s going to be interfering in South America, it’s going to be us,” Secretary Olney would have told him.
Kipling, who actually memorialized the imperialist ambitions of both nations, remains a figure of contradictions.
He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1907, though other writers have mocked his abilities, particularly as a poet. People still argue about whether he was pro- or anti-imperialist. Many know of his poem The White Man’s Burden, for which he has been denounced – and celebrated, as a satirist.
Does anyone concerned with world affairs today, particularly heads of state, really care what Kipling may or may not have advised his fellow Whites roughly a century ago?
I’m guessing that the answer to this question is “No.” The fact that people still debate Kipling’s views is a testament to two things: the power of art, in this case literature; and the power of the idea of race.
Kipling is long gone, but there are people who seem to have some kind of stake in whether or not his views on race and empire were justified. It reminds me of the debate we have had from time to time in America over whether kids should read some of the works of Mark Twain.
Kipling’s Kim has been compared to Huckleberry Finn, in fact. Both novels tell the coming-to-maturity tale of a “loose” boy with father issues, traveling with a beloved adult male. Both novels have come under scrutiny for alleged racism – which informs the question of their appropriateness for developing minds.
School children should be taught literature. Adults wrangle over which works are to be presented to them, and how they are to be presented, because adults supervise the indoctrination of children.
They wrangle for another reason, though. The issue of race is intimately wrapped up in another issue: self-esteem.
When I say self-esteem, I mean the popular concept of having a healthy, positive self-image. Who doesn’t want kids to have a healthy, positive self-image – especially “minority” kids, those long deemed to be most in need of it?
So for quite some time, at least here in the US, we’ve been giving historical figures – be they Presidents or novelists – the PC litmus test. If someone reads anything by Kipling other than The Jungle Book (both parts), will he be contaminated by White Supremacist ideology?
We’ve decided we must be very careful about that sort of thing going into the heads of young people.
And so educators and other interested parties have put long-dead authors such as Kipling onto the front lines of their ideology wars.