Benfey, a Mount Holyoke English professor, briskly and enjoyably recounts Rudyard Kipling’s romance with the United States. While often associated with India, Kipling’s birthplace and early home, he actually wrote two of his most famous depictions of that country, The Jungle Book and Kim (in its first draft), while living in Brattleboro, Vt., from 1892 to 1896. Benfey asserts that Kipling’s sense of America as a “lawless jungle” informed the first book’s depiction of a human boy being raised in an actual jungle, and that much of Kipling’s philosophy about character (expressed in his famous poem “If”) sprang from his admiration for such American writers as Mark Twain, whom Kipling sought out on his first American visit, in 1889. Kipling also exerted his own influence on Americans, perhaps most significantly in 1899, when Henry Cabot Lodge used Kipling’s imperialist poem “The White Man’s Burden” to convince his fellow U.S. senators to vote for occupying the Philippines. However, Benfey is concerned more with the personal than the political, emphasizing that the poem’s publication coincided with the death of Kipling’s American-born daughter, Josephine, during a visit by the Kiplings (then living in England) to Manhattan, a shattering loss that conclusively cut Kipling’s American ties. This is an admirably concise account of a complex and pivotal period in a famed writer’s career. (July)
An examination of Rudyard Kipling's life and work through the lens of the years he spent living in the United States.
Many scholars regard the once-popular writer as little more than the "jingoist Bard of Empire." In this book, Benfey (English/Mount Holyoke Coll.; Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival, 2012, etc.) discusses Kipling's little-discussed but highly productive "Vermont decade" to suggest that he became "the writer we know…because of his deep involvement with the United States." Benfey begins in 1889, the year Kipling traveled from Bombay to London via a route that took him east through the U.S., where he began a friendship with Mark Twain and visited the homes of other American literary idols including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. When he arrived in London in 1890, he met an American, whom he married in 1892. On a whim, the pair bought land in Vermont while on their honeymoon. But after Kipling's savings were unexpectedly wiped out by a financial panic, they returned to New England to settle. There, Kipling, determined to become an American writer, conceived or wrote some of his greatest works: Kim, a book that would later become a must-read for CIA operatives; Captain's Courageous, which he called his "first genuine out and out American story"; and the The Jungle Book, a novel Benfey argues arose in part as Kipling's response to Vermont surroundings that made him feel he was "living in a lawless jungle." On a visit to Washington, D.C., the writer met the imperialist war hawk and rising political star Theodore Roosevelt, whom he befriended. Kipling hated the "saber-rattling" he observed among American politicians, but he also believed—as he would suggest in his poem "The White Man's Burden"—that the U.S. needed to "assume its share of the responsibilities of empire." Intelligent and well-researched, Benfey's book accomplishes a delicate feat by highlighting the complexity of Kipling's life and work without seeking to minimize his colonialist, racist views.
An accessible and enlightening biography.
"Benfey eloquently argues not only that Kipling’s engagement with the United States made him the writer he became, but that he lavishly returned the favor. . . Benfey reminds us of our debt to a category-demolishing, globe-striding man who indeed contained multitudes, the author of an immortal ode to equanimity.” — The New York Times Book Review
“Benfey tells it well, catching nuances that some biographers have missed. He argues that Kipling was profoundly altered by his experience of America, and that America, in turn, was altered by its experience of Kipling.” — The New Yorker
“These years were joyous and then dire ones for Kipling, and Mr. Benfey recounts it all with a fine touch.” — The Wall Street Journal
“[Benfey] draws on correspondence, memoirs and ‘patterns of suggestion and implication’ in poems, essays and stories to assess the impact of Kipling’s decadelong sojourn in the United States on his literary legacy.” — Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Mount Holyoke professor and Amherst resident Christopher Benfey’s focused and illuminating new biography of Kipling, If: The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years (Penguin), looks at the decade Kipling spent in New England, calling these years “the key creative period in his entire career.” Kipling’s literary luminance was unparalleled (he won the Nobel Prize in 1907 at age 41); but with the rise of post-colonialism, Kipling’s reputation began to shift, and he fell out of favor, understood as 'a jingoist of Bard of Empire, a man on the wrong side of history.' Benfey, whose award-winning A Summer of Hummingbirds (Penguin) looked at the intersection of Dickinson, Twain, Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade, steers his attention here on the ways in which the United States impacted the author, and the ways the author impacted the United States, arguing that Kipling’s influence spanned literature and politics, and altered perceptions of masculinity and the supernatural. Benfey does a masterful job detangling a complex figure.” — Boston Globe
“Rudyard Kipling is considered a British literary icon, but between 1889 and 1899, he lived in the United States. His time in America deeply shaped his writing. Kipling’s attitudes toward race and empire have complicated his legacy, but Christopher Benfey points to the continuing relevance of an Englishman who was also a fan of America.”—Christian Science Monitor, “10 Best Books of July”
“An engaging account of the years Rudyard Kipling spent in the United States considers how America shaped him and his work—and how he shaped America.” — BookPage
“This biography will urge those unfamiliar with Kipling’s works (e.g., If, Kim, The Jungle Book) to read the classics that solidified his reputation here and abroad, earning him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1901. Highly recommended.” — Library Journal
“Intelligent and well-researched. . . An accessible and enlightening biography.” – Kirkus Reviews
“Christopher Benfey’s wise and spirited If arrives at just the right moment. His canny account of Rudyard Kipling’s years in America—when, surprisingly, this exemplar of British empire wrote or conceived his best remembered works—and of Kipling’s long-lasting impact on American political and cultural life resonates powerfully in our vexed and virulent present. Whether or not you grew up on Kim and The Jungle Book, Benfey skillfully proves in this essential study of imperial influence through the written word, you are living in their long shadow.” —Megan Marshall, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life and Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast
“This is the tale of how Rudyard Kipling and America changed one another on the brink of the twentieth century. We see the young writer talking shop with his idol, Mark Twain, and debating empire with his friend Teddy Roosevelt. We discover how The Jungle Book and Just So Stories were nourished in Vermont. The Kipling in If is more complex than we expect, and Christopher Benfey is the perfect guide through the unexpected.”—Kevin Birmingham, author of The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses
“Christopher Benfey conjures a life and a period through the canny arrangement of vivid and illuminating perspectives. If: The Untold Story Of Kipling’s American Years gives us that “at last” feeling we get locking in the final pieces of a long-fought jigsaw puzzle. Kipling steps out from behind his official portrait and we are straightaway in the company of a brilliant and conflicted artist.” —Sven Birkerts, author of Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age
“Kipling’s India is familiar to us—but his America? That’s an undiscovered country, or it was until Christopher Benfey found a way to put it on the map, reminding us The Jungle Book was written in Vermont and should stand as an American classic. If shows us Kipling in all the fizz of his early genius, meeting Mark Twain and sitting up late with Theodore Roosevelt: a vivid and beautifully crafted portrait of this always-odd and ever-controversial artist. “ —Michael Gorra, author of Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece
Benfey (Andrew Mellon Professor of English, Mt. Holyoke Coll., MA) has written extensively on the U.S. Gilded Age (e.g., A Summer of Hummingbirds). This latest study focuses on Anglo-Indian author Rudyard Kipling (1865–1963) and his experiences in America from 1889 to 1999. With each chapter, Benfey highlights a single theme/perspective that illuminates America's effect on Kipling, his influence on American friends and colleagues such as Mark Twain, as well as significant events: a visit to the grave of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the death of companion Wolcott Balestier, going to the Washington Zoo. The final chapter concentrates on the Vietnam War and Kipling's reflections on the imperialism and complexity of this conflict on the American psyche. Interwoven throughout are insights into the writer's relationships with his family and political and literary figures, including Theodore Roosevelt, Henry James, and Henry Adams. VERDICT More sympathetic than critical, this biography will urge those unfamiliar with Kipling's works (e.g., If, Kim, The Jungle Book) to read the classics that solidified his reputation here and abroad, earning him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1901. Highly recommended for anyone interested in late 19th-century literature. [See Prepub Alert, 1/7/19.]—Morris Hounion, New York City Coll. of Technology, Brooklyn