“The Jungle Book,” one of Rudyard Kipling’s best-known works, has been beloved by children for decades. But the legacy of the British author and Nobel Prize laureate has been marred by his staunch support of colonialism.
Rudyard Kipling is perhaps best remembered today for “The Jungle Book” and other popular children’s adventures stories. But in the late 19th and early 20th century, Kipling was among the most popular British writers of the day, and his books were translated into numerous languages.
His legacy today, however, 150 years after his birth, has been marred by the fact that Kipling, who spent his early childhood and some of his adult life in India, vehemently spoke out in defense of British colonialism.
Other writers, such as Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges, accused him of painting too rosy a picture of colonial exploitation. More than anything else, Kipling’s poems came under attack – in particular “The White Man’s Burden” (1899), which many have interpreted as a justification of imperialism.
Author George Orwell even called Kipling a morally insensitive “vulgar flagwaver” and “gutter patriot” in a 1942 essay. In spite of such criticism, Kipling’s 1901 masterwork “Kim” for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1907, was one of the favorite novels of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. In 1950, the novel was adapted into a movie starring Errol Flynn.
Born in what was then Bombay, on December 30, 1865, Kipling felt at home in India – much more so than in England later on. Both his father, who worked as an art school teacher, and his mother showed little interest in their son, and he was raised by a Portuguese nanny and Indian servants. English was like a foreign language to him. At age 6, he was sent to live with foster parents in England in order to receive a good education. In his biography, Kipling recounts the strictness and stringency that reigned in his foster home.
In 1877, his mother joined him in England. One year later, the boy was accepted by the United Services College, a military school where chastity and austerity were high on the agenda. Some of Kipling’s stories were inspired by that deeply unhappy period in his life. In 1882, at the age of 17, he was finally able to return to his beloved India.
Kipling’s father, by now the influential director of a museum in Lahore, Pakistan, saw to it that his son found employment at a local Indian newspaper. In his diary, Kipling described the return to his native Bombay as a happy event, finally rid of the burden of England.
Kipling soon learned to speak fluent Hindi and Urdu, and started to write short stories and poems. His employment as an editor enabled him to travel extensively throughout the vast Indian subcontinent. From 1880 onwards, he worked as a correspondent for “The Pioneer” and his books began seeing some sales success. During these years, he wrote his much-acclaimed short story “The Man Who Would Be King,” which was adapted into a film starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine in 1975.
‘The Jungle Book’
In 1889, Rudyard Kipling returned to London, the cultural and intellectual center of the former British Empire. As a member of the Freemasons, he quickly found access to numerous clubs. Among his writer friends was Henry James. Kipling’s first full-length novel, “The Light that Failed,” was published in 1890.
Following his marriage in 1892, Kipling and his wife spent four years in the United States. There, he began to write books for children and teenagers, among them the famous “The Jungle Book,” followed in 1895 by “The Second Jungle Book”.
A family dispute forced Kipling and his family to leave the US and to return to Britain. There, he wrote adventure novels, seafaring stories and some ideologically controversial essays which never expressed any doubts about British colonialism.
Nevertheless, Kipling was an open-minded person in his own way, and the course of his life reflects the contradictions of the era, said German biographer Stefan Welz. “With his narrative style, which has a universal dimension to it, he has reached people from many diverse cultures,” he said.
World War I aftermath
In 1907, Kipling received the Nobel Prize for literature, the first British writer to do so. But soon after, his life changed profoundly with the outbreak of World War I. His son, whom he had enabled to join the army by falsifying his birth certificate, was killed in the conflict. Kipling was never able to overcome his grief and guilt, and the optimism present in his earlier works was replaced by a more severe attitude towards life.
Kipling was never again able to repeat his earlier literary success. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 70, in 1936. His ashes were interred in Westminster Abbey, right next to the graves of writers Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy.
Kipling’s novels and short stories are still popular to this day. A new translation of the novel “Kim” was recently published in Germany, and Disney is set to release a new film adaptation of “The Jungle Book” in the spring. Nearly 50 years after Mowgli, the bear Baloo, Bagheera, the panther and the tiger Shere Khan first appeared on screen in Disney’s animated classic, “The Jungle Book” is set to make a triumphant comeback.