To go from ‘Red Dog’ to a story where Mowgli’s wolves have lost dignity and pathos, and dance for him to the music of his flute in order to assist his courtship, or to go from ‘The Spring Running’ to a story where Mowgli ends up in the Indian Civil Service, married and looking forward to his pension, is almost unbearable. Is there a lover of Kipling who never blushes for him? But we must remember that, as he makes clear, ‘In the Rukh’ was not a betrayal of Mowgli but a half-baked anticipation of him. (Karlin 1989, 13)What this brings into focus, is the tale’s perceived difference from the rest of the Mowgli stories on the grounds of its treatment of what are said to be ‘adult’ concerns of courtship, marriage, employment, and the somehow especially pedestrian concern with pensions.
Kipling belongs irrevocably to our past, and although the renewed critical attention he has lately been given … is friendlier and more interesting than any he has received for a long time, it is less likely to make us revise our opinions than to revive our memories of him. But these memories, when revived, will be strong, for if Kipling belongs to our past, he belongs there very firmly, fixed deep in childhood feeling. (Trilling 1964, 89)Here then Trilling locates Kipling’s importance in the past, a past that is both personal and historical. A past that is both conceived of as childhood, and as a less enlightened or liberal age that did not acknowledge what Trilling refers to as the ‘anthropological view’ which is explained as ‘the perception that another man’s idea of virtue and honour may be different from one’s own but quite to be respected’ (Trilling 1964, 92). As such then, ‘Kipling’ is part of a schema in which the development of the individual is mirrored by or mirrors a wider collective historical trajectory and likewise the development of a consensus on literary value. Just as the child will put away childish things (‘quick[ly …] giv[ing Kipling] up in adolescence’ – Trilling 1964, 93), so Kipling will be placed ‘irrevocably’ in the past according to literary judgement, and this despite the claim that ‘He was the first to suggest what may be called the anthropological view’ (Trilling 1964, 92). However, here where ‘childhood’ is once again associated with ‘deep […] feeling’, Kipling, or what he represents, is thus also implicitly constituted as foundational to a liberal progressivist history and is therefore positioned both as irretrievably consigned to the realm of childhood, and as that which at the very least leads to the ‘mature’ view.
[… T]he pleasure of Kim is […] a pleasure in the apprehension of things as they are, in embracing a world as enchanting as it is flawed. Kipling’s book accepts the world’s body, undeterred by odors, bulges, wrinkles, scars. (Howe 1987, 32)Here Howe presents Kim paradoxically as both the most realistic of texts, able to accept the world ‘as it is’ warts and all, and as the most fantastic in that it evades ‘the malignity at the heart of things’ (Howe 1987, 31). The association of Kim with fantasy is not, however, unique to him, and indeed it is more than once seen as rescuing Kipling from his more problematic imperialist excesses, John McClure for example suggesting that Kim is only able to achieve a ‘partial victory for Kipling over the authoritarian elements in his own personality’ (McClure 1981, 70) via the adoption of fantasy. The mitigating or ameliorative effect on Kipling’s work here attributed to fantasy is, however, attributed by other critics to Kipling’s supposed audience. In ‘The Kipling that Nobody Read’, Edmund Wilson listed Kipling’s children’s books with the observation that:
It is as if the natural human feelings progressively forced out of his work by the rigours of organisation for its own sake were seeking relief in a reversion to childhood, when one has not yet become responsible for the way that the world is run, where it is enough to enjoy and to wonder at what we do not yet understand. (Wilson 1964, 53–54)Peter Hunt goes further when he suggests that ‘a specific audience of children compelled [Kipling] to be more rather than less subtle’ and that ‘Equally, it may have been that he was unable directly to sustain prejudices that adults would accept in the face of what he felt to be a clear-eyed, innocent audience’ (Hunt 2001, 82). It is no accident of course that childhood and fantasy can occupy the same space in criticism, since as Karín Lesnik-Oberstein has observed, ‘Fantasy as a concept is, in the Western world, strongly linked to the idea of childhood and to books classified as having been written for children’ (Lesnik-Oberstein 1989, 197). Nor is it as inconsistent as it appears for these concepts to be coupled with a certain notion of realism and/or an anti-modernism like that expressed by Irving Howe, for as Jacqueline Rose has argued, children’s fiction and its criticism have:
[T]ended to inherit a very specific aesthetic theory, in which showing is better than telling: the ideal work lets the characters and events speak for themselves. This is a ‘realist’ aesthetic [… which betrays a] desire for a natural form of expression which seems to be produced automatically and without mediation out of that to which it refers. What it denies precisely is language — the fact that language does not simply reflect the world but is active in its constitution of the world. (Rose 1994, 60)So, ‘Far from it being the case that realism and fantasy belong at opposite poles’ (Rose 1994, 64) they are inevitably brought together in an arena where ‘childhood itself is formulated as the fantasy of an ultimate reality unmediated by language’ (Lesnik-Oberstein 1989, 203) and the social, cultural and historical divisions that it enunciates. It is precisely this fantasy of childhood that, in the end, I see as operating in the critical assessments of Kipling’s work when it is assessed as being ‘for children’.