"A Matter
of Fact"

(notes edited by
Peter Havholm)

notes on the text
[October 26 2007]


This story was first published in People on January 24, 1892, and there was a US Copyright edition the same year. (see David Alan Richards, C512).

It is collected in:
  • Many Inventions, 1893, page 163,
  • Scribner’s Edition, Volume V, page 192
  • Sussex Edition, Volume V, page 257
  • Burwash Edition, Volume V
The heading of 16 lines is ascribed to “The Palms” in some editions. When the poem “In the Matter of One Compass” was published in the Century Magzine in January, 1900, all the 16 lines except the first four were incorporated in it. The poem under the 1900 title is collected in many volumes, but these four lines are not included.

The story

The narrator ships from Capetown to England on a tramp steamer, with two other journalists for company, an American and a Dutchman. Out on the ocean, in a fog, they encounter a massive tidal wave, which almost swamps the ship, and overturns another big vessel. Then they have a strange encounter, across the very bulwarks of the ship, with a monster from the deep sea, cast up to the surface by an under-water earthquake. Soon after the fog clears, and they see two such creatures, one mortally wounded and dying. The unwounded one swims to it, stays till it dies, and disappears over the gray sea.

Then comes the crux of the tale, how will the journalists cover what they have seen ? The American, Keller, is highly excited, and plans to write up the story as a sensational scoop. The two Europeans, knowing that their readers are sceptical of over-hyped stories, scrap their copy. As they dock at Southampton and journey up to London, the orderly confident old-fashioned ordinariness of England starts to have its effect on Keller. He realises the sheer incongruity of his story in this setting, and drops it. The narrator plans to tell it as fiction.

Critical responses

Among the critics, J M S Tompkins uses this tale as an example of Kipling’s youthful failures, complaining that the American journalist’s being awed by The Times and Winchester Cathedral is 'miching mallecho, and done with cheap materials ... [Kipling] did not need to show Keller at a disadvantage with British phlegm' to get his effect.

The present (2007) commentator, an American, does not share Professor Tompkins’ dislike of the ending. Visiting Americans with any sense are awed by the age of Britain’s European civilization, and in the story’s terms, Keller is sensitive enough to understand that truth deserves more respect than 19th-century American newspapers (notoriously raw and political) were accustomed to give it.

Angus Wilson (p. 169) agrees that the framework is: 'not a very good joke against American journalists', but argues that:

'it contains one of his first and best pieces of crude poetic writing of the kind that we should now call science fantasy ... [in] the death of the grotesque and blinded sea monster thrown up from the ocean’s depths by an earthquake and wounded by a passing liner'.
ORG says that, as might be expected, this tale has evoked controversy among sea-faring men and charges of technical inaccuracy have been levelled at the author, but, as a distinguished naval officer has remarked:

'on major issues Kipling is probably more right than the shellbacks, if only because he is describing completely abnormal circumstances, which he invented, and he is therefore in a better position to assess their consequences

[P. H.]

©Peter Havholm 2007 All rights reserved