Kipling’s Children and the Category of ‘Children’s Literature’

Sue Walsh (University of Reading)

Despite Kipling’s fame as both a much-read and well-loved author, and as a politically controversial figure, some of his work has not been discussed in any real detail, largely because it has been assigned to a category of ‘children’s literature’. It is notable that where there has been a focus on Kipling’s children’s literature it has tended to be on those texts, like The Jungle Books (1894 and 1895), that are seen as open to being read in relation to recent critical and theoretical interests in post-colonialism. In comparison, particularly the Just So Stories (1902), but even texts like Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906) and Rewards and Fairies (1910) have received scant attention. My argument is that this is because they have largely been subject to certain critical assumptions in which a particular idea of childhood is united with a notion of a ‘transparent’ language, which therefore means that those Kipling texts that are categorised as being for children are seen as not needing to be analysed in any detail. Indeed such analysis is almost seen as damaging or over-burdening a ‘simple’ and ‘obvious’ narrative.

What I want to do here then is explore some of the consequences of the categorisation of Kipling’s work into fiction for children on the one hand and fiction for adults on the other. I want to look at how a text is argued to belong in a particular category and I want to investigate the implications this has for the type of critical questions that are then asked of it.

Perhaps the way critics have allocated certain of Kipling’s texts to adults and others to children can best be seen in critical comments about the relation of ‘In the Rukh’ (first published in 1898 in Many Inventions), the one ‘Mowgli’ story designated by some critics as for adults, to the rest contained in The Jungle Books What the criticism tends to show is that appeals to an idea of ‘the child reader’ are used to foreclose on certain kinds of readings which are thereby produced as ‘adult’ and thus as having no validity in the context of children’s literature.

There is a range of critical opinion on the place of ‘In the Rukh’. Daniel Karlin is particularly vociferous in his objection to the tale, the ‘creeping legitimization’ (Karlin 1989, 347) of which he deplores; John McBratney on the other hand, argues for its inclusion on the grounds of aesthetic closure (McBratney 1992, 292); and Don Randall reads it as a ‘resolution [to the “drama” of The Jungle Books in advance of its elaboration’ (Randall 2000, 67). Nevertheless, taking their cue from Kipling’s Something of Myself (Kipling 1937, 113-114), the critics do agree that ‘In the Rukh’ can safely be regarded as the ‘original’ Mowgli story (see for example, Karlin 1989, 12; Robson 1992, xiv). Indeed part of Karlin’s objection to the tale derives precisely from this aspect of its relationship to the rest of the Mowgli stories:

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.

Karlin is not alone in regarding ‘In the Rukh’ as an adult text but apart from his enumeration of ‘adult’ themes, few critics give much in the way of reason for this assessment. However, I would like to suggest that in the more hostile reactions to ‘In the Rukh’ there is the sense of it as an ‘adult’ contamination of what Angus Wilson saw as ‘the child’s vision’ (Wilson 1979, 18) of The Jungle Books. It seems to me that what are seen as among the chief sources of contamination are the intertexts that are read by W. W. Robson as producing an ‘In the Rukh’ that is ‘too “arty” ’ (Robson 1992, xxxii) and which are noted by Tess Cosslett as ‘ “plac[ing]” [Mowgli] in history and literature’ (Cosslett 2002, 489). This ‘artiness’ of ‘In the Rukh’, presumably provided by the quotations from Heinrich Heine and Swinburne, and the references to ‘the illustrations in the Classical Dictionary’ (Kipling, ‘In the Rukh’, 332) has something to do with a certain critical idea of a language that, in being ‘arty’, is particularly at a remove from what is seen in opposition to it as The Jungle Books’ more ‘natural’ (‘pure and uncontaminated’ – Rose 1994, 47) and therefore child-appropriate language. Likewise, the locating of this Mowgli in history and literature makes him markedly different from the child Mowgli in The Jungle Book stories who is not encumbered with overt references to Greek myth, and while a British Imperial presence makes its appearance here and there in the tales, references such as those to the English at Khanhiwara in ‘Letting in the Jungle’, have been read, by James Whitlark for example, as awkward and self-contradictory interjections of imperialist didacticism into a world in which it does not naturally belong. The realm of childhood then, as John McBratney argues in Imperial Subjects, Imperial Space (2002), is viewed in the main by critics as a ‘felicitous space’ in which the cultural and political hierarchies of the adult world have no significant purchase. In order to address such issues in relation to stories like those contained in The Jungle Books, critics seem to find they need to claim an adult audience as justification, as we can see even in Don Randall’s assertion in Kipling’s Imperial Boy (2000) that the ‘narrative’ of the Mowgli tales is not after all ‘only for boys’ (Randall 2000, 63). My point here is not that the Mowgli stories are ‘only for boys,’ rather the question is in what sense is any children’s literature only for children?

Running in tandem with this idea of childhood as a ‘felicitous space’ are certain ideas of how children read: what kind of literature is good for them, and the kind of ‘reading’ they are capable of. The Just So Stories for example, when they are discussed by critics at all, are nearly always discussed in terms of ideas about the child’s pleasure (conceived of in sensual terms divorced of intellectual understanding) in the oral aspects of the text which are said to prompt an ‘active Participation’ which seems largely to be understood in terms of the ‘oral savouring’ of repetition (Gose 1988, 18). And though critics frequently refer to the way the Just So Stories play with language this is usually characterised as a species of mimicry, with Elliott Gose for example, asserting that Kipling here ‘indulges himself in child language’ (Gose 1988, 17).

The words ‘play’ and ‘playful’ come up again and again in relation to the Just So Stories, though this playfulness is not really given much account of beyond Barbara Wall’s explanation that ‘the words are designed to amuse and entertain without much informing’ (Wall 1991, 130), or Celia Catlett Anderson’s suggestion that Kipling’s ‘intention was to convey his own love of language’ (Anderson 1985, 115). In such assessments ‘play’ is divorced of meaning while being more securely anchored to emotion. The conviction expressed by these critics that ‘understand[ing] … wasn’t the point’ (Cameron 1996, 92), and that the verbal pyrotechnics and long words must ‘at first … be appreciated for their sound alone’ (Gose 1988, 18), or for their ‘feeling and sound and overtone’ (Cameron 1996, 92), consigns the child reader to the realm of the sensual and tends to distance it from any notion of reading as an interpretative activity. Meaning is instead seen as conveyed directly through sound that is thought to embody emotion. Thus the assessment of the stories according to the supposed characteristics of their audience has tended to mean that while linguistic ‘play’ is noted, how that ‘play’ should be interpreted is set aside as presumably beyond the scope of a text for children on the one hand, or as completely self-evident on the other. Hence Barbara Wall quotes at length from the story ‘How The First Letter Was Written’ apparently so that that it can demonstrate in its own words, and seemingly without the need of further comment, the simple facts of its ‘fun’ and ‘nonsense’ (Wall 1991, 131).

While the Just So Stories is treated unambiguously as being for children, with the kind of critical omissions I have suggested that this implies, and while critics have contorted themselves in order to preserve their sense of The Jungle Books as stories for children while addressing certain apparently ‘adult’ aspects, Kim has received a more mixed reception in the criticism which on the whole has tried to acknowledge it as a ‘boy’s adventure story’ (Said 2000, 28), a classic, and as a text with considerable political implications. Even so, as we can see from K. Bhaskara Rao’s 1967 Rudyard Kipling’s India, the notion of Kim as a ‘classic’ has often sat in an uneasy and even oppositional relationship to its positioning as a piece of children’s literature (Rao 1967, 123), since ‘classic’ has usually been taken to imply a text worthy of the kind of critical exegesis that is not generally deemed appropriate or relevant to children’s literature. Similarly, the notion of the ‘classic’ does not necessarily sit well with a form of analysis that points to differences and inequalities between since as a concept it is bound up with liberal humanist assumptions about a shared human condition in which the concept of the ‘child’ ‘as a term of universal social reference which conceals all […] historical divisions and difficulties’ (Rose 1994, 10) in turn plays a significant role.

Perhaps what stands out most clearly as a juxtaposition in a number of critical assessments of Kim, is its supposed audience of children on the one hand and the ‘maturity’ that is attributed to it on the other. Thus F. J. Harvey Darton accepts it as ‘a boys’ and girls’ book’, but qualifies this with the claim that it is really ‘for all ages’ and is ‘instinct with a maturer wisdom’ than other books put in the same category (Darton 1999, 306). Likewise, Rao sees Kim as ‘unlike the usual boy’s story’, since as a product of Kipling’s ‘years of maturity’ it demonstrates ‘insight’ and ‘understanding’ of Indian life (Rao 1967, 123, 165); and even Edward Said acknowledges what he calls its ‘boyish pleasures’ whilst asserting that ‘Kim was Kipling’s only successfully sustained and mature piece of long fiction’ (Said 2000,13, 7, emphasis added). What is interesting in the Rao is the association of maturity with a grasp of cultural difference. A similar association occurs in a somewhat different form in Lionel Trilling’s ealier re-assessment of Kipling. There he writes:

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.

Part of what lies behind the assessment of Kim as a children’s book is a construction of childhood that, as I have also noted in critical assessments of the Just So Stories, links it to pleasure in the sensual. Indeed it is the ‘pleasure’ said to be found in Kim that is, for critics, most closely associated with ‘boyishness’ or childhood: the pleasure to be gained from those sensual elements of the text that ‘speak […] to us from an oral-aural world not only of nineteenth century Anglo-India but [also] of childhood’ (Stewart 1983, 54) a pleasure that, according to Irving Howe, is more ‘traditional’ and ‘unproblematic’ (Howe 1987, 32) than what is yielded up by modern literature.
Howe goes on to contend that,

[… 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’.

It is noticeable in fact that the two elements most often said to disqualify Kim from easy categorisation as a children’s or boys’ book are what we might loosely term ‘history’ on the one
hand and the complexity of its language on the other. Edward Said, though he suggests that the ‘boyish pleasures’ of Kim do not ‘contradict the overall political purpose of British control over India’ (Said 2000, 13), also on the other hand argues that ‘If one were to read Kim as a boy’s adventure story, or as a rich and lovingly detailed panorama of Indian life, one would not be reading the novel that Kipling in fact wrote’ (Said 2000, 28) because it is ‘so carefully inscribed’ with views supporting colonial rule and with ‘suppressions and elisions’ of anything that would indicate otherwise (Said 2000, 28). Implicitly then the ‘boy’s adventure story’ should not stray into such politicized territory, and if it does it will be at the cost of its genre attribution. Just as Edmund Wilson and Peter Hunt praise Kipling’s children’s literature for what they read as its avoidance of his ideological excesses, so the qualification of the label ‘children’s book’, by critics such as Said and many post-colonial critics following after him like Zohreh Sullivan, indicates that such criticism, even while it investigates colonial constructions of identities such as race, nevertheless retains vestiges of a universal and undifferentiated ‘childhood’ that in some sense exists outside the history and the culture in which it is produced.

It should be noted that both Lisa Lewis, in her ‘Introduction’ to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of the Just So Stories (1998), and U. C. Knoepflmacher, in his essay, ‘Kipling’s “Just-So” Partner: The Dead Child as Collaborator and Muse’ in Children’s Literature 25 (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1997), could be said to be the exceptions that prove the rule with respect to my arguments about the way the Just So Stories have been treated in criticism. These two writers do give considerable attention to the detail of the stories though their focus is largely on how this can be read in relation to Kipling’s life, and particularly the death of his daughter Josephine. I address this strand in the criticism in a chapter entitled ‘Author and Authorship. Effigies of Effie: On Kipling’s Biographies’ in Children’s Literature New Approaches, ed. Karín Lesnik-Oberstein (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 25–50.


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