‘Mine own People’

Introduction by Henry James



Introduction by the celebrated novelist to an edition of
‘Mine Own People’ published in New York in March 1891.
This included the stories collected later that year as ‘Life’s Handicap’

James wrote to his brother William on 6 February 1892,
that ‘Kipling strikes me personally as the most complete
man of genius (as distinct from fine intelligence) that
I have ever known’.



It would be difficult to answer the general question whether
the books of the world grow, as they multiply, as much better as
one might suppose they ought, with such a lesson on wasteful
experiment spread perpetually behind them. There is no doubt,
however, that in one direction we profit largely by this education:
whether or no we have become wiser to fashion, we have certainly
become keener to enjoy. We have acquired the sense of a particular
quality which is precious beyond all others—so precious as to
make us wonder where, at such a rate, our posterity will look
for it, and how they will pay for it.

After tasting many essences we find freshness the sweetest of all.
We yearn for it, we watch for it and lie in wait for it, and when we
catch it on the wing (it flits by so fast), we celebrate our capture
with extravagance. We feel that after so much has come and gone
it is more and more of a feat and a tour deforce to be fresh. The
tormenting part of the phenomenon is that, in any particular key,
it can happen but once—by a sad failure of the law that inculcates
the repetition of goodness. It is terribly a matter of accident;
emulation and imitation have a fatal effect upon it. It is easy
to see, therefore, what importance the epicure may attach to the
brief moment of its bloom. While that lasts we all
are epicures.

This helps to explain, I think, the unmistakable intensity of the gen-
eral relish for Mr. Rudyard Kipling. His bloom lasts, from month to
month, almost surprisingly—by which I mean that he has not worn out
even by active exercise the particular property that made us all, more
than a year ago, so precipitately drop everything else to attend to him.
He has many others which he will doubtless always keep; but a part
of the potency attaching to his freshness, what makes it as exciting as a
drawing of lots, is our instinctive conviction that he cannot, in the
nature of things, keep that; so that our enjoyment of him, so long as
the miracle is still wrought, has both the charm of confidence and the
charm of suspense. And then there is the further charm, with Mr.
Kipling, that this same freshness is such a very strange affair of its
kind—so mixed and various and cynical, and, in certain lights, so
contradictory of itself. The extreme recentness of his inspiration is as
enviable as the tale is startling that his productions tell of his being at
home, domesticated and initiated, in this wicked and weary world.
At times he strikes us as shockingly precocious, at others as serenely
wise. On the whole, he presents himself as a strangely clever youth
who has stolen the formidable mask of maturity and rushes about
making people jump with the deep sounds, the sportive exaggerations
of tone, that issue from its painted lips. He has this mark of a real
vocation, that different spectators may like him—must like him, I
should almost say—for different things: and this refinement of attrac-
tion, that to those who reflect even upon their pleasures he has as much
to say as to those who never reflect upon anything. Indeed there is a
certain amount of room for surprise in the fact that, being so much the
sort of figure that the hardened critic likes to meet, he should also
be the sort of figure that inspires the multitude with confidence—for a
complicated air is, in general, the last thing that does this.
By the critic who likes to meet such a bristling adventurer as Mr.
Kipling I mean of course the critic for whom the happy accident of
character, whatever form it may take, is more of a bribe to interest than
the promise of some character cherished in theory—the appearance of
justifying some foregone conclusion as to what a writer or a book
‘ought’, in the Ruskinian sense, to be: the critic in a word, who has,
a priori, no rule for a literary production but that it shall have genuine
life. Such a critic (he gets much more out of his opportunities, I think,
than the other sort) likes a writer exactly in proportion as he is a
challenge, an appeal to interpretation, intelligence, ingenuity, to what
is elastic in the critical mind—in proportion indeed as he may be a
negation of things familiar and taken for granted. He feels in this
case how much more play and sensation there is for himself.

Mr. Kipling, then, has the character that furnishes plenty of play and
of vicarious experience—that makes any perceptive reader foresee
a rare luxury. He has the great merit of being a compact and convenient
illustration of the surest source of interest in any painter of life—that
of having an identity as marked as a window-frame. He is one of the
illustrations, taken near at hand, that help to clear up the vexed question,
in the novel or the tale, of kinds, camps, schools, distinctions, the right
way and the wrong way; so very positively does he contribute to the
showing that there are just as many kinds, as many ways, as many
forms and degrees of the ‘right’, as there are personal points of view.
It is the blessing of the art he practises that it is made up of experience
conditioned, infinitely, in this personal way—the sum of the feeling
of life as reproduced by innumerable natures; natures that feel through
all their differences, testify through their diversities. These differences,
which make the identity, are of the individual; they form the channel
by which life flows through him, and how much he is able to give us
of life—in other words, how much he appeals to us—depends on
whether they form it solidly.

This hardness of the conduit, cemented with a rare assurance, is
perhaps the most striking idiosyncrasy of Mr. Kipling; and what makes
it more remarkable is that accident of his extreme youth which, if we
talk about him at all, we cannot affect to ignore. I cannot pretend to
give a biography or a chronology of the author of Soldiers Three, but
I cannot overlook the general, the importunate fact that, confidently
as he has caught the trick and habit of this sophisticated world, he
has not been long of it. His extreme youth is indeed what I may call
his window-bar—the support on which he somewhat rowdily leans
while he looks down at the human scene with his pipe in his teeth;
just as his other conditions (to mention only some of them), are his
prodigious facility, which is only less remarkable than his stiff selec-
tion; his unabashed temperament, his flexible talent, his smoking-room
manner, his familiar friendship with India—established so rapidly, and
so completely under his control; his delight in battle, his ‘cheek’ about
women—and indeed about men and about everything; his determina-
tion not to be duped, his ‘imperial’ fibre, his love of the inside view,
the private soldier and the primitive man. I must add further to this
list of attractions the remarkable way in which he makes us aware that
he has been put up to the whole thing directly by life (miraculously,
in his teens), and not by the communications of others. These elements,
and many more, constitute a singularly robust little literary character
(our use of the diminutive is altogether a note of endearment and en-
joyment), which, if it has the rattle of high spirits and is in no degree
apologetic or shrinking, yet offers a very liberal pledge in the way
of good faith and immediate performance.

Mr. Kipling’s performance
comes off before the more circumspect have time to decide whether
they like him or not, and if you have seen it once you will be sure to
return to the show. He makes us prick up our ears to the good news
that in the smoking-room too there may be artists; and indeed to an
intimation still more refined—that the latest development of the
modern also may be, most successfully, for the canny artist to put his
victim off the guard by imitating the amateur (superficially, of course)
to the life.

These, then, are some of the reasons why Mr. Kipling may be dear
to the analyst as well as, M. Renan says, to the simple. The simple
may like him because he is wonderful about India, and India has not
been ‘done’; while there is plenty left for the morbid reader in the
surprise of his skill and the Jioriture of his form, which are so oddly
independent of any distinctively literary note in him, any bookish
association. It is as one of the morbid that the writer of these remarks
(which doubtless only too shamefully betray his character) exposes
himself as most consentingly under the spell. The freshness arising
from a subject that—by a good fortune I do not mean to under-
estimate—has never been ‘done’, is after all less of an affair to build
upon than the freshness residing in the temper of the artist. Happy
indeed is Mr. Kipling, who can command so much of both kinds.
It is still as one of the morbid, no doubt—that is, as one of those who
are capable of sitting up all night for a new impression of talent, of
scouring the trodden field for one little spot of green—that I find our
young author quite most curious in his air, and not only in his air but
in his evidently very real sense, of knowing his way about life. Curious
in the highest degree and well worth attention is such an idiosyncrasy
as this in a young Anglo-Saxon. We meet it with familiar frequency
in the budding talents of France, and it startles and haunts us for an
hour. After an hour, however, the mystery is apt to fade, for we find
that the wondrous initiation is not in the least general, is only ex-
ceedingly special, and is, even with this limitation, very often rather
conventional. In a word, it is with the ladies that the young Frenchman
takes his ease, and more particularly with ladies selected expressly
to make this attitude convincing.

When they have let him off, the dimnesses too often encompass him.
But for Mr. Kipling there are no dimnesses anywhere, and if the ladies
are indeed violently distinct they are only strong notes in a
universal loudness. This loudness fills the ears of Mr. Kipling’s
admirers (it lacks sweetness, no doubt, for those who are not of
the number), and there is really only one strain that is absent from
it—the voice, as it were, of the civilised man; in whom I of course
also include the civilised woman. But this is an element that
for the present one does not miss—every other note is so articulate
and direct.

It is a part of the satisfaction the author gives us that he can make us
speculate as to whether he will be able to complete his picture alto-
gether (this is as far as we presume to go in meddling with the question
of his future) without bringing in the complicated soul. On the day
he does so, if he handles it with anything like the cleverness he has
already shown, the expectation of his friends will take a great bound.
Meanwhile, at any rate, we have Mulvaney, and Mulvaney is after all
tolerably complicated. He is only a six-foot saturated Irish private, but
he is a considerable pledge of more to come. Hasn’t he, for that matter,
the tongue of a hoarse syren, and hasn’t he also mysteries and infini-
tudes almost Carlylese? Since I am speaking of him I may as well say
that, as an evocation, he has probably led captive those of Mr. Kipling’s
readers who have most given up resistance. He is a piece of portraiture
of the largest, vividest kind, growing and growing on the painter’s
hands without ever outgrowing them. I can’t help regarding him, in
a certain sense, as Mr. Kipling’s tutelary deity—a landmark in the
direction in which it is open to him to look furthest. If the author will
only go as far in this direction as Mulvaney is capable of taking him
(and the inimitable Irishman is, like Voltaire’s Habakkuk, capable de
tout), he may still discover a treasure and find a reward for the services
he has rendered the winner of Dinah Shadd. I hasten to add that the
truly appreciative reader should surely have no quarrel with the
primitive element in Mr. Kipling’s subject-matter, or with what, for
want of a better name, I may call Inis love of low life. What is that
but essentially a part of his freshness? And for what part of his fresh-
ness are we exactly more thankful than for just this smart jostle that he
gives the old stupid superstition that the amiability of a storyteller
is the amiability of the people he represents—that their vulgarity, or

depravity, or gentility, or fatuity are tantamount to the same qualities
in the painter himself? A blow from which, apparently, it will not
easily recover is dealt this infantine philosophy by Mr. Howells when,
with the most distinguished dexterity and all the detachment of a
master, he handles some of the clumsiest, crudest, most human things
in life—answering surely thereby the playgoers in the sixpenny gallery
who howl at the representative of the villain when he comes before
the curtain.

Nothing is more refreshing than this active, disinterested sense of the
real; it is doubtless the quality for the want of more of which our
English and American fiction has turned so woefully stale. We are
ridden by the old conventionalities of type and small proprietries of
observance—by the foolish baby-formula (to put it sketchily) of the
picture and the subject. Mr. Kipling has all the air of being disposed to
lift the whole business off the nursery carpet, and of being perhaps
even more affable than he is disposed. One must hasten of course to
parenthesise that there is not, intrinsically, a bit more luminosity in
treating of low life and of primitive man than of those whom civi-
lisation has kneaded to a finer paste: the only luminosity in either case
is in the intelligence with which the thing is done. But it so happens
that, among ourselves, the frank, capable outlook, when turned upon
the vulgar majority, the coarse, receding edges of the social perspective,
borrows a charm from being new; such a charm as, for instance,
repetition has already despoiled it of among the French—the hapless
French who pay the penalty as well as enjoy the glow of living in-
tellectually so much faster than we. It is the most inexorable part of
our fate that we grow tired of everything, and of course in due time we
may grow tired even of what explorers shall come back to tell us about
the great grimy condition, or with unprecedented items and details,
about the grey middle state which darkens into it. But the explorers,
bless them! may have a long day before that; it is early to trouble about
reactions, so that we must give them the benefit of every presumption.
We are thankful for any boldness and any sharp curiosity, and that is
why we are thankful for Mr. Kipling’s general spirit and for most of
his excursions.

Many of these, certainly, are into a region not to be designated as
superficially dim, though indeed the author always reminds us that
India is above all the land of mystery. A large part of his high spirits,
and of ours, comes doubtless from the amusement of such vivid,
heterogeneous material, from the irresistible magic of scorching suns,
subject empires, uncanny religions, uneasy garrisons and smothered-up
women—from heat and colour and danger and dust.

India is a portentous image, and we are duly awed by the familiarities it undergoes
at Mr. Kipling’s hands and by the fine impunity, the sort of fortune
that favours the brave, of his want of awe. An abject humility is not
his strong point, but he gives us something instead of it—vividness and
drollery, the vision and the thrill of many things, the misery and
strangeness of most, the personal sense of a hundred queer contacts
and risks. And then in the absence of respect he has plenty of knowledge,
and if knowledge should fail him he would have plenty of invention.
Moreover, if invention should ever fail him, he would still have the
lyric string and the patriotic chord, on which he plays admirably;
so that it may be said he is a man of resources. What he gives us, above
all, is the feeling of the English manner and the English blood in
conditions they have made at once so much and so little their own;
with manifestations grotesque enough in some of his satiric sketches and
deeply impressive in some of his anecdotes of individual responsibility.
His Indian impressions divide themselves into three groups, one of
which, I think, very much outshines the others. First to be mentioned
are the tales of native life, curious glimpses of custom and super-
stition, dusky matters not beholden of the many, for which the author
has a remarkable flair. Then comes the social, the Anglo-Indian episode,
the study of administration and military types and of the wonderful
rattling, riding ladies who, at Simla and more desperate stations, look
out for husbands and lovers; often, it would seem, the husbands and
lovers of others. The most brilliant group is devoted wholly to the
common soldier, and of this series it appears to me that too much good
is hardly to be said. Here Mr. Kipling, with all his offhandness, is a
master; for we are held not so much by the greater or less oddity of
the particular yarn—sometimes it is scarcely a yarn at all, but something
much less artificial—as by the robust attitude of the narrator, who never
arranges or glosses or falsifies, but makes straight for the common and
the characteristic. I have mentioned the great esteem in which I hold
Mulvaney—surely a charming man and one qualified to adorn a
higher sphere. Mulvaney is a creation to be proud of, and his two
comrades stand as firm on their legs. In spite of Mulvaney’s social
possibilities they are all three finished brutes; but it is precisely in the
finish that we delight. Whatever Mr. Kipling may relate about them
for ever will encounter readers equally fascinated and unable fully to
justify their faith.

Are not those literary pleasures after all the most intense which are
the most perverse and whimsical, and even indefensible? There is a
logic in them somewhere, but it often lies below the plummet of
criticism. The spell may be weak in a writer who has every reasonable
and regular claim, and it may be irresistible in one who presents him-
self with a style corresponding to a bad hat. A good hat is better than
a bad one, but a conjurer may wear either. Many a reader will never be
able to say what secret human force lays its hand upon him when
Private Ortheris, having sworn ‘quietly into the blue sky’, goes mad
with home-sickness by the yellow river and raves for the basest sights
and sounds of London. I can scarcely tell why I think ‘The Courting of
Dinah Shadd’ a masterpiece (though, indeed, I can make a shrewd
guess at one of the reasons), nor would it be worth while perhaps to
attempt to defend the same pretension in regard to ‘On Greenhow
Hill’—much less to trouble the tolerant reader of these remarks with
a statement of how many more performances in the nature of ‘The
End of the Passage’ (quite admitting even that they might not rep-
resent Mr. Kipling at his best), I am conscious of a latent relish for.
One might as well admit while one is about it that one has wept
profusely over ‘The Drums of the Fore and Aft’, the history of the
‘Dutch courage’ of two dreadful dirty little boys, who, in the face of
Afghans scarcely more dreadful, saved the reputation of their regiment
and perished, the least mawkishly in the world, in a squalor of battle
incomparably expressed. People who know how peaceful they are
themselves and have no bloodshed to reproach themselves with
needn’t scruple to mention the glamour that Mr. Kipling’s intense
militarism has for them and how astonishingly contagious they find
it, in spite of the unromantic complexion of it—the way it bristles with
all sorts of uglinesses and technicalities. Perhaps that is why I go all the
way even with The Gadsbys—the Gadsbys were so connected (un-
comfortably it is true) with the Army. There is fearful fighting—or a
fearful danger of it—in ‘The Man who would be King’: is that the
reason we are deeply affected by this extraordinary tale? It is one of
them, doubtless, for Mr. Kipling has many reasons, after all, on his
side, though they don’t equally call aloud to be uttered.
One more of them, at any rate, I must add to these unsystematised
remarks—it is the one I spoke of a shrewd guess at in alluding to
‘The Courting of Dinah Shadd’. The talent that produces such a tale
is a talent eminently in harmony with the short story, and the short
story is, on our side of the Channel and of the Atlantic, a mine which
will take a great deal of working. Admirable is the clearness with which
Mr. Kipling perceives this—perceives what innumerable chances it
gives, chances of touching life in a thousand different places, taking it
up in innumerable pieces, each a specimen and an illustration. In a
word, he appreciates the episode, and there are signs to show that this
shrewdness will, in general, have long innings. It will find the detach-
able, compressible ‘case’ an admirable, flexible form; the cultivation
of which may well add to the mistrust already entertained by Mr.
Kipling, if his manner does not betray him, for what is clumsy and
tasteless in the time-honoured practice of the ‘plot’. It will fortify him
in the conviction that the vivid picture has a greater communicative
value than the Chinese puzzle. There is little enough plot in such a
perfect little piece of hard representation as ‘The End of the Passage’,
to cite again only the most salient of twenty examples.
But I am speaking of our author’s future, which is the luxury that
I meant to forbid myself—precisely because the subject is so tempting.
There is nothing in the world (for the prophet) so charming as to
prophesy, and as there is nothing so inconclusive the tendency should
be repressed in proportion as the opportunity is good. There is a
certain want of courtesy to a peculiarly contemporaneous present even
in speculating, with a dozen deferential precautions, on the question
of what will become in the later hours of the day of a talent that has
got up so early. Mr. Kipling’s actual performance is like a tremendous
walk before breakfast, making one welcome the idea of the meal, but
consider with some alarm the hours still to be traversed. Yet if his
breakfast is all to come the indications are that he will be more active
than ever after he has had it. Among these indications are the un-
flagging character of his pace and the excellent form, as they say in
athletic circles, in which he gets over the ground. We don’t detect
him stumbling; on the contrary, he steps out quite as briskly as at first
and still more firmly. There is something zealous and craftsman-like
in him which shows that he feels both joy and responsibility. A whim-
sical, wanton reader, haunted by a recollection of all the good things he
has seen spoiled; by a sense of the miserable, or, at any rate, the inferior,
in so many continuations and endings, is almost capable of perverting
poetic justice to the idea that it would be even positively well for so
surprising a producer to remain simply the fortunate, suggestive, un-
confirmed and unqualified representative of what he has actually done.
We can always refer to that.