A Book of Words VI

“The Handicaps of Letters”

by Rudyard Kipling

I AM greatly honoured by being allowed to propose the toast of “Prosperity to the Royal Literary Fund”—in other words, to appeal to you on behalf of certain men and women of letters who stand in need of your assistance. And since one speaks of the workmen, one must speak also a little of the craft to which they have given or are giving their lives. I shall be specially careful to guard against making extravagant claims for either. If you go no further back than the Book of Job you will find that letters, like the art of printing, were born perfect. Some professions, law and medicine, for example, are still in a state of evolution, inasmuch as no expert in them seems to be quite sure that he can win a case or cure a cold. On the other hand, the calling of letters carries with it the disabilities from which these professions are free. When an eminent lawyer or physician is once dead, he is always dead. His ghost does not continue to practise in the Law Courts or the operating theatre. Now it cannot have escaped your attention that a writer often does not begin to live till he has been dead for some time. In certain notorious cases the longer he has been dead the more alive he is, and the more acute is his competition against the living. I do not ask you to imagine the feelings of a barrister exposed to the competition of all the dead Lord Chancellors that ever sat on the woolsack, each delivering judgements on any conceivable case at 6d. per judgement, paper-bound. I only ask you to allow that what lawyers call the “dead hand”—in this case with a pen in it—lies heavy on the calling of letters. In other callings of life there exists a convention that what a man has made shall be his own and his children’s after him. With regard to letters, the world decides that, after a very short time, all that a writer may have created shall be taken from him and shall become the property of anybody and everybody except the original maker. This may be right. It may be more important that men should be helped to think than that they should be helped to live. But those on whom this righteousness is executed find it difficult to establish a family on letters. Sometimes they find it difficult to feed one. That letters should be exempted from the law of continuous ownership seems to constitute another handicap to the calling. Most men are bound by oath, or organisation, or natural instinct not to work for nothing. When his demon urges a man of letters to work, he may do so without any regard to wages or the sentiments of his fellow-workers. This may be incontinence or inspiration. Whichever it is, we must face the fact and its consequences, that at any moment a man of letters may choose to pay, not only with his skin, but in cash and credit for leave to do his work, to say the thing he desires to say. This is perhaps not fair to himself or his fellows, but it is a law of his being, and as such constitutes yet another handicap.And there is a legend in Philistia—a pharisaical legend—that those who follow letters are disorderly-minded, unstable of habit, and thus peculiarly open to misfortune. Now, since the Pharisees originate very little that has not been put into their minds by the Scribes, it is possible that men of letters, writing about men of letters, have themselves to thank in some measure for this unkind judgement. Every man in trouble naturally cries that there is no sorrow like his sorrow; but not all men, not all men’s friends, nor all men’s enemies, can draw the world’s attention to that complaint. Writers have been their own interpreters in this respect—not always to their own advantage. It does not square with experience that any class of men has pre-eminence over any other class in the zeal and perseverance with which its members go about to compass their own ruin. Is it not more reasonable to hold that the triple handicap I have mentioned, and not so much individual folly, is responsible for the high percentage of casualties among men of letters. Men perpetually measured against the great works of the past; men debarred by law from full possession of their own works in the present; men driven from within to work whether their world desires that work or not—such men must always enjoy the privilege accorded to minorities. They must suffer. Much of this suffering is inevitable, but some of it the Fund, by your good help, can reach and alleviate as few other institutions can. It has had over a century’s experience of all the chances and misfortunes that can overtake men and women. Its work is done, as we would desire it to be done in our own cases, in silence and discretion, and for that very reason it is difficult, as the report says, to bring home the value of the work to the public.

We cannot foretell in the multitude of words about us whose words are destined to survive, to rule, to delight, to persuade or accuse those that come after. We hope that some will so survive. All we are sure of now is that among the many men and women who have followed letters in this high hope a certain number have been overborne by evil chances, accidents, and misfortunes, which but for the mere whim of time and fortune, might have come to any one of us.

I give you, then, that you may give, “Prosperity to the Royal Literary Fund”.