Wednesday, 16 December 2015 11:11

Writers for Conservatives, 46 - Hemingway and Kipling Redux

Written by
Rate this item
(0 votes)
Writers for Conservatives, 46 - Hemingway and Kipling Redux

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an Associate Editor of the St. Croix Review. He writes on literature from the Adirondacks where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

When I began this series some years ago, I had never written a literary essay. I had taught English, I had done lots of writing - stories, country essays, Marxist polemics - but I had never tried to write a considered estimate of a writer and I'm afraid I said many stupid things, things I would like to revise and rewrite. Failing that, I can write an essay like this to make amends. I shall concern myself with only two writers, Ernest Hemingway and Rudyard Kipling, not that I did them any injustice, but because I didn't say enough about either writer. In fact, I wrote about Hemingway as only a bit player in my essay about Mark Twain, "Huck Finn and Friends" the seventh essay in this series. What I said then was good so far as it went, but it didn't go far enough.

I said, in my recent essay on The Red Badge of Courage, that I would soon write more about the way Hemingway's style brought our literature back to life after its long spell in the doldrums. Expository prose was still thriving after Thoreau; think of the memoirs of Grant and Sherman, of Parkman's great history of the British and French in North America, of Teddy Roosevelt's ranching and hunting essays - or for that matter, think of the speeches of Lincoln. But after the great decade of the 1850s there had been only two literary works of any note Huckleberry Finn (1876) and Red Badge of Courage (1895). Henry James, was an outlier, with almost no influence on the writing of his time. Read some of the novels and stories published between 1870 and 1920, and while you may feel some life in the works of Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris, the overriding impression will be of the exhaustion of language. The writing was literary, a made up language of cliches and well-worn devices, smokescreens of insincerity. That's why changing the subjects, a la Dreiser and Norris, didn't do much. What had to be changed was not what one saw, but how one saw - in a word style. That's exactly what Hemingway did when his first stories appeared in 1923-4. He utterly changed the style, and then the whole literary landscape was changed.

Read aloud the first paragraph from "In Another Country":

In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.

We feel the cold of that late fall afternoon in Milan as we have never felt anything like it in our literature for decades. To understand how that paragraph works its magic, read it again, omitting the first sentence. See? That sentence is the key; it establishes a vague feeling of menace ("always there") that lurks behind the vivid enumeration of detail that follows, sharpening our perception of those details making them stand out as the paragraph moves toward its end, becoming almost lyrical ("hung stiff and heavy and empty") in its foreboding rhythms. There is nothing "literary" about those simple declarative phrases; they fall like solid shot upon the page. Hemingway's achievement was to make what he wrote seem real, not "literary" at all. But of course it was - in a new way, a new style. It is only the best writing that can give you the illusion of reality far deeper and more lasting than mere suspension of disbelief. For a generation writers imitated Hemingway.

Unfortunately, Hemingway also imitated Hemingway, especially in his embarrassing novels, the best of which is The Sun Also Rises. But we should remember him for his great contribution to our literature when we needed it.

Kipling had an astonishing range, not only in his subjects but in the way he handled them. Just So Stories, intended for very young children, is a series of short silly stories about how the camel got his hump, the rhinoceros his skin, and so on, in a style reminiscent of the nursery:

In the sea, once upon a time, O my Best Beloved, there was a Whale, and he ate fishes. He ate the starfish and the garfish, and the crab and the dab, and the plaice and the dace, and the skate and his mate, and the mackerel and the pickerel and the really truly twirly-whirly eel.

The stories are imaginative, perfect for reading to small children, and they are handsomely illustrated by the author.

I said in my earlier essay that Puck of Pooks Hill and Rewards and Fairies are historical tales for children, but I don't suppose any of my readers will be surprised when I say I enjoy them myself. Quite by accident, a brother and sister invoke Puck, the ancient elfin figure we know from A Midsummer Night's Dream, who tells stories to the children about the past, calling up people therefrom to tell their own stories. It is imaginative and carefully constructed, as Puck chooses the people and relates them to a theme. It seems simple as the tales follow one another, but Kipling endows it all with an air of magic and mystery. At the end of each episode, for instance, Puck insists that the children chew leaves of oak, ash, and thorn, so they will forget about what they have been doing and not reveal it to their parents. A small touch, but it makes each episode into a magical interlude.

Kim is sometimes described as a novel, but Kipling denied it, saying, accurately, it was only a picaresque tale. The name comes form the Spanish picarro, a rogue, and such a tale is an episodic one tracing the travels (and travails) of a footloose adventurer. I suppose we could say the Odyssey is the first one. Fielding's Joseph Andrews and Dickens' Pickwick Papers are in the tradition, as is the great central portion of Huck Finn when Jim and Huck float down the river on the raft. Kim, the orphan boy hero, son of an Irish soldier, is living almost as a native boy of the streets, but in the opening pages he meets an old Tibetan holy man on a quest for the River of the Arrow, whose waters wash away all taint of sin, freeing one from the Wheel of Life, and Kim becomes his ever-resourceful disciple, travelling with him all over northern India. At the same time, Kim, brought into the English orbit, is trained as a spy (for which he has a natural aptitude), so his travels with the lama eventually combine with his espionage career, culminating in the frustration of a Russian scheme (the "Great Game" to aficionados of Middle Eastern intrigue) and the end of the lama's quest. The tale is really an excuse for Kipling to indulge in what I call his "Indianism':

"Eye of Beauty, forsooth! Who am I that thou shouldst fling beggar-endearments at me?" And yet she laughed at the long-forgotten word. "Forty years ago that might have been said, and not without truth. Ay, thirty years ago. But it is the fault of this gadding up and down Hind that a king's widow must jostle all the scum of the land, and be made a mock by beggars."

That's a tame example. This is not to everyone's taste, but if you go along for the ride, you'll be amused and impressed. Kim is an engaging character, the description of the land, especially in the Himalayas, are as vivid as only Kipling can make them, and altogether it's an enjoyable read, but the author is only idling here.

The Jungle Books come in two volumes. I said in my earlier essay, "Animal stories. The best, half the total, are about Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves," and that's all I said. Here Kipling is working on a deeper level than in Kim. Superficially a simpler world, the feelings and thoughts, the relations between the characters (all animals, except for Mowgli, remember) are more profound than in Kim. Kim himself is too young and lama is too old, and their activities seem superficial compared to Mowgli's, so they cannot move us as Kipling's portrayal of Mowgli's world does. Mowgli's world is elemental, his relationships and feelings are direct. Animal stories are an ancient genre, and their significance is largely unconscious to be teased out by anthropologists and ethnographers, while modern ones are charming and trivial (Kenneth Grahame) or melodramatic (Jack London), but Kipling has managed, with unsurpassed skill of craft and imagination to create animal stories that are intelligent and moving, a great pleasure to read.

When he wrote about soldiers, as in Soldiers Three and The Light That Failed, I think he was the star-struck, nearsighted outsider, and losing his balance, he wrote mawkishly. Nor do I care much for In Black and White, the stories told by Indian narrators as if to an Englishman, full of circumlocutions, very tedious. But the best of the later stories, collected in two Penguin volumes, A Sahib's War, and Friendly Brook, selected by Andrew Rutherford, are as good, in their more elaborate, mature way, as the best stories in Plain Tales from the Hills. In the previous essay I wrote at length about "Mrs Bathurst," one of the finest stories ever written in English, but now I want to say something about "They," a story about an English estate where dead children live. Stated like that it sounds preposterous, but the reader learns the truth so gradually (not fully until the end) and the speaker's relations to the estate and to the blind woman who owns it are so mixed up with mundane considerations that the whole thing seems quite natural, and in the end, when the speaker realizes the presence of his own dead child, it is very moving. I have mentioned "They" because it seems to me to epitomize Kipling's genius: he had an extraordinary capacity to imagine, to make real to his readers, stories of great meaning and feeling derived from the most disparate and fantastic elements. I know of no modern writer remotely comparable.

Redux: Latin. Brought back, returned. *

Read 4286 times Last modified on Wednesday, 16 December 2015 17:11
Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.

Login to post comments