Rudyard Kipling and the Contemporary Short Story by Henry Seidel Canby, Ph.D.

Rudyard Kipling and the Contemporary Short Story

by Henry Seidel Canby, Ph.D.

Kipling is, on the whole, the most vigorous, versatile, and highly endowed among contemporary writers of fiction, … because his colonial life, and his transatlantic connections make him more Anglo-Saxon than British. And, finally, for the reason that, in his time, no English-writing author has shown such consummate mastery of the short story.

Table of Contents

The chronicler of the rise of the short story must enter upon the last two decades of progress with prayer and fasting. The short story has become multitudinous. Every seed has yielded forty-fold. At first glance, it may seem that this chapter should be either a book, or a list like the list of the Homeric ships.

The book must be written, but we are too near the stories to do it now. The list has already been attempted in part by various bibliographical workers. Fortunately, the plan of this critical study requires neither alternative.

In truth, an account of the progress of any mode of literary expression must be like a history of art. The historian deals chiefly with two classes, the small beginnings of great developments, and the masterpieces which represent the height of attainment. Of these two, the small beginnings are usually of infinitely less value artistically than the masterpieces. Their historical value, however, is as great, and this makes them far more significant than works, superior in technique, which possess neither virtue of originality, nor distinction of supreme excellence.

The disadvantages of this historical method are evident; too evident in these concluding chapters. Upon earlier stories of small literary worth space has often been expended which cannot now be allowed to contemporary narratives with an intrinsic value as much greater as their historical importance is less. It is unfortunate that Miss Wilkins or Mr. Hewlett should be dismissed with sentences, when the unspeakable story of the annuals was given paragraphs. But this is a necessary evil of the chronicle of fashions in literature.

Like nature, the historian must care most for the type, and assume that humble beginnings throw light on all that follows, while master-works contain in microcosm the characteristics of the less important efforts of the age. The development of our short story has been, in some measure, cumulative. Much of the criticism already applied to earlier periods, if just, will remain to eke out an enforced brevity in this discussion of the turn of the twentieth century.

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Rudyard Kipling – The Vigorous, Versatile & Consummate Master of the Short Story

Many of the earlier chapters have dealt with beginnings. From the enormous short-story literature of the past twenty years, I shall select the work of one commanding figure, Rudyard Kipling, as the best means of illustrating what we have finally done with the short story. This choice is possible because Kipling is, on the whole, the most vigorous, versatile, and highly endowed among contemporary writers of fiction. Next, because his colonial life, and his transatlantic connections make him more Anglo-Saxon than British. And, finally, for the reason that, in his time, no English-writing author has shown such consummate mastery of the short story.

It is as difficult to review Kipling's short stories as to characterize East Side New York. They are quite as multifarious. But in all their kaleidoscopic variety, in bad and in good, there is one distinctive quality. It is not merely style; nor is it any one of the many technical perfections with which these stories abound. It is neither romanticism nor realism. This quality I shall endeavor to define, for I believe it to be the essence of what Kipling has done that is new and personal in the short story.

Let us strike into the trail at the beginning when, in 1890, the sudden popularity in London of Plain Tales from the Hills, Soldiers Three and other early volumes began Kipling's international reputation. These narratives were "heady" stories, like Peacock's, which Beetle of Stalky & Co. used to read. They are chiefly intrigues, or military escapades, with mysterious India for a background. Many of them seem thin enough now. Nearly all are too flippant; their author too often is provokingly sure of the motives which rule all actions, or absurdly interested in the social idiosyncrasies of Simla. The short story with a twist at the end of it, the short story that surprises, is operated unmercifully until its artificiality is painfully apparent.

Yet, with the cheap sensationalism of some of these stories came the glamor of them all, the glamor of a racial contrast more vivid than any hitherto depicted. India, with its innumerable facets, for the first time was made real to the layman. The ten times mysterious East dazzled him with its Babus, saises. Sahibs, Sikhs, and the inexorable Indian service. The romance of the inscrutable differences between races and peoples inflamed him.

I quote from the beginning of the first story in Plain Tales, because it happens to be first: "She was the daughter of Soonoo, a Hill-man of the Himalayas, and Jadeh, his wife. One year their maize failed, and two bears spent the night in their only opium poppy-field just above the Sutlej Valley on the Kotgarh side; so, next season, they turned Christian, and brought their baby to the Mission to be baptized."

For Anglo-Saxons, already enthusiastic over strange corners of the world, there was fascination in "Hill-man," in "the Sutlej Valley on the Kotgarh side," in the idea of turning Christian because a bear eats up one's poppy-field! Yet this was only child's magic as compared with what was to follow. As a sheer story-teller, Kipling had not reached a tithe of the powers of Bret Harte, who was, possibly, his model. But his racial color and his racial contrasts, even in these early stories, were more intense than Harte's or any man's. Plain Tales and Soldiers Three gave him the reputation of an adept in local color, and every succeeding volume was to increase it.

But local color is not a condition; it is a capability dependent upon a power over words. "Over our heads burned the wonderful Indian stars;"

I quote from The Courting of Dina Shadd, "which are not all pricked in on one plane; but, preserving an orderly perspective, draw the eye through the velvet darkness of the void up to the barred doors of heaven itself. The earth was a gray shadow more unreal than the sky. We could hear her breathing lightly in the pauses between the howling of the jackals, the movement of the wind in the tamarisks, and the fitful mutter of musketry-fire leagues away to the left. A native woman from some unseen hut began to sing, the mail-train thundered past on its way to Delhi, and a roosting crow cawed drowsily."

In such description the words make one feel the very essence of the novelty, the full force of the contrast which is contained in the new environment. In such work, Kipling becomes, sometimes, a prose Keats. The comparison should not be repellent, for it regards words and power over sensation merely.

As the drug-clerk in Wireless became "temporarily an induced Keats," and groped painfully for the "five little lines — of which one can say: 'These are the pure Magic. These are the clear Vision. The rest is only poetry,'" so Kipling, in his earliest stories, felt painfully, often inaccurately, for the specific word which would photograph the contrasts of India.

Often he was successful. Sometimes he was merely sensational, which means only that he was vivid beyond the restraint of art. But the groping ceased when he gave life to the jungle, and put into words the might of steam and England's ancient peace. All this is one cause for his success in the field of local color.

Kipling won praise for his technique as speedily as for his local color. Technique with him means focus. That famous story of Mulvaney, his "the-ourisin Lift'nint," and the company of "raw bhoys" who were hurled naked from the Irriwaddy into the midst of Lungtungpen to triumph and a blushing victory — this story, for example, is focused like an astronomer's stellar field. Masses of Burmah scenery, a plot-idea, and the wonderful personality of Mulvaney, these are the elements. The personality slips into place as the teller of the story; and that is one turn of the screw for adjusting the lens.

Next, Burmah becomes a real background. Jingles, bamboo huts, elephants, the black river full of logs, provide local color for the tale. This is the second turn of the screw. Then the whole is unified by the plot-idea that raw troops can take a town, even when they are naked. Here is yet another turn, and the toning up of the whole is the final adjustment.

In perfection, the technique which results from the process I have somewhat fancifully described is so excellent that all structure, all effort is concealed. The narrative in On Greenhow Hill, for instance, is leisurely, like the big man who takes you with him to the bare Yorkshire moors and black mine- pits as he tells it on a Himalaya pine slope. .007 is all hurry and bustle, with rhythmic outbursts and a vibrant motion like the sway of a locomotive. Yet each is focused upon its climax, and the focus is its technique.

It is in this extraordinary power of focusing the story that the distinctive quality, which orients all the elements of Kipling's work, comes near the surface and may be grasped. As Poe worked over his technique in order to get substantial effects from insubstantial romanticism, so Kipling took pains with his because he passionately desired to be interesting.

Beginning as an ordinary journalist, he learned, as anyone who reads From Sea to Sea will observe, the first journalistic lesson — you must write of what is interesting. Whatever else he learned or forgot in later years, he has never forsaken that law. Even when he discourses upon the faults of the English army, he is reasonably interesting, and to an American! In his flippant and most uproarious stories he interests, even those whom he shocks. To be interesting, indeed, is the motto, the principle of modern journalism; and no one has more warmly adopted it than Rudyard Kipling.

He is our best example of this modern institution when raised to its highest power. He is the great journalist, and journalism is the pervading quality which we have been seeking in his works. Focus, and so a good technique, is actually the result of this same principle. The "points" of Lungtungpen, for instance, are those which would headline themselves; furthermore, they are arranged so as to secure the most effective outlay of the material. The story is written as a skilful correspondent would write up a battle or a football game — if he could.

And is not this journalistic principle also responsible for some part of Kipling's devotion to the specific word, the word which is bound to stir the interest of the reader? Is it not to be found again in his searching observation of the racial contrasts which interest a generation preoccupied with Darwinism and the differentiation of species? Is it not the moving spirit in his local color as well as his technique?

Fu-Lee keeps upon his children's counter some wooden eggs, gaudily striped, and cloven in the middle. Open one, and you find a smaller egg. Open that, and you see another, and so on, until in the midst is a mandarin, cross-legged, egg-shaped, and tucked away there in the middle as an excuse for the whole operation. The foregoing analysis of Kipling's powers of local color and technique has been a like unshelling. The process revealed the figure of the journalist. Let the eggs, from which have been extracted all useful reflections upon Kipling's art as a short-story teller, be put aside, and see what further conjury may be wrought with the mandarin of journalism.

Kipling's humor is the most British thing about him. It is solid, deep-reaching, unmistakable, and at the furthest remove from wit or the American joke. In it are some of the faults of the early nineteenth century, the roughness and horse-play of Thomas Hood and his magazine imitators. Yet Kipling is infinitely their superior. The early nineteenth century humorists of his kind were often tedious; Kipling seldom is, and then only through over-strenuosity. Far too skilful for such crudity, he modulates with pathos and pure narrative. He selects the most humorous humor, as when the rear-end of Mulvaney's elephant blocks the British army in the Tangi pass. He makes use of the brevity of the short story. It is the pursuit of mirth by journalistic methods.

Kipling did not attain to pathos as quickly as to humor. In his early stories, the pathetic is most successful when used as a foil to the comic. Mulvaney's power upon the reader in such a tale as The Courting of Dinah Shadd comes from the depths of sorrow behind his humor. It was not until Without Benefit of Clergy (1892) that he came to his full strength in pathetic prose. The history of Ameera is one of the triumphs of the short story. Its characterization is vivid; its progress direct and poignant.

I do not wish even for an instant to seem to cheapen one of the most touching and beautiful stories in the world when I call it journalism. But the voice of the desolate mother breaking into the nursery rhyme of the wicked crow,

"And the wild plums grow in the jungle, only a penny a pound, Only a penny a pound, baba — only –,"

and every pathetic moment, is chosen by an inspired sense for what would most feelingly grasp the interest of the reader. This is high art, with intense feeling behind it — otherwise it would not be so excellent. But it is also good journalism.

Much the same, when we view Mr. Kipling from the angle of the short story, is to be said of his work with character. He has already presented the world with one individual quite universally familiar to readers of English, the wonderful Mulvaney. But is Mulvaney like Pickwick or Colonel Newcome? Is not even this wonderful Irishman as much a means as an end, a means for the interesting transfer to the reader of impressions of British India.

Certainly this stricture, if it is a stricture, would apply to many, if not most, of Kipling's characters. They ring true, usually; they are always individual; but one feels that, excellent as they may be as personalities, their chief use is to discharge what interests Mr. Kipling and ourselves. For pure character work one must come, indeed, to individuals so elemental in their nature that they are not to be reckoned as "characters" at all, to those dear friends of The Jungle Books, Baloo, Bagheera, and Kaa.

There is, of course, no particular reason why Mr. Kipling should not handle character as he pleases. As it happens, he has chosen the journalistic method. He gets all he can from his actors for the interest of his story. He fairly squeezes them. And this view is borne out by the frequency with which he depicts figures that are distinctly "interest-getters." He prefers to deal with men who have killed dacoits, handled districts, seen forbidden things, put down border wars, talked to elephants, or been bewitched. The fascination exerted by his mystics is almost without parallel in contemporary literature.

I do not say that this is bad art. On the contrary, with so much current that is dull, it is admirable, except when overdone. But it shows the influence of the little mandarin of high journalism.

The word journalism has such prosaic connotations that half the wonder in Kipling's stories escapes when you apply that name to them. The effect, however, will not be so appalling if one considers well what journalism is. The journalist is one of the agents, perhaps one of the most important agents, for the expression of our Zeitgeist. He is born of the desire to seek out news of the human creature, news of his habits, of his environment, of his mind and soul. Thus, as a journalist, Kipling is about the business of the Zeitgeist. As a great journalist, he has raised journalism to the heights of literature.

And the Zeitgeist has also inspired our short story. Like journalism, the latter is a manifestation of a nervous, curious, introspective age; it is as often superficial and sensational; as often vivid and interesting. Without our Zeitgeist, we should have known neither the one nor the other. Journalism, therefore, is not out of place; it is most proper in the practice of the short story. Kipling, in his own way, emphasized its right there. He does not cheapen his art by doing so; he enriches it.

This journalistic quality, then, is the secret of Kipling's touch, the touch which gives his stories the distinction one feels and seeks from Plain Tales to the end. Upon his early narratives the effect was bad as often as it was good. Sometimes they are made sensational, sometimes vivid. But after the first fumbling is passed, one begins to understand the value of a genius for the striking and the interesting.

This it is that fires those tales of the northern border: The Man Who Would Be King, a story as brilliant and barbaric as the crown of gold and tourquoise which Peachey brings back from his awful kingdom; The Man Who Was, which, in one tense evening, displays all the horror of death-in-life and exile in contrast with patriotism and infinite pity; The Drums of the Fore and Aft, with its two drunken, hysterical drummer-boys, playing a regiment into victory. This creates The Jungle Books, those stories so vivid, as well as so true to romance, that, for once, our modern interest in beast- ways becomes literature.

In .007, this endows a locomotive with a human heart. And only such a genius could inspire the daring speculation of Wireless. Here is the romance of The Jungle Books, the vivid adventure of the tales of the border, the subtle mysticism of Wireless, to which might be added as many instances more, every one given its distinctive touch by vividness and an utter novelty.

The situation elaborated in each is not only significant, as with Hawthorne, it is interesting to the highest degree. The working out is not only skilful, as with Henry James, it is vivid and interesting to the highest degree. In brief, the skill of a trained journalist has lent freshness and power to good narrative.

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The Power in the Narrative To Express the Emotion of the Story

I am quite aware that, in this criticism, I do not carry all readers with me. Even those who are hurried away by the enthusiasm of .007, who thrill with Dravot on the terrible bridge, or would become a wolf-man to have such a friend as Bagheera of the Broken Lock, might hesitate before admitting the force of the argument. For the desire to be interesting is a dangerous ally.

May it not be responsible for the transitory, not the permanent values of Kipling's stories? Will not this very effort to search out what interests our generation defeat its own object with the next? May not our journalism, like our fine clothing, be all the more notoriously bad in the next century, because of this very timeliness for the nineteenth and twentieth?

The danger is to be admitted, but, with some reservation, Kipling might answer as did Hermione, "That's true enough; Though 'tis a saying, sir, not due to me."

It is certain that the inspiration of the Zeitgeist has sometimes led him astray. His accurate use of technical names ad nauseam appeals to the scientific, no doubt, but is already a little boresome. His rage for the specific leaves some gaudiness, and a touch of smartness even in noble stories, and this is a blot that will not fade with time.

Certain tales, Mrs. Bathurst, The Captive, The Comprehension of Private Copper, to choose three from a late volume, betray a journalistic pursuit of news, or the new, quite gone to seed, and sure to lose flavor with the passing of the interest that gave the stories birth. But these are failures. To get at the best results we must choose more remarkable narratives.

The Brushwood Boy (1895) and They (1904) are the noblest examples of the modern short story. They are also the most instructive. The Brushwood Boy is forged out of dreams, good stuff for poetry, but trying metal for narrative. Its idea is so exquisite, so simple, and so nearly absurd that, while a child often thinks of it, nothing but genius could put it into a story.

A boy wanders through his dreams with someone he calls Annieanlouise, the two finest names he knows. Later he plunges into the cold prose of public-school life, still later enters the army, and goes in for the scientific end. He becomes a healthy young soldier, intensely real, intensely practical, and yet never ceases to meet his Annieanlouise in the dream-country they alone know. When he meets her in the flesh, and finds that she does not recognize the boy who has ridden the Thirty-Mile Ride with her and fled time and again from "Them" to the friendly brushwood-pile, the plot is ready for its climax, and the overtones, which are everything.

Medieval tales of dream-maidens afford no real parallel to this story; they are pure romance, this is psychologic romance. This never would have been written before the nineteenth century. It never could have been so well written without the journalistic instinct.

For it is not the idea, already used, in a less subtle form, by Du Maurier in Peter Ibbetson, which is the principal factor of success. It is the vivid realization of this idea by means of striking contrasts, and such aids to belief as an ordnance map of the dreamland, or the many circumstances of contemporary life. Only thus an emotion not otherwise to be caught except by the most elusive poetry, is brought down to earth and comprehended in a story. As narrative, The Brushwood Boy is one of the most engrossing of stories. As an achievement, it is no less engrossing.

One should be ready to rest the whole case for the short story with They. It is the most exquisite and the most touching narrative written in English so far in the twentieth century. If you understand it, and the tale goes too deep into pathos and the mysteries of human nature to be easily comprehended, you understand the most that our short story has accomplished. If you can analyze the means which lead to this perfect result, you have surprised Mr. Kipling at his best, and mastered the secret of an immensely difficult art of fiction.

A glad motor-run across the downs, and then a drop through an old forest, brings the motorist unexpectedly to the edge of a lawn adorned with clipped yew. Beyond is a manor-house, raised by the sweetness and dignity of Elizabethan England. A child waves from an upper window, another laughs behind a fountain, and then she appears whom never at any time he calls by name. She is blind. And she asks first if he has seen the children. "Children! Oh, children! " — her yearning call is the motif of the story.

One learns by implication, as one follows the narrative, that the children who have left their toys in the timbered room, with the latch made low for them, who whisk and flutter away, always just seen, just heard, never caught, have come to her only because she loved children so. They are children of the mind then? Not altogether.

And this is the wonderful part of this story, which is no Hawthornesque allegory, but so true and so real, for all its mysticism, that the tears start again and again in the reading of it. Their reality is that of the fairy people for the middle age, of the music of the written note for the musician. They come, to be seen or heard, only by one whose ears or eyes are opened.

It is the opening of the senses through love or through grief which is the idea of the story. The lady of this ancient house loved children, although she had neither borne nor lost. She knew that "they were all that I should ever have," and she had left the garden gate open, the fire always burning on the hearth, for children would have wished it so. Then dead children had come in answer to her yearning love.

"So through the Void the Children ran homeward merrily hand in hand, looking neither to left nor right where the breathless Heavens stood still."

And yet she had neither borne nor lost. The children, whose voices she hears, though she cannot see their faces, were not hers. He had lost. It was his dead child behind the screen, in the twilight of the great hall, who turned his hand softly in her soft hand and gave the old signal, the kiss in the center of the palm — "as a gift upon which the fingers were, once, expected to close."

Then he understood. "O, you must bear or lose," she had said piteously, "There is no other way."

Perhaps he feared that her love would pale beside his memory of the dead. Or that his presence might be as impassible iron to the dead children, who came back because she needed them. Certainly she would be jealous for the one which was his, as for that other who had come for the butler's wife — "Hers! Not for me," she had said. It was not right that he should possess his dear memory and yet share her experience.

"Neither the harps nor the crowns amused, nor the cherubs' dove-winged races —

Holding hands forlornly the Children wandered beneath the Dome;

Plucking the radiant robes of the passers by, and with pitiful faces

Begging what Princes and Powers refused: — 'Ah, please will you let us go home? '"

Lest they should not come home, and home to her, he goes, never to return again.

This is the story; but to tell it so is to miss the beauty of a setting all of one tone, to touch, and no more than touch, upon a pathos so interpenetrative as to seem an effect of the whole, and to blur a meaning too exquisite to be utterly explained. This is enough, however, to show how far the narrative has been carried into emotions none the less intense because they are subtle. The conception is valuable in measure with the love of children. It is inconceivable that it could have been expressed in narrative except by an impressionistic short story.

And, to come down to the technical, it was eminent artistic powers, plus journalism, which made Kipling's success possible. The Zeitgeist pushed him on to that unattempted yet in narrative prose. His strong sense for the value of the real, and his perception of those concrete manifestations which, in so subtle a matter, could be grasped by the reader, these made him able to put the love of children, in its most intimate, most poignant form, into a story. Such achievements are not transitory. They have too much worth and too much beauty to die with the generation for which they have a particular appeal.

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Kipling – The Literary Standard-Bearer for His Generation

Kipling sums up the last twenty years in the short story about as adequately as Shakespeare sums up the Elizabethan drama. He best represents the best achievements of his age in this literary form. The swarm of contemporary story-tellers, big and little, are not always, or even usually, influenced directly by his practice. The most excellent among them are only less strongly original in their way than he in his.

To appreciate them properly each should have an essay of his own. But their efforts are all comprehensible in the light of Kipling and his predecessors. Each works with his or her own formula but, so far, no one of them has made a further advance in the writing of the short story.

Mr. Hewlett, for instance, constructs a Venetian mosaic, each block of which is compressed from the riches of history or of literature, and colored with a foreign life. He is never coarse or inelegant, as Kipling is so often.

He seldom forsakes the charm of literary romance in order to secure an appearance of reality. He seems to be a highly-cultured, highly-imaginative writer, who, except in the use of specific words, is not a very good journalist. The Madonna of the Peach Tree is a symphony of word-music. It is an example of perfect tone as a means to the end of the impressionistic short story.

Miss Wilkins deals in a local life which is far quieter and more commonplace than India's. Her New England sketches are never sensational, and would fail to be striking were it not for the strength of her situations and the force of her contrasts. Her means are always legitimate; sometimes they are also inadequate.

Joseph Conrad is most like Kipling. His Youth is a splendid example of glorified journalism. So interesting a subject as the eternal fascination of the West by the East is wrought out in a fashion characteristically novel. Plot there is none, but all the apparatus of changing scenes, illuminated by specific description and increasing vividness, is aimed at a single effect.

Or, to consider very different work, the narratives of our O. Henry crack like a whip, and are as French in effect as they are American in substance. Here is plenty of journalism and very little Kipling, yet there is nothing to be said in general of his short stories which the critical reader will not discern for himself. His curve has already been plotted.

The exigencies of a historical treatment strictly limit our appreciations. Contemporary short-story writers are so numerous and so skilful that one feels of a given example as King Harry felt of Percy:

"'I haue a hondrith captayns in Ynglonde,' he sayd,

'As good as euer was he.'"

Their purposes, their general methods, have been approximately defined. This criticism can in no way be supposed to comprehend all that is needful of praise and discrimination, yet, with these contemporaries, one key unlocks the type.

If Kipling is that key, it is not that he represents the most of his fellow-writers, but the best. In its intensest mood, his short story is an impressionistic rendering of a novel and intricate situation. Towards this goal the best writers in their degree have all been struggling. Henry James, as well as Kipling, and before him, saw the vision, and these two have advanced the art to conquests before unthought of.

But Henry James is the philosopher who traffics in "the high that proved too high, the heroic for earth too hard." He is not always interesting, because he is not always easily intelligible. He neglects the imagination sometimes; he often neglects the heart. He is not a good journalist.

Mr. Kipling, on the other hand, is quite as vital, and more interesting. He sees into human nature almost as skilfully as the modern maestro di color che sanno, and he tells what he sees there with more effectiveness. To the insight of an analyst, and the skill of a storyteller, he adds the perceptions of a poet and the quickening power which, in lesser manifestations, is called the journalistic. In the short story he is the standard-bearer for his generation.

~ The End ~

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