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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Kipling's literary reputation MacLeod, Beatrice Merrigold


Kipling's perplexed relationship with his critics -and especially with those whose opinions mattered - has no parallel in the history of letters. At every stage in his career they made him the epicentre of controversy. Friends and enemies alike misrepresented him in their biased and contradictory judgments. In the '90's the majority helped to set him up as a national idol; after 1899 they engineered his fall into disrepute. His fate at the hands of the pundits deserves to be studied in some detail. This inquiry into the state of his reputation and the aberrations of Kipling criticism between 1889 and 1914 follows the trend of the times and the shifts of critical opinion, and deals with a series of reviews published in a selected group of eight influential journals. These include the Edinburgh Review, the Quarterly, Blackwood's Magazine, the Contemporary Review, the Fortnightly Review, the Athenaeum, the Saturday Review and the Bookman. Kipling achieved early and unprecedented success. His startling presence was noted in a spate of articles and reviews in which he was recognized as a formidable new talent. Singled out by Oscar Wilde, approved by the Times, he impressed all who chose to comment on his work, even those whose findings were unfavourable. Many were gratified and enthusiastic; many temporized. The ultra-conservative confessed to grave misgivings; the liberal-radical were frankly suspicious of his views. Within a very few years the critics were responding to a supereminent Kipling, revealed as a prophet of Empire. Didactic and persuasive, he grew in stature as a public figure, unofficial laureate, spokesman for the Imperialists. Criticism became correspondingly political. The general chorus of praise reached a crescendo but voices of dissent were raised in angry protest. The liberal intellectuals were busy counteracting the evils of Kiplingism by outright condemnation of the author's prose,fiction and verse. In 1899 the Boers' declaration of war coincided with the publication of Stalky and Co., bolstering the case for the opposition and effecting an abrupt change in the critical climate. There was a sudden highly emotional revulsion. Of the eight chosen periodicals only the Athenaeum was pleased with Stalky. Of the attacks that ensued none was more savage than Robert Buchanan's article in the Contemporary Review. Those who continued to support Kipling like Walter Besant were driven to defend and to apologize. During the war and the subsequent period of recrimination, even the Tories began to give vent to their dissatisfaction. Kipling himself drew their censure by lashing out at government and opposition alike. Scathing reviews of Kim reflected the general resentment. More than ever Kipling's well-wishers were placed on the defensive. Former admirers justified their apostasy by explaining that the author's work had begun to decline with Stalky and Co. Some declared that the popular journalist had never been worthy of the attention he had received. Many lost interest and refrained further comment. In other quarters there was clear evidence of a deliberate move to ignore Kipling's claim to serious consideration. By 1905 the decline of his reputation reached its final phase. The Conservative propagandist no longer threatened the Liberals. There was less bitterness, less polemical confrontation. The reviews were often perfunctory, contemptuous, ironic or gently disparaging. Most of the critics of any standing had convinced themselves that Kipling's fame had been founded on error, that his very popularity was sufficient proof of his lack of merit, that he had never been a great writer. Among the new generation of romantics, they saw him as an anachronism, out of place and out of fashion. He must in every respect be labelled "inadmissible." Kipling was an honest but tendentious writer who met with an equally tendentious but essentially dishonest criticism. The reports of his contemporaries appear to have been seldom free from some form of special pleading. Their motivation was too often questionable and their lack of objectivity was notorious. Because they could not tolerate his popularity, his success, his unfashionable philosophy, his discredited politics, his stubborn, retrogressive Philistinism and his refusal to countenance what he called the Gods of the Market Place, the critics were led to reject Kipling's art.

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