Rudyard & Jack Kipling

December 30: Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay on this day in 1856. Although one of England's most popular writers at the turn of the century, and a Nobel winner in 1907, by the time of his death in 1936 Kipling was not merely forgotten but scorned. To the intellectuals and political Left he was a dinosaur of Empire; to the modernist writers and the literati he was a mere tale-teller and balladeer. Unsurprisingly, the literary world that had flocked to Thomas Hardy's interment in Westminster Abbey eight years earlier stayed away in droves when Kipling was placed beside him.

 

More recent biographers and critics have made a case for regarding at least the later Kipling as a more complex man and writer than given credit. One view is that, if Kipling's style and themes evolved, the cause may have been personal tragedy. His only son, Jack, was killed in action in WWI—still a teenager, and on his first day of combat, last heard shouting "Come on, boys!" to his command. As told in Toni and Valmai Holt's recent My Boy Jack? a double biography of father and son, the details and aftermath of Jack's death make, at the least, a poignant story.

 

Declared "missing in action" in 1915, Jack's body was lost in the No Man's Land of Loos, France for years, and then his unidentified remains were buried in a grave marked "AN UNKNOWN LIEUTENANT OF THE IRISH GUARDS." In 1919, having finally accepted the fact of his son's death, Kipling began searching for the body. He toured many military graveyards in France, and one time even visited the "UNKNOWN LIEUTENANT" gravesite, not knowing it was his son's. This was determined in 1992, and confirmed in 2002, though the authors of My Boy Jack? say that questions remain. In any case, Kipling carried to his own grave a measure of guilt for having used his influence to get Jack a commission when he was barely eighteen, and for having instilled in him a zeal for battle.

 

Kipling between the wars was no pacifist, but one of his later stories, "The Gardener," tells of a tormented parent seeking for the grave of her son, fallen in action, and for redemption.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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