Kipling on Twain

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Kipling on Twain

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gen. 28, 2007, 11:16pm

It is far too quiet here! Just came across one of my favorite quotes, so I thought I'd post it. It dates from Rudyard Kipling's trip to America in 1889, when he visited Twain. He wrote in his letter to India:

"You are a contemptible lot over yonder. Some of you are Commissioners and some are Lieutenant-Governors, and some have the V.C., and a few are privileged to walk around the Mall arm and arm with the Viceroy; but I have seen Mark Twain this golden morning, have shaken his hand and smoked a cigar --- no, two cigars --- with him, and talked with him for more than two hours! Understand clearly that I do not despise you; indeed, I don't. I am only very sorry for you, from the Viceroy downward."

gen. 29, 2007, 5:50am

Thanks for the great quotation.

gen. 30, 2007, 4:33pm

It is, isn't it? I know just what he meant.

març 3, 2007, 7:42am

But isn't it rather ironic, given that Kipling would go on to be an imperialist and Twain wrote The War Prayer?


març 4, 2007, 5:40am

Some thoughts stimulated by the above comments:

Kipling, born in India and a life-long empire loyalist, was imperialist in outlook well before and long after this meeting with Twain in 1889.

Twain, on the other hand, had shown early on his distaste for imperial and militarist attitudes. While his anti-imperialism peaked at the time of the Spanish-American War, his attitudes were tending in a similar direction much earlier. In his "The Private History of a Campaign That Failed," he describes his few weeks in the service of the state of Missouri (which did not secede but had a governor that unsuccessfully sought that result), including his great discomfort at unexpectedly coming upon a dead Union soldier while alone on patrol. Shortly thereafter he took off for the West (Nevada first, then
California), where he spent the whole rest of the time of the Civil War. (There is apparently good reason to believe that Twain entirely invented the story of coming upon the dead soldier. If interested, see the detailed discussion of the actual circumstances in Missouri and Hannibal in 1861, and Sam Clemens's known activities at the time, at The more interesting point for present purposes, though, is that the story does seem to accurately reflect Twain's feelings about war and the death of young men in dubious causes.)
A little later, Twain recorded (reported in Roughing It) his distaste for the tendency to vigilante law in the mining camps of Nevada, and for the prejudice against the Chinese immigrant workers of the time, who he saw as some of the most peaceful, law-abiding, and hard-working people, quite undeserving of the prejudiced, jingoistic hostility and mistreatment they too often suffered.

So -- back to the meeting between Twain and Kipling in 1889. The two men already at that time held political views that were, if explored, not compatible. I have little direct information about their meeting. But I strongly suspect that they conversed as two writers, Twain older and well-established, Kipling much younger but having published scores of stories of India by this time and on the eve of great recognition for his talents in London. Kipling, we do know and as the quotation in #1 above illustrates, was in awe of Twain's talent and success, and I have no doubt that he spoke very respectfully with the great man he was visiting in his home. It seems likely that geopolitical matters were touched on little if at all in this one meeting between them.

Kipling of course received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1907, while Twain was still alive. I don't know what he thought of that or if he said anything about it, when their political positions had become so much more publicly divergent by then.

març 4, 2007, 7:31am

How far apart were Twain and Kipling?

There seems to be an assumption that Twain was not an imperialist. This is a misconception, Twain's anti-imperialism came later in life (see Twain and Imperialism). Of course, Kipling's response to the American invasion of the Phillipines was the infamous The White Man's Burden.

Kipling, and the Victoria brand of imperialism, genuinely believed that they weren't subjugating people (slavery had been abolished in 1833) but rather civilising them, less empire-builders than missionaries. Twain's anti-imperialism attitudes didn't seem to exist within the borders of the US - although his portrayal of Jim in Huckleberry Finn is sympathetic, his attitude to native Americans is open to debate.

març 5, 2007, 2:36am

Here is a response by Twain to Kipling's "Burden":

In 1901, after two years of devastating warfare in the Philippines, Mark Twain remarked: "The White Man's Burden has been sung. Who will sing the Brown Man's?"

I suggested above that Twain's attitudes tended to the anti-imperialist and anti-racist well before the Spanish-American War. His portrayal of Jim in Huckleberry Finn is not merely smpathetic. His interplay of the characters of Jim and Huck is a subtle and profound lesson on the essential equality of all men. Twain does not, as Harriet Beecher Stowe did in Uncle Tom's Cabin, sentimentalize his black character to make him sympathetic. He shows Jim as ignorant, uneducated, superstitious -- many of the qualities which racists of the time asserted marked blacks as inherently inferior (and too many still do so argue). Twain's story, and Huck's moral journey through it, persuades us indelibly that notwithstanding Jim's flaws (and without ever lecturing us on the causes of those flaws in his condition of enslavement) he is as morally worthy as any man you could meet. Near the end of the book, Huck contemplates and faces this reality, by deciding that even if -- by the Southern public morality of the period of the story -- he will go to hell for failing to turn in Jim as a runaway slave, then it is to hell he must go for he cannot turn over a man as good as Jim.

Twain's anti-racism shows again very clearly in his condemnation -- in the 1860's -- of the mistreatment of the immigrant Chinese in the American West.

Twain is not free of all 19th century imperialist thinking, certainly. His attitude toward American Indians may not have been admirable. I haven't seen much comment from him on that topic, so I don't really know. In his essay, "The French and the Comanches," he compares the ferocity of the French in the wars of religion unfavorably to the Comanches. He liked Hawaii and the Hawaiians, having visited there befoe 1870, but he also favored annexation by the U.S. He said that these islands would fall to some imperial power for sure and it might as well be the U.S.

What I would argue is that in those situations where Twain knew the peoples involved (black Americans, the Chinese in the West), he readily came to feel sympathy for the oppressed -- and not to be fooled into thinking that the oppression was somehow 'for their own good.'

This shows in his attitude toward the Boer War, with mixed results. He had visited South Africa, including the Orange Free State, in 1896 (the round-the-world speaking tour/trip that "Following the Equator" tells of). He liked the Boers, and expressed admiration for their simpler way of life and virtues. But when the war broke out, he was then living in England, he was pro-Britain in many ways, and felt at first that "progress" required British victory. As this brutal conflict went on, he wrote several articles and letters for publication condemning the war on the Boers as a British mistake and criminal conduct -- and then decided, gritting his teeth, to refrain from publishing.

Kipling, on the other hand, was consistently pro-Empire throughout. Yes, he believed in the "civilizing mission" justification for the Indian Empire. He was also, however, very aware of the history of the Sepoy Mutiny, and of the emergence of Indian voices calling for independence. He was -- so far as I know -- always against them.

Twain was aware of the "civilizing mission" justification for imperialism. With respect to the Boer war, and in a context of privately denouncing it, he wrote: "My idea of our civilization is that it is a shoddy, poor thing & full of cruelties, vanities, arrogancies, meannesses, & hypocrisies." In this, he seems (relatively) closer to Gandhi than Kipling. You may recall that as a young lawyer and advocate for the rights of Indians in South Africa, Gandhi was asked by an English journalist what he thought of Western Civilization. He responded, "I think that it would be a good idea."

None of the above means that I don't admire Kipling's literary achievements. I've enjoyed many of his stories, and this conversation moves me to want to read some more of his short stories.

To end on a literary note, in his notebook for "Following the Equator," Twain comments on the soothing rest his long sea passage from Colombo to Capetown gave him. He then inserts a quotation from Kipling:

The Injian Ocean sits and smiles
So sof', so bright, so bloomin' blue,
There aren't a wave for miles an' miles
Excep' the jiggle of the screw.
-- Kip.

març 5, 2007, 4:39am

Analysis aside, allow me to respond to this quotation with another quotation, this time by Mark Twain:

"He is a stranger to me, but he is a most remarkable man--and I am the other one. Between us, we cover all knowledge; he knows all that can be known, and I know the rest."

març 5, 2007, 6:05pm

In case the context doesn't make it clear, in the quote posted by ScarletLark Twain was speaking of Kipling.

març 28, 2007, 6:38am

Just joined.

perchmerle's comment, "Twain was aware of the 'civilizing mission' justification for imperialism" made me pick up Huck Finn again and find that I had remembered accurately Huck's spitting out of the word 'sivilize' in the opening chapter. This topic makes Twain's purpose much more powerful for me.

març 31, 2007, 4:59am

The word "sivilize" comes back on the last page of the novel, where Huck again rejects the prospect.

març 31, 2007, 5:59am

Indeed. Thanks for that.