‘IF: The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years’

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IF: The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years
By Christopher Benfey
Penguin Press, New York, 2019
Hardcover, 240 pages, $28

Rudyard Kipling had a home in Vermont.

Rudyard Kipling had a home in Vermont?

Rudyard Kipling had a home in Vermont!

This may come as news to those of us who aren’t Vermonters — southern Vermonters, at that. Nevertheless, around the turn of the 20th century, the archetypal British author was hoping to write the Great American Novel. He built the home of his dreams outside of Brattleboro. There he wrote “Captains Courageous” and both “Jungle Books,” among other works.

The house

He dubbed his home Naulakha after the title of a book he wrote with dear friend Charles Wolcott Balestier. Today it has been lovingly restored by The Landmark Trust U.S.A, which leases it out as a guest house. It is not a museum (most of the furnishings are period pieces but not originals) and consequently it is not open to the public except for special events. We’ve stayed at the house (a step back in time). More recently, we attended one of those special events — a presentation by Christopher Benfey of his recently published book.

The author

Benfey, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College in nearby South Hadley, Mass., specializes in American literature of the Gilded Age. Kipling, born in India of British parents, was eager during that period to join the likes of Mark Twain, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Henry James. Benfey examines the letters and papers of Kipling and his contemporaries, and tells the story of the decade in which the author tried to fit in as a nouveau American — and then abruptly abandoned the plan.

The book

The story of Kipling’s short years in Dummerston has been told and retold in Vermont, almost to the point of legend. This book extends beyond the seriocomic tale of conflict with the locals and the in-laws. Benfey could have gone into more detail about the legal case that caused Kipling to flee the country with his family, which makes for great comic drama. Instead, he concentrates on the less-known family tragedy that took place on the family’s return to the U.S., which so traumatized Kipling that he could never bring himself to set foot in the country again.

Benfey’s account puts Kipling’s American years into broader historical and literary context, and still offers a compelling biographical sketch. Despite occasional lapses into academic analyses and stretches of sociological interpretation, the author delivers the general reader the story of a man rather than a literary criticism.

An example: Benfey devotes a chapter to Kipling’s exploration of what he called the “fourth dimension,” an unseen realm of the underworld where Kipling the newsman could pass unnoticed. This dimension was accessible only through the use of opium, which Kipling had experienced in his youth. The idea (sans drugs) comes back in Kipling’s 1894 story “An Error in the Fourth Dimension,” which he wrote during his Vermont years. It’s the story of an American tycoon who expatriated to Britain, only to find himself a stranger to both cultures — a mirror image of Kipling himself.

Fourth dimension? The geometrical concept of a fourth dimension was already well known by the 1880s, but it wasn’t until 1895 — the year after Kipling’s story — that H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” popularized the idea of time as the fourth dimension.

The legacy

This book takes its title from two Kipling poems that started with that single, two-letter word. The best known shares the title: “If.” You’ve probably heard it:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you …

The other was in “Epitaphs of the War,” written after his son’s death in World War I:

If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Benfey’s book begins with the first and ends with the second, which is ironically invoked in the context of the renewed interest in Kipling’s works during the Vietnam War, which Benfey brings to light.

Kipling’s reputation as a warrior poet may have dulled his luster after Vietnam. Likewise, his reputation still suffers “The White Man’s Burden,” written to encourage America to expand into the Pacific the way Britain had colonized Africa and India.

As a result, many today think of him as an imperialist and white supremacist. Benfey attempts, with mixed success, to put Kipling into historical context and demonstrate that his works and life show a man of truly international and intercultural understanding.

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