If: The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years, Christopher Benfey 2019
Benfey, a history professor at Mount Holyoke, has written an entertaining and informative book about one of the most interesting figures in British literature, Rudyard Kipling. Born in India where his father was a colonial arts administrator and named after the lake in England where his parents met at a picnic, Kipling was for a time the most popular writer in the English speaking world, his poetry featured in daily newspapers and monthly magazines, his books for children and adults best-sellers. In 1907, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature, the youngest and the first English writer to be so honored. That same year he received an honorary degree from Oxford along with Saint-Saens, Rodin, and Mark Twain, surely the most distinguished group of honorees every assembled. But his star has largely faded in the 21st C as his colonialist, imperialist, militarist themes have become politically incorrect and out of fashion. In the face of all that, Benfey details the ten years that Kipling spent outside Brattleboro, Vermont at a house that he built and named Naulakha overlooking the Connecticut River. He named the house after a novel that he wrote with his best friend Wolcott Balestier. When the latter died shortly after the completion of the novel, Kipling married his sister, Carrie and fled to Vermont where the Balestier family had its roots. In America, Kipling was very productive writing Captains Courageous, The Jungle Stories, the first of his Just So Stories, the first draft of his classic Kim,and some his best poems and short stories. His first two children were born in Vermont, and he made friendships with Twain, Henry James, Theodore Roosevelt, and other movers and shakers. He would likely to have been content to stay in America for his whole life, but a family quarrel with his brother-in-law led to a law suit which he fled and returned to England. This is a well-written and interesting book primarily for the tales of literary friendships as well as a fine introduction to Kipling’s writings. The epilogue which tries to tie Kipling’s work to America’s ill-conceived wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan is less successful but an interesting aside.