Poet of the empire

Jad Adams’ biography of Kipling fails to delve into the writer’s politics.

Published: 30th June 2013 12:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 28th June 2013 11:54 AM   |  A+A-


This is a re-issue of a 2005 biography of Rudyard Kipling by Jad Adams. Adams is a professional biographer having written the lives of Emmeline Pankhurst, Gandhi and the Nehru-Gandhi family. His interests in India, the Raj and early twentieth-century British history are obvious. Kipling fits comfortably under these themes. Cut to the size of popular biographies, for racy and novel-like reading, the biography of Kipling executes its subject in little under 200 pages. However, Adams has not sacrificed the apparatus of references and further reading more relevant to academic biography. Like the sleek portrait postcard of Kipling used for the Rupa edition’s cover, the biography too manages to assemble a collage of Kipling’s life in an easy-to-read, mass produced format of life writing.

While the formulaic writing tames the biography’s subject, Adams manages to sustain our interest in the kinks and exceptionalities of Kipling as a writer and private person. This means, however, that the writing is dealt with as the outer achievement of the inner struggles and torments of the writer. He pushes somewhat ingenuously for an autobiographical understanding of the style, content and preoccupations of Kipling’s short stories, stressing the points of contact between personal experience and the need to sublimate them in writing. This begs the question about the popularity of Kipling’s publications in his times. And this is a problem Kipling scholars must deal with in order to explain both the popularity and canonization of his oeuvre. Yes, we know that Kipling’s earliest successes lay in his railway stories and his children’s jungle books but what is it that makes him a crossover artist who was both praised and excoriated by Henry James for writing simultaneously accessible and pedestrian prose? The biography is obviously not interested in these subtler points of self-presentation in a writer’s career, focused as it is on presenting the cleanly biographical threads that wove the myth of Kipling then and for us now.

Finally, apart from giving us the threadbare account of his life, the biography makes it a point to tackle Kipling’s imperialist racism and his sexual life. Such obviously “political” concerns are ballast enough to turn a commercial biography of the kind into a serious work of biographical speculation. So, for example, his overtly racist poems (“the great poet of Empire”) are set against the background of a cultural consensus about racist ideology from Oscar Wilde to Kipling himself. As if this contextualisation were not enough, Adams insists that British racist imperialism was a tad more humane than the Belgian, German and Japanese varieties (p. 190)! This calculus of racism belies the specificity of Kipling’s racist politics and, more importantly for our South Asian context, the continued popularity of Kipling’s writings in cheap paperbacks, attested by the re-issuing of this eight-year-old biography for the Indian subcontinent. But more than this, the specificity of his racism must be located in the specific aesthetic inflections and choices of his writing, as Edward Said reminds us in Culture and Imperialism. Only then can we understand the undwindling popularity of Kipling for Raj nostalgists both in the east and the west. Adams with his biographical sureties only manages a simplistic account of the writer’s politics and literary achievement.

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