My latest project for Librivox
is Rudyard Kipling's American Notes.
(Perhaps I'll do the more famous Dickens American Notes
next?) The essays are controversial, they were when they were first published, and given the debate over Kipling's (alleged?) racism they are not less so today. Here is what I have written as introduction, I would be glad of any comments. The Gutenberg e-text of American Notes
is here, and the chapters read aloud:
I'd love to know what today's Americans make of Kipling's America, and I'd also be glad of any suggestions on how to improve or correct this introduction:
This book is controversial, it records Kipling's cutting observations of American life in the 1990s, and it reports with apparent relish the most racist of opinions as if they were facts.
Yet Kipling's essays about American life in the 1890s are written with an interesting British/Indian distance from his subject. Though the tone is often sarcastic, his affection for the country and its people is a steady undercurrent. These essays provide an interesting glimpse of the USA at the time, and regularly reveal Kipling's love of words. They also contain (when circumstances warranted the comment - see the toffee-nosed Englishman described in chapter 4) disparaging remarks about his compatriots.
As well as the rude things he says about the USA, Kipling's readers are often shocked by things he says about races and peoples other than his own. Everyone must interpret this for themselves (perhaps remembering that like us he may reflect the presuppositions and prejudices of his time and place). One may hear an interesting "distance" between Kipling and the "facts" he reports. So, after recounting crude racial prejudices, with apparent agreement, he concludes "It is not good to be a negro in the land of the free and the home of the brave." Which opinion is Kipling's? The one, the other, or somehow both at once?
Indeed Kipling's writing, often, and above all here, raises questions of interpretation. One American reader (G. A. England from Harvard University) from Kipling's own time commented: "He sees things done by machinery, in large ways, and wonders at every-day occurrences that any child among us would regard as matters of course." He detected no double edge to Kipling's words, no implied comparison with the more backward "home country" then the seat of Imperial power.
He comments scathingly on Kipling's passage (in ch.1) describing the benefits of the San Fransisco cable-car system: "With the same scorn he wastes nearly a page in fantastic description of a cable-car as an amazing phenomenon. It is as though Alaric at Rome had marvelled before the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus with the scoff 'provincial' on his bearded lips. Thus does the newly-landed Anglo-American descant upon our barbaric devil-carriage." Can Kipling, a Nobel Prize winner really be as naïve as his critic assumes?
Indeed, can the critic be as naive as I have assumed above? Mr England of Harvard began his piece demolishing Kipling claiming: To the American temperament, the gentleman who throws stones while himself living in a glass house cannot fail to be amusing; the more so if, as in Mr Kipling's case, he appears to be in a state of maiden innocence regarding the structure of his own domicile. Was England perhaps playing Kipling at his own game and pretending to take seriously, what really he was smiling fondly at?
In the end, this is not Kipling's best work, yet these articles, first published in an Indian Newspaper, still carry vivid impressions both of the USA in the nineteenth century and, at the least indirectly, offers interesting criticism of both the New World and the Old.
Quotations from The New York Times
of October 11th 1902.
Labels: audio, kipling, librivox