A thoughtful biography traces Kipling’s development as a spokesman for British imperialism and a prophet of its decline.
“I hate your generation,” the elderly Kipling (1865–1936) once exclaimed to a young lawyer of his acquaintance, “because you are going to give it all away.” The it in question, writes Gilmour (The Last Leopard, 1991, etc.), was the quarter of the globe that until shortly after WWII was colored red in atlases to indicate British ownership. This remarkable feat of empire-building occurred mostly within Kipling’s lifetime, his biographer reminds us. Gilmour spends little time discussing his subject’s work (except to characterize much of his vast output as mediocre), examining instead how the India-born, globetrotting Kipling came to believe that it was the manifest destiny of industrial Anglo-Saxon man to reign over so much of the world. Scorned by the ruling class for glorifying the common soldiers, prostitutes, and engineers who made the empire run, Kipling nevertheless took the bluebloods’ interests to be his own, weaving imperial themes into the heart of such fiction as Kim and The Jungle Book. (Strangely, Gilmour spends little time discussing what may be Kipling’s best short story, “The Man Who Would Be King,” which shows what happens when empires stretch too thin.) Treading political minefields carefully, the author takes pains to distinguish Kipling’s global-level politics from his approach to daily life, which was remarkably free of the casual racism of the time. Gilmour reports, for instance, that Kipling returned from a trip to Brazil full of enthusiasm for its multiracial society and that he foresaw and opposed the rise of apartheid, which he believed was the result of abandoning South Africa to the empire’s former Boer opponents without sufficiently imposing British ideals on them.
Unapologetic, carefully detailed, and highly useful for students of Kipling and his era.