Rudyard Kipling and The Just So Series

Sometimes it seems the more accolades an author picks up during a lifetime of notable, diversified work, the less likely that author’s reputation is left to rest on laurels. When you take the Nobel Prize as a metaphor for the bar being raised to its highest, four authors in particular have hit the skids. These are respectively three Americans and a Brit.

Sinclair Lewis is still taught, but except for “Babbitt,” is largely left in the guest room to languish with the Tom Clancy left by the last guest. Ernest Hemingway, although still taught widely because of his short stories, produces sighs of exasperation when the focus shifts to the novels.

This leaves John Steinbeck, whose reputation took a series of hits for sentimentality, but who now seems to remind us, both in the short story and the longer work, that his ghost will be haunting the battlements for some time to come, sending us back to reread “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Of Mice and Men,” and “East of Eden” with the expectation of discovering things we’d missed earlier, and consulting “Cannery Row” when we want the literary equivalent of a riotous toot.

This leaves us with the Brit, whom many of us seem to have forgotten in terms of his Nobel Prize, so willing were we to see him as a symbol of chauvinism, imperialism, and a few other isms (such as anti-feminism: remember “The female of the species/ Is more deadly than the male...?”) thrown in for good measure. I speak of Rudyard Kipling, a man for whom George Orwell confessed a weakness, Virginia Woolf a distinct loathing, and T.S. Eliot an admiration that prodded him forth to write “Old Possum’s Book of Cats.”

Scarcely any of us of a particular set of generations can claim innocence to “The Jungle Book,” or “Gunga Din.” And when the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale reaches the right quality of coldness at the Tuesday afternoon writers’ gathering at The Crocodile on Upper State, Jim Alexander, no slouch himself at sentimentality, will cut loose with that piercing, memorable last stanza from Kipling’s poem, “Mandalay.”

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,

Where there aren't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a thirst;

For the temple-bells are callin', an' it's there that I would be –

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;

On the road to Mandalay,

Where the old Flotilla lay,

With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!

On the road to Mandalay,

Where the flyin'-fishes play,

An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!

For those who would hear the Kipling temple bells calling again, I suggest the essential way to start would be with “The Just So Stories,” so beguiling in their innocent, amazing fun.

“The Just So Stories” are Kipling’s whimsical way of explaining origins of such importance as “How the Camel Got His Hump,” “How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin,” “How the Alphabet Was Made,” and “The Cat that Walked by Himself.”

Speaking of origins, Kipling, in explaining to his readers how a clever and astute fish, fearful of himself being eaten by a whale, posed the question to the whale, “Noble and generous Cetacean, have you ever tasted Man?”

“No,” said the Whale. “What is it like?”

“Nice,” says the astute fish, whereupon he is bidden by the whale to “fetch me some.”

“One at a time is enough,” the fish remarks. “If you swim to latitude Fifty North, longitude Forty West (that is magic), you will find, sitting on a raft in the middle of the sea, with nothing on but a pair of blue canvas breeches, a pair of suspenders (you must not forget the suspenders) and a jack knife, one shipwrecked Mariner, who, it is only fair to tell you, is a man of infinite resource and sagacity.” ‘Twould be a spoiler to let you in on the final results between the whale, the astute fish, and the Mariner; such things must be earned through direct experience.

“The Just So” stories were published in 1902, the year of publication of another set of short stories, “Dubliners,” by James Joyce, a seemingly anomalous way of anchoring Kipling’s historical place in the world. He was alive—young to be sure, but old enough to talk and read—while Dickens was alive—visited Mark Twain in Twain’s Elmira, New York, home, and had as best man at his wedding Henry James. Frequently within the narrative of “The Just So Stories,” Kipling will seemingly be speaking to one reader in particular: “(You must particularly remember the suspenders, Best Beloved.)” and in fact he was addressing his oldest daughter, Josephine.

All of us who have read these stories have their favorite, mine being “The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo,” which begins fetchingly enough, “Not always was the kangaroo as now we do behold him, but a different animal with four short legs. He was gray and he was woolly, and his pride inordinate: he danced on an outcrop in the middle of Australia, and he went to the Little God Nqa.

“He went to Nqa at six before breakfast, saying ‘Make me different from all other animals by five this afternoon.’”

All the stories have illustrations, some have many, contesting with one another for honors in whimsicality and inventiveness. In their captions and in the stories themselves, the bubbling joy rose and foamed forth, revealing an often-overlooked side to a man who had been accused of jingoism, imperialism, racism, and class-conscious snobbery. Not in these stories.

There appears to be no middle critical ground on him, approaching 75 years after his death, the most persistently damming visions of him coming because of his politics rather than his structural influences on the tale, the short story, and the youthful adventure. In all these forms, Kipling set forth either a boy or working-class protagonist who managed to bring personality and exuberance into the previously conservative restraints of narrative. Because of his time spent living and working in India as well as England and South Africa, his ear for language was acute and eager to be put to use.

He is interred in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey, where he is not far away from another iconic writer who gave so much to the language and the reader, Geoffrey Chaucer. “The Just So Stories” are a romp of an introduction to the complex productivity of a complex man who has not yet been catalogued to satisfaction.