#227: KIPLING’S JUST SO STORIES, OR THE BABY AND THE BATHWATER. It was just recently that I read Rudyard Kipling’s collection Just So Stories for the first time. They were written, as so many children’s classics were, for a particular child: Kipling’s daughter Josephine, who, if he differed at all in the nightly retelling, insisted that the stories be told “just so,” to be exactly as spoken before. The Just So Stories have an entirely individual voice, a sly and rollicking humor, an unflagging supply of invention and not only the rounding-off of Kipling’s end verses but his own fine illustrations. It can stand with the best of that sudden original spate of children’s books published in England running from, say, 1865 with the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the publication in 1908 of The Wind in the Willows. We associate the books with the period of Victoria, who had been dead barely a year when Just So Stories was published in 1902. Here Kipling’s repeated use of epithets (a friend who hadn’t read the book in fifty years, when I mentioned it, immediately invoked “the great grey green greasy Limpopo River”), asides (“Did you know he was a Tewara?”), addresses (“Now attend and listen!” and of course “O my Best Beloved”) make the stories irresistibly oral; my first impulse, reading them, was to rush to a library and find children to read them to. The range of geographical and period references and the implicit joking about Lamarck and Darwin are of the period, but I wouldn’t worry much about that; the incantatory voice inside this prose that will surely carry any audience along.
Kipling famously presents problems to the contemporary reader. Marcus Clapham’s afterword to my copy of the Stories says, “He has been attacked as a jingoistic imperialist, a crypto-fascist and a patronizing white supremacist.” Not to mention Kipling on The Place of Women, as in the final Just So story, or the very period hints elsewhere of anti-Semitism. So you’ve got just about the whole nine yards, lacking only in homophobia (there have indeed been some whispers about Kipling’s relationship with his brother-in-law—he wooed his wife by changing the pronouns in a poem he’d written to her brother). It’s the sort of thing you’re going to run into in the fiction of the period, not only in Kipling but, alas—to name only three authors, all of whom I love--in Conan Doyle (the racial slur in “The Three Gables”), Arthur Ransome (the n-word creeping into Peter Duck), and Dorothy L. Sayers (Lord Peter’s dog-whistle comments about falling into the hands of moneylenders). It’s the sad and blush-making bane of everyone who grew up with Victorian and Edwardian literature. (My mind then crosses the ocean to To Kill a Mockingbird, recently retired from a Washington school reading list for a case of white-saviorism, after being banned elsewhere for featuring the n-word, and elsewhere again for showing Southern race-prejudice in an unflattering light. Some books just can’t win.) I would so hate for readers to lose the imagination and jollity (do we use that word any more?) in Kipling, the ingenuity in Doyle and Sayers, the outdoor charm in Ransome, that I’m always inclined to want to plead for leniency. Do we censor, discard these works, ignore their difficulties, forgive them? Here again we have an issue with which every reader has to make their own negotiations. (I never told you things would be simple.)