Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Naulakha: Kipling in America

Presented to the Club in 1990 by David T. Noyes

My parents have been in the process of cleaning out their home of the last 36 years — the home in which I grew up. They were preparing to sell it and retire to Cape Cod, with some winter traveling in warmer climates, but the downward spiral in the real estate market has postponed their plans for the time being.

As part of the clean up process, several large cartons of old dusty items were dropped off at our house. Return delivery was not an option! Because I was now a homeowner, surely I had room to store all these “treasures:” costumes from a first grade play, comic books, Red Sox programs featuring Pete Runnels, Pumpsie Green, and Frank Malzone. There were also report cards, Boy Scout badges, family trip souvenirs. Bazooka Bubblegum wrappers (you know — the ones advertising trinkets such as rabbit feet for 25 cents plus 250 wrappers).

But there was also a faded yellow and frayed edged children’s anthology that I recognized immediately. Here was the real treasure: Childhood memories of many evening’s bedtime stories.

I sometimes wonder if I actually recall certain childhood events or if I’ve just been told some incidents so often that I have incorporated them as memories. However, I clearly remember asking over and over again for my parents to read my favorite: “The Elephant’s Child”. The cynic in me says that I chose it because it was the longest tale in this book or that the choice was influenced by my mother’s being an English teacher. But, in reality, it is still today my favorite children’s story. I have to confess that it was not until I started to read to my own children that I realized that Rudyard Kipling was the author. Somehow, his work had been totally lacking during my formal education. The teachers of my generation apparently did not value memorization of poems or passages of literature, whereas I suspect many of you can remember, even now, some passage you were required to recite. It is for this reason that I didn’t realize Kipling is perhaps more famous for his verse than his prose. At the [Berkshire] Athenaeum [in Pittsfield, Mass.], I was delighted to find not only Kipling in print, but several wonderful readings on tape.

To refresh your memories, “The Elephant’s Child” is the story in which, O Best Beloved, the elephant gains a trunk. Elephants had noses that were “blackish, bulgy and as big as a boot, that could wriggle from side to side” but were not useful extremities. Because a young elephant is filled with “ ’satiable curiosity” and makes a nuisance of himself by asking too many questions, his African family members take turns spanking him. When he can no find a satisfactory answer locally, he sets off to discover what the crocodile has for dinner, and comes to the banks of the “great grey-green greasy Limpopo River all set about with fever trees.” Here he meets the Bicolored Python Rock Snake who proceeds to spank the elephant with his “scalesome, flailsome tail.” Soon the elephant has his encounter with the crocodile who bites down on the trunk. In the tug of war that follows the trunk stretches. Of course the Bicolored Python Rock Snake helps him to realize that the trunk will be very useful for picking up food, showering, and perhaps, most importantly, to exact a spanking revenge on all his family members.

Isn’t this the dream of all children: to turn disadvantage to advantage; to get even with the schoolyard bully? No wonder it’s such a favorite.

As you may know Kipling does have a New England connection. If we can stretch the boundaries of the Berkshires to Brattleboro, Vermont, perhaps we can claim him for our own!

He was born in 1865 in Bombay, India. His father was an artist and sculptor, working as head of an art department. At the age of six he was sent to London to live with a couple who were chosen from a newspaper ad. It was five years before his mother returned and rescued him for the continual beatings he was given (remember “The Elephant’s Child”).

Upon completion of his formal schooling, he returned to India to work for a newspaper. At the age of 21, he began to produce the writing that made him famous. Apparently, he was able to interview soldiers and subsequently write detailed accounts of battle without ever having experienced war himself, thereby breaking what I was taught was one of the cardinal rules of writing.

By the age of 25, he was back in London, and had published numerous poems including “Gunga Din” and “The Ballad of East and West.” When Tennyson died in 1892, the office of Poet Laureate became vacant. Kipling was passed over for this post in favor of Alfred Austin, a little known journalist.

Kipling had a general mistrust of publishers. Several of his stories were pirated and sold as editions. Apparently it was not clear what copyright laws protected magazine articles and he received no compensation for these anthologies. However, Wolcott Balestier, a literary agent for John Lovell Publishing Co., gained Rudyard’s trust and they became close friends. Wolcott was the eldest child of the Ballestier family of Brattleboro, Vermont. Shortly after Wolcott died a tragic early death from typhoid fever, Rudyard married Wolcott’s younger sister , Carrie. They were married in London, and Henry James gave the bride away.

The newlyweds arrived in New York and took the train for Vermont. They were greeted by Carrie’s brother, Betty. The countryside was snow-covered and the temperature was minus 30 degrees! Kipling describes his first encounter with New England:
A walrus sitting on a woolpack was our host in his sleigh, and he wrapped us in hairy goatskin coats, caps that came down over the ears, buffalo-robes and blankets, and yet more buffalo-robes till we, too, looked like walruses and moved almost as gracefully. But for the jingle of the sleigh-bells the ride might have taken place in a dream, for there was no sound of hoofs upon the snow. The runners sighed a little now and again as they glided over an inequality, and all the sheeted hills round about were as dumb as death.
When Kipling awoke the next day and took in the view of Mount Monadnock, which he knew to be Ralph Waldo Emerson’s favorite mountain, he wanted to make Vermont his permanent home. Beatty sold Rudyard eleven acres of rolling fields which included frontage on the Connecticut River and wonderful views of Monadnock. Kipling quickly started planning their dream house, Naulakha. This is the name of a fabulous Indian Jewel worn by a Hindu Maharajah and literally translates as 900,000 rubies. Kipling described his new home as “riding on a hillside like a little boat on the flank of a far wave.” His 1894 earnings of $25,000 allowed him to complete the house of his dreams.

He wrote in his library from 9 to 1, and did not allow visitors during that time. He said, “I have time, light, and quiet, three things hard to come by in London.” Captains Courageous, the only one of his stories in which all the characters are typical Americans in an American setting, The Seven Seas, and both Jungle Books were written there. Kipling wrote to E. L. White in 1894: “I wonder if people get a tithe of the fun out of the tales that I get in doing them.”

Rudyard continued to travel and meet people. On a visit to Washington D. C., he met President Cleveland and became disillusioned by the dishonesty in government. He subsequently described Theodore Roosevelt as a champion of manliness and enemy of pretentious shams. Kipling also returned to England to visit his parents, but, while there, he kept Vermont close to his heart. He wrote to a friend:
Real warmth at last, and it waked in me a lively desire to be back in Main Street, Brattleboro, Vermont, U. S. A. and hear the sodywater fissing in the drug-store and discuss the outlook for the Episcopalian Church with the clerk; and hear the doctor tell fish-yarns, and have the iron-headed old farmers loaf up and jerk out: “Bin in Yurope haint yer?” and then go home, an easy gait, and the fireflies playing up and down the Swamp Road and Katy-dids giving oratorios, free, gratis and for nothing to the wippoorwill, and everybody sitting out on the verandah after dinner, smoking Durham tobacco in a cob pipe, with our feet on the verandah railings and the moon coming up.
However, the Kiplings did not associate with many of the locals. Rudyard did play golf with the minister of the Congregational Church, but did not attend services. He felt he was being stared at. One rumor suggested that he spent Sundays writing hymns, which gave him a mystical status and relieved him of being thought irreligious.

Vermont did not prove to be Utopia. As Kipling’s fame grew, so did the numbers of autograph seekers. The Kiplings ventured out less and less and came to be viewed as snooty by the locals. Visitors to Naulakha were almost exclusively out-of-towners, and included Arthur Conan Doyle among others.

Moreover, Beatty began to be a problem. He was drinking heavily and in debt. He had been hired by the Kiplings as caretaker of Naulakha, but was discovered taking money from this account for personal use. In 1896 Beatty filed for bankruptcy. Rudyard inflamed the situation by disparaging Beatty in the local tavern. Beatty then threatened to kill Rudyard if he didn’t apologize. Trying to turn the tables Rudyard pressed charges of “indecent and opprobrious epithets, and threatening to kill.” Beatty made bail and immediately wired the news to the leading newspapers, all of which were eager for the story. Kipling’s precious privacy was lost. The American press sided with Beatty, seeing this as the story of a famous, wealthy Englishman trying to throw his unsuccessful brother-in-law into jail to avoid the embarrassment of having to live next door to him. The outcome of the case became irrelevant; Kipling had made a fool of himself. He decided he had to leave Vermont, and wrote to a friend in England, “there are only two places in the world I want to live, Bombay and Brattleboro. And I can’t live at either.”

He lived the remainder of his life in England and South Africa, where he became good friends with Cecil Rhodes. When Rhodes died, Kipling became a trustee of the Rhodes Scholarships. He continued to refuse public honors, as he thought this might compromise his complete independence to say what he felt needed to be said. Thus he refused knighthood twice and was passed over in favor of Bridges for Poet Laureate in 1913. He refused to be president of the Authors Society, but in 1926 the Royal Society of Literature awarded Kipling their gold medal which had been given previously only to Walter Scott, George Meredith and Thomas Hardy. Kipling accepted the Nobel prize for literature — the first Englishman to be so honored.

He also enjoyed the all male companionship of a number of exclusive London clubs. However, he found that he could not partake in the luxuries of the table without severe abdominal pains and thus spent the last 25 years of his life on strict, bland diet. Of course, his two pack per day smoking habit persisted and in 1936, at the age of 70, his ulcer perforated caused his death.

Throughout his life he adored children, reminding visitors to bring their own whenever they came. He was especially close to his own three children and was devastated when his first born daughter died of scarlet fever at the age of eight in 1900. In 1915 his son John, became a casualty of the War and his body was never recovered. Despite these tragedies, or perhaps because of them, Kipling pursued youthful writing. However, he wrote, “I worked the material in three or four overlaid tints and textures, which might or might not reveal themselves according to the shifting light of sex, youth, and experience. The tales had to be read by children before people realized that they were meant for grown-ups.”

While I would not categorize our Monday evening’s topics as bedtime stories, where else can I experience the pure pleasure of being read to!

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