Joseph Rudyard Kipling was born on December 30, 1865, in Bombay, India. His father was professor of architectural sculpture at the Bombay School of Art. In 1871 Kipling was sent to England for his education. In 1878 Rudyard entered the United Services College at Westward Ho!, a boarding school in Devon. There young “Gigger,” as he was called, endured bullying and harsh discipline, but he also enjoyed the close friendships, practical jokes, and merry pranks he later recorded in Stalky & Co. (1899).
Kipling’s closest friend at Westward Ho!, George Beresford, described him as a short, but “cheery, capering, podgy, little fellow” with a thick pair of spectacles over “a broad smile.” His eyes were brilliant blue, and over them his heavy black eyebrows moved up and down as he talked. Another close friend was the headmaster, “Crom” Price, who encouraged Kipling’s literary ambitions by having him edit the school paper and praising the poems which he wrote for it. When Kipling sent some of these to India, his father had them privately printed as Schoolboy Lyrics (1881), Kipling’s first published work.
In 1882 Kipling rejoined his parents in Lahore, India, where he became a copy editor (one who edits newspaper articles) for the Civil and Military Gazette. In 1887 he moved to the Allahabad Pioneer, a better paper, which gave him greater liberty in his writing. He published satiric (sharply or bitterly witty) verses, Departmental Ditties in 1886, and over seventy short stories in 1888 in seven paperback volumes. In style, these stories showed the influence of the writers Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), Bret Harte (1836–1902), and Guy de Maupassant (1850–1893). The subjects, however, were Kipling’s own. He wrote about Anglo-Indian society, which he readily criticized with an acid pen, and the life of the common British soldier and the Indian native, which he portrayed accurately and sympathetically. In 1889 Kipling took a long voyage through China, Japan, and the United States. When he reached London, he found that his stories had preceded him and established him as a brilliant new author. He was readily accepted into the circle of leading writers. While there he wrote a number of stories and some of his best-remembered poems: “A Ballad of East and West,” “Mandalay,” and “The English Flag.” He also introduced English readers to a “new genre” of serious poems in Cockney dialect: “Danny Deever,” “Tommy,” “Fuzzy-Wuzzy,” and “Gunga Din.”
Kipling’s first novel, The Light That Failed (1891), was unsuccessful. But when his stories were collected as Life’s Handicap (1891) and poems as Barrackroom Ballads (1892), Kipling replaced Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892) as the most popular English author.
In 1892 Kipling married Caroline Balestier. They settled on the Balestier estate near Brattleboro, Vermont, in the United States, and began four of the happiest years of Kipling’s life. During this time he wrote some of his best work— Many Inventions (1893), perhaps his best volume of short stories; The Jungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895), two books of animal fables that attracted readers of all ages by illustrating the larger truths of life; The Seven Seas (1896), a collection of poems in experimental rhythms; and Captains Courageous (1897), a novel-length, sea story. These works not only assured Kipling’s lasting fame as a serious writer but also made him a rich man.
In 1897 the Kiplings settled in Rottingdean, a village on the British coast near Brighton. The outbreak of the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Boer War (1899–1902) turned Kipling’s attention to colonial affairs. He began to publish a number of solemn poems in standard English in the London Times. The most famous of these, “Recessional” (July 17, 1897), issued a warning to Englishmen to regard their accomplishments in the Diamond Jubilee (fiftieth) year of Queen Victoria’s (1819–1901) reign with humility and awe rather than pride and arrogance. The equally well-known “White Man’s Burden” (February 4, 1899) clearly expressed the attitudes toward the empire that are implied in the stories in The Day’s Work (1898) and A Fleet in Being (1898).
Kipling referred to less highly developed peoples as “lesser breeds” and considered order, discipline, sacrifice, and humility to be the essential qualities of colonial rulers. These views have been denounced as racist, elitist and jingoistic. But for Kipling, the term “white man” indicated citizens of the more highly developed nations. He felt it was their duty to spread law, literacy, and morality throughout the world.
During the Boer War, Kipling spent several months in South Africa, where he raised funds for soldiers’ relief and worked on an army newspaper, the Friend. In 1901 Kipling published Kim, the last and most charming of his portrayals of Indian life. But anti-imperialist reaction following the end of the Boer War caused a decline in Kipling’s popularity.
When Kipling published The Five Nations, a book of South African verse, in 1903, he was attacked in parodies, caricatures and serious protests as the opponent of a growing spirit of peace and democratic equality. Kipling retired to “Bateman’s,” a house near Burwash, a secluded village in Essex.
Kipling now turned from the wide empire as his subject to simply England itself. In 1902 he published Just So Stories for Little Children. He also issued two books of stories of England’s past— Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906) and Rewards and Fairies (1910). Like the Jungle Books they were intended for young readers but were suitable for adults as well. His most significant work at this time was a number of volumes of short stories written in a different style—”Traffics and Discoveries” (1904), “Actions and Reactions” (1904), “A Diversity of Creatures” (1917), “Debits and Credits” (1926), and “Limits and Renewals” (1932).
Kipling’s later stories treat more complex, subtle, and sombre subjects. They reflect Kipling’s darkened worldview following the death of his daughter, Josephine, in 1899, and the death of his son, John, in 1915. Consequently, these stories have never been as popular as his earlier works. But modern critics, in reevaluating Kipling, have found a greater power and depth that make them among his best work.
In 1907 Kipling became the first English writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died on January 18, 1936, and is buried in Westminster Abbey in London, England. His autobiography, Something of Myself, was published in 1937.
Rudyard Kipling’s early stories and poems about life in colonial India made him a great favorite with English readers. His support of English imperialism at first contributed to this popularity but caused a reaction against him in the twentieth century. Today he is best known for his Jungle Books and Kim, a Story of India.