Brad's Reviews > Just So Stories

Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling
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Apr 19, 2012

did not like it
bookshelves: bedtime-book, infuriating, read-to-scoutie, shite, ugh
Read from February 18 to April 19, 2012 , read count: 1

What an infuriating book. I don't know what infuriates me more: that Kipling was a racist imperialist colonizer who believed firmly in white superiority and conveyed that in every word of these stories; or that Kipling is such a marvelous writer of the English language.

Kipling the colonizer, imperialist, racist, supremicist, had no trouble at all mugging the oral traditions of the peoples his people colonized to tell his "Just So Stories" to his Best Beloved. No trouble at all mimicking their voices with disgusting condescension, rewriting origin tales, creating new origin tales, playfully interweaving the inevitability of England's rise as though fated (as he does so deftly in How the First Letter Was Written & How the Alphabet Was Made by making his generative tale appear to be something it isn't). Kipling's Just So Stories are propaganda at its most magical. They're friendly propaganda. They're propaganda of subtlety. And Kipling was a master.

And it works so well because Kipling was so talented. Love him or hate him, I think it would be difficult to make a case that he was an untalented writer. What Kipling could do and did do repeatedly with the English language was astounding. He was a master. And his gifts were such that even today countless people I know personally, who consider themselves enlightened folk, make excuses for Kipling. The most common excuse I hear is, "He's a product of his time." But in Kipling's lifetime were men like Richard Francis Burton, Mark Twain, Roger Casement, George Orwell, and countless others, who didn't see the world, or the "white man's" place in the world the way Kipling did. Many were anti-Colonial, anti-Imperial, and not racist at all. Many of Kipling's contemporaries saw colonized peoples as victims, human beings deserving of dignity, not "sullen peoples" to be brought "toward the light." So this main excuse really doesn't hold up, though it's easy to voice because Kipling's stuff is so well written and likeable in its nastiness.

I read this to my youngest daughter, my two year old, and she seemed to be dazzled by the sound Kipling's words made coming out of my mouth. I am hoping she's too young for any of his meaning to take seed in that fertile ground. Because the seeds of Kipling bear only ugly fruit.

One last scary thought: what would the world be like if someone like Hitler had had the literary talent of Kipling. It makes me shudder.
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Reading Progress

03/01/2012 ""Oh, now and then you will hear grown-ups say, 'Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the Leopard his spots?' I don't think even grown-ups would keep on saying such a silly thing if the Leopard and the Ethiopian hadn't done it once--do you? But they will never do it again, Best Beloved. They are quite contented as they are." And this only moments after using the word "nigger." Can there be any excuses for Kipling?"
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Comments (showing 1-28 of 28) (28 new)

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Manny Ha ha! I see you had the same reaction I did :)

But I still love the Jungle Book... as you say, the guy is such a hell of a writer, and the racism there is of a much less obvious variety if indeed it exists at all.

message 2: by Ted (last edited Apr 19, 2012 10:55AM) (new)

Ted I liked this review. But Brad, one's being a "product of one's time" doesn't imply that there was an opinion about something which everyone of that time shared. I would take it to mean that most or even a sizable minority of people from that era (and from the individual's own background) shared the opinion.

Your examples of people that didn't share Kipling's admittedly nasty views (I'm with you on all your dislikes there) certainly are well put, but I think people like these might be viewed by many of our contemporaries as very enlightened for their times. And everyone, unfortunately, can't be "enlightened".

message 3: by Amber (new)

Amber Tucker After "A Jungle Book," I hate Kipling and always will. End of story. Talent + "magical propaganda" = infuriating, for sure.

Miriam I was read these as a small child and did not notice any racist or imperialistic undertones, so your daughter is probably safe! I think you have to have some knowledge of history and cultural differences to pick up on those issues. I was just, like, "Funny animal stories! Yay!" The Elephant's Child was my favorite...

message 5: by Brad (new) - rated it 1 star

Brad I suppose what you say about Kipling being a product of his time is so, Ted, and that those I chose were particularly enlightened, but I don't tend to cut any slack to the Rush Limbaughs and Anne Colters of our present world (thank the gods neither have a talent like Kipling). I hope they aren't cut future slack for sharing the opinion of a portion of our current population (or even for helping to define that opinion as they do, and Kipling surely did).

I'm with you all the way, Amber.

message 6: by Brad (new) - rated it 1 star

Brad I think Scout's favourite was the Elephant's Child too, Miriam. It was a hell of a charming story. But then all little kids love Elephants, don't they?

message 7: by Brad (new) - rated it 1 star

Brad The colonialism and attitudes of supremacy are definitely there in The Jungle Books, Manny, but as you say they are very well hidden. I reread "White Man's Burden" today after finishing Just So Stories. Good lord. The arrogance is astounding to me.

Nandakishore Varma I loved Kipling as a child, and still loved the Jungle Book when I read it as an adult. But I was bored by Kim and could not finish it.

Just So Stories just seemed like a collection of animal fables when I read it as a kid, but I haven't reread it since I grew up, so maybe the racism is there; invisible to a child's eye. But the stories, and more so the pictures at the end, are superb.

message 9: by Brad (new) - rated it 1 star

Brad The pictures are really beautiful. No doubt about that, Nandakishore.

Miriam Have you read Puck of Pook's Hill, Brad? Maybe you would like that better since it is removed from the colonial context. But again, I haven't reread it since I was in single digits so it may be all kinds of offensive that I didn't notice at the time.

message 11: by Brad (new) - rated it 1 star

Brad I've not, Miriam. I've read a bunch of his poetry, Kim, The Jungle Books, and Just So Stories. Now that I feel like I've hit all the big bases, I can't see going back to Kipling again. Maybe if you reread it and really dug it, I would read it for you.

Miriam Well, maybe for the kids rather than yourself. Kipling wrote for his own kids (I think as a painless history-and-folklore lesson) and I recall liking the siblings who are the fictive audience of the stories.

message 13: by Ted (new)

Ted Brad, I couldn't agree with you more about Rush & Anne. So that brings up an interesting question (to me) about why I seem more willing to give "slack" to people of bygone times than I'm willing to give to people today (on the issue of "product of their times").

Kind of hard to answer. Perhaps it is no more than the fact that that phrase ("product of their times") just seems to automatically refer to the past, rather than to the present. But this doesn't really seem like a very good response.

Maybe the real thing it comes down to, is that some people seem able to escape or rise above the commonly held opinions of their peers, and these are the people that history often ends up admiring for their enlightened, forward thinking attitudes. As for Rush and Anne, I'm not convinced that their future apologists could even appeal to this "excuse". I think R & A are simply opportunists on the lookout for their own best (monetary) interests.

message 14: by Traveller (last edited Apr 19, 2012 02:14PM) (new)

Traveller Hmmm, I also just vaguely remember these as animal stories, and the Disney version of the Jungle Book, of course, which seems to me to feature a boy (which could basically have been of any race) brought up by wolves like in the Romulus and Remus stories.

I'd better go re-read anything I might have rated based on vague-ish childhood memories...

Miriam why I seem more willing to give "slack" to people of bygone times than I'm willing to give to people today

Part of this may be purely practical; if you refuse to read any author who is ever racists, sexist, imperialist etc so many otherwise great books of the past are excluded.

message 16: by Moira (new)

Moira Russell Speaking of Orwell - did you read his essay on Kipling's poetry? It's interesting:

message 17: by Whitaker (last edited Apr 19, 2012 08:01PM) (new)

Whitaker Moira wrote: "Speaking of Orwell - did you read his essay on Kipling's poetry? It's interesting:"

Thank you, Moira, for that reference. That has to be one of THE most incisive, intelligent and balanced articles I've read in my entire life.

His last paragraph:
In a gifted writer this seems to us strange and even disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain grip on reality. The ruling power is always faced with the question, ‘In such and such circumstances, what would you do?’, whereas the opposition is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions. Where it is a permanent and pensioned opposition, as in England, the quality of its thought deteriorates accordingly. Moreover, anyone who starts out with a pessimistic, reactionary view of life tends to be justified by events, for Utopia never arrives and ‘the gods of the copybook headings’, as Kipling himself put it, always return. Kipling sold out to the British governing class, not financially but emotionally. This warped his political judgement, for the British ruling class were not what he imagined, and it led him into abysses of folly and snobbery, but he gained a corresponding advantage from having at least tried to imagine what action and responsibility are like. It is a great thing in his favour that he is not witty, not ‘daring’, has no wish to épater les bourgeois. He dealt largely in platitudes, and since we live in a world of platitudes, much of what he said sticks. Even his worst follies seem less shallow and less irritating than the ‘enlightened’ utterances of the same period, such as Wilde's epigrams or the collection of cracker-mottoes at the end of Man and Superman.
Ye gods! I think I'm in love.

message 18: by Ted (new)

Ted Miriam wrote: "Part of this may be purely practical; if you refuse to read any author who is ever racists, sexist, imperialist etc so many otherwise great books of the past are excluded."

So true. For myself, and at my age, I don't have a hard time going beyond the prejudices exhibited by an author if the story connects with me. Of course, if those prejudices seemed really ugly, and seemed to be central to what the author was saying, then the story wouldn't connect. And again, it just makes it all the more wonderful when you read an author who was able to rise above the common opinions of his/her time.

message 19: by Ted (new)

Ted And speaking of Orwell & Kipling, Kipling was one of young Orwell's favorite authors. In The Collected Essays Journalism and Letters of George Orwell there are numerous references to Kipling. The essay on his poetry referenced by Moira is the longest piece Orwell ever wrote about Kipling, but also of interest is a much shorter obituary that he contributed to the New English Weekly on January 23 1936, from which the following excerpts are taken.
Rudyard Kipling was the only popular English writer of this century who was not at the same time a thoroughly bad writer ... In the average middle-class family before the War, especially in Anglo-Indian families, he had a prestige that is not even approached by any writer of today. He was a sort of household god ... For my own part I worshiped Kipling at thirteen, loathed him at seventeen, enjoyed him at twenty, despised him at twenty-five, and now again rather admire him. The one thing that was never possible, of one had read him at all, was to forget him ... What is much more distasteful in Kipling than sentimental plots or vulgar tricks of style, is the imperialism to which he chose to lend his genius. The most one can say is that when he made it the choice was more forgivable than it would be now. The imperialism of the 'eighties and 'nineties was sentimental, ignorant and dangerous, but it was not entirely despicable ... It was still possible to be an imperialist and a gentleman, and of Kipling's personal decency there can be no doubt ... If he had never come under imperialist influences, and if he had developed ... into a writer of music-hall songs, he would have been a better and more lovable writer. In the role he actually chose, one was bound to think of him, after one had grown up, as a kind of enemy, a man of alien and perverted genius. But now that he is dead, I for one cannot help wishing that I could offer some kind of tribute - a salute of guns, if such a thing were available - to the story-teller who was so important to my childhood.
This seems to touch on many of the comments that have been made here, as well as on Brad's review.

message 20: by Brad (last edited Apr 20, 2012 07:01AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Brad You know, it is interesting to note here (at least to me), especially in light of these marvelous quotes from Orwell (thanks Moira, Whitaker and Ted), that I myself loved the first Kipling I read when I first read it. I read Kim in my late teens and adored it, and Kipling's writing (one of the reasons, I think, why I always go back to him in spite of myself), but I reread it in my late twenties and was smacked upside the head with the realization of what I was reading. Orwell encapsulates my feelings pretty accurately.

message 21: by Helen (Helena/Nell) (last edited Apr 20, 2012 02:00PM) (new)

Helen (Helena/Nell) I loved the Just-So Stories. I loved the strange incantatory style, and the whole comical idea you could explain things in such weird mythical ways. If there was anything racist about it, I can't think of it at this moment. I think it's quite a hard set of tales to read as a contemporary adult.

But then I was a child of the Little Black Sambo ( era, and I had a Golliwog (one of my favourite toys) and also a black doll. I didn't know. I also didn't know any black children, though we played with kids from a half West Indian family - we envied them (and liked them) because they were so beautiful, even the boy.

It is very difficult looking back. I am appalled by things I see now with the benefit of hindsight and the horror of insight: I am appalled that one racial group can so establish its authority that even my way of seeing was fundamentally undermined. I am ashamed even by heredity to be part of that, ashamed to be white.

BUT I have always been fascinated by this short story of Kipling's 'Beyond the Pale' ( You can read the opening as openly racist if you like -- I am not sure that it is. I think, of the two races in the story -- with a divide that love attempts (and fails) to cross -- the white race comes off far worse than the black. I love so many things about this story; I think it raises questions so subtly, satirises white colonial hypocrisy with such elegance and pain. And look how in love Trejago is with everything about the culture, the language, the poetry -- and how impossible that love is! And how stupid he is -- he really thinks he knows what he is doing. He knows nothing.

I admire many things about Kipling. I don't excuse the attitudes of the time, but he cannot help but be a product of that time. I think Orwell equally, in much of his writing set in Burma, embodies nationalised racism, for all his left wing radicalism.

They were English. Enough said.

message 22: by Brad (new) - rated it 1 star

Brad "They were English" says so, so much. I feel like there was something profound that Engels said about that very thing when he was working in England, but I can't call it up at the moment. I'll give Beyond the Pale a read this weekend, Nell. Thanks for that.

Anthony Buckley Kipling was certainly an imperialist, a patriot and a chauvinist for his race. However, he also comes over as a man of great humanity whose empathy extended to the Indians he knew so well. Kim in particular, is “politically incorrect” in the modern sense. Nevertheless, it provides a profound commentary on Indian religious sensibilities and on Indian life. Kipling accepted the racist assumptions of his time, but he stood at the near-acceptable, non-rabid end of the racist spectrum. I for one am able to put up with what now appear as his oddities.

It is of interest that the British fitted very neatly into India by becoming effectively a separate caste, which, like the other castes, kept themselves separate and reserved certain jobs only for themselves. So Kipling was not so very different from others living in India. Since Kipling’s time, notions of caste have been attacked in India, not least by Gandhi, as ideas of race have been attacked in the west, though both still remain.

There is, however, a more general problem. When we find that a great artist of the past expresses “universal truths” that resonate in our own era, it is usually because we ignore whatever does not so resonate. For example, I find much of Aristotle stimulating, but I certainly do not agree with his celebrated defence of slavery. Nor have I much sympathy for Shakespeare’s propaganda in favour of the Tudors and Stuarts. Fortunately, we can ignore these aspects of what they say largely because the flow of history has washed their issues away.

Racism, of course, is still with us, so we get upset when we see it. The trick perhaps is to take what we like from old writers and leave the rest. In any event, they will never hear our criticisms, so there is not much point in complaining too loudly.

message 24: by Ted (new)

Ted Very interesting comments Anthony. It resonates well with my own views, which I would not have been able to express so elegantly. Particularly like
Fortunately, we can ignore these aspects of what they say largely because the flow of history has washed their issues away ... (for issues that are still with us) the trick perhaps is to take what we like from old writers and leave the rest. In any event, they will never hear our criticisms, so there is not much point in complaining too loudly.

message 25: by Brad (last edited Apr 22, 2012 09:04AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Brad Nicely said, Anthony, although I think that continuing to complain loudly is more for the benefit of our present day Kiplings than for the dead one's who can't hear us. We have plenty of Kiplings, for instance, who are otherwise benign who make anti-gender comments that should make us cringe now and will make others cringe later (to name but one area of current bigotry).

But it's also probably true that our current Kiplings wouldn't hear a word I am saying anyway; still, being the boisterous, Quixotic man that I am, I will continue to complain loudly, but I will be more aware after your contribution from whence my own discomfort comes.

message 26: by B0nnie (new) - added it

B0nnie We get some Kipling in Canada every November 11, "Lest we forget — lest we forget." That phrase from Recessional has been burned in my brain from earliest memory. Orwell btw also takes up a defence of this poem in the essay.

message 27: by Duane (new)

Duane Hey, look on the bright side - He makes liberals go absolutely bonkers, and then they're fun to watch, sputtering incoherently because he's dead and they can't sic Chrissy Matthews on him.

I will say though, me and a friend tried to go explore Kipling's abandoned mansion in Vermont once, and we got shot at. I'm not forgiving the old bastard for *that* too easy, even though he was still dead at the time.

He was way off base with the "White Man's Burden", though - in retrospect, looking at today's news, we *definitely* should've left'em to stew in their own juice.

The.Faye I just want to say that I last read these stories as a little girl and can only remember the delight of describing a leopard's spots as black thumbprints and that whale's had huge grates in their mouths to only eat little fishes. I can safely say the racism and colonialism is not what captured me. It will be interesting to re-read these as an adult now, to see what I missed or dismissed as a little girl. I think kids are great at ignoring crap.

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