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The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling [Paperback]

David Gilmour

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Book Description

6 Feb 2003

Rudyard Kipling was a unique figure in British history, a great writer and a great imperial icon. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he added more phrases to the language than any man since Shakespeare, yet he was also the Apostle of the British Empire, a man who incarnated an era for millions of people who did not normally read poetry. A child of the Victorian age of imperial self-confidence, Kipling lived to see the rise of Hitler threaten his country's existence. The laureate of the Empire at its apogee, he foresaw that its demise would soon follow his death. His great poem 'Recessional' celebrated Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897; his last poems warned of the dangers of Nazism. The trajectory of his life matched the trajectory of the British Empire from its zenith to its final decades. He himself was transformed from the apostle of success to the prophet of national decline, a Cassandra warning of dangers that successive governments refused to face.

Previous works on Kipling have focused on his writing and on his domestic life. This is the first book to study his public role, his influence on the way Britons saw both themselves and their Empire. Based on extensive research in Britain and in the under-explored archives of the United States, David Gilmour has produced a brilliantly illuminating study of a man who embodied the spirit of his country a hundred years ago as closely as Shakespeare had done 300 years before.


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Review

"The best Kipling biography yet written... Gilmour's account of this driven man shines with intelligence" (Scotsman)

"An enthralling biography of a mind...essential reading for anyone who cares about how a writer finds, and passionately lives, his subject" (Daily Telegraph)

"A fine, fair and generous work... Gilmour's celebrated life of Curzon demonstrated his mastery of imperial nuance and esoteric character, and he brings to this book just the right combination of empathy, distaste and fastidious detachment" (New Statesman)

"A splendid and much needed reappraisal of Kipling...outstanding for its precise, elegant writing" (Herald)

"A superb short biography...a beautifully written, touching and occasionally very funny book" (Andrew Roberts Daily Mail)

Book Description

'This is literary biography at its very finest' Sunday Herald

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Overlooked Today, But a Towering Figure in His Time 16 July 2007
By Douglas S. Wood - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Rudyard Kipling, according to David Gilmour's authoritative 'The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling' was a first-class political hater and author of children's books, as well as the virtual embodiment of the British Empire. Kipling was considered the Imperial Laureate, although he would have refused the post had it existed as he did all government posts - not in his line at all.

Kipling lived much of the first half of his life in the Empire - he spent his early years in India, except for a horrid stretch when he was boarded back in England by his parents who stayed in British India, and later lived off-and-on in South Africa. Kipling loved the Empire and its civilizing mission (up to a point - he did not favor Christian religious proselytizing), but oddly was not that fond of England or the English.

Gilmour paints a portrait of Kipling as a thorough-going reactionary, a pessimist, a virulent opponent of women's suffrage, Irish Home Rule, nearly all politicians (he especially hated Liberals, but also accused Winston Churchill of `political whoring'), trade unions, and imperial wavering of any kind.

'The Long Recessional' (the title refers both to his poem written for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897 and the decline of the Empire) is not so much a history of Kipling's literary works as it is his leading role in promoting the Empire through his literature. Readers seeking detailed literary analyses had best look elsewhere, but should read this book first to understand what it was that Kipling was so all-fired angry about most of the time. Kipling was something of a negative "prophet"; he saw the coming decline of the Empire and viewed as willful surrender, he saw the coming Great War and watched his countrymen fail to prepare or take a firm stand against 'the Hun', and he saw the coming Second World War and the repeated lack of preparation (he died before that war actually occurred).

Kipling suffered great personal unhappiness from the death of his first daughter at age 6, to a seemingly unhappy marriage with Kipling as the henpecked husband and the death of his son in one of those insane headlong infantry assaults on the German trenches at the Battle of Loos. Kipling's dour personality in most of his last quarter-century of life may to some extent be attributed to a misdiagnosed (and thus mistreated) duodenal ulcer that caused him great pain - once it was correctly diagnosed in 1933, Kipling's pain departed and his personality revived.

Kipling's writings were enormously influential in his time, probably to an extent difficult for the modern reader to grasp given over as we are to the visual and the aural. After the Boer War he turned his pen more and more toward political ends and a bitter-tipped pen it was. Today Kipling is more remembered for his children's classics such asThe Jungle Books (Signet Classics). His Plain Tales from the Hills explores India's impact on the British who lived there and in particular the soldiers who sometimes fought and died there.

Salmon Rushdie has summarized it best when he stated, "There will always be plenty in Kipling that I will find difficult to forgive; but there is also enough truth in these stories to make them impossible to ignore."

Gilmour brings Kipling back to life for some 300 pages; 'The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling' is a rewarding reading experience about a man mostly overlooked today, but of towering importance in his time.
22 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Imperialist and chauvinist - yes, misogynist - no 18 April 2002
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The fact that Gilmour explores Kipling's writing in terms of these themes and how they reflected aspects of his character is a clear indication that this book is no hagiography. The focus here is on the subject of empire and as the subtitle says it is all about: "The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling". Gilmour quotes Kipling as saying that empire was "the fabric of my mental and physical existence." Kipling seemed to see empire as some divine right of England:
GOD of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine
Lord god of Hosts be with us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!
(Recessional)
It's this thinking that Gilmour focuses on and thus Kipling's life and works can't be seen as anything but a study in THE LONG RECESSIONAL. That's one emphasis; another is what Gilmour identifies as the "two sides to [Kipling's] head". With this he's looking at writings that were chauvinistic, ultra-nationalistic and even racist. Poems such as "The Female of the Species" and "Fuzzy-Wuzzy" being cases in point. Gilmour then shows the other side of the man's head with writings depicting his compassion and humanity - "If" for instance. Kipling's life can't be completely studied outside the context of family and the sadness of losing children and an unhappy marriage. The times and circumstances through which he lived also influenced him. Being born in colonial India and living through the Boer war and WWI all served to paint the lens through which Kipling saw and wrote about life in a rosy imperial tint.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Kipling Re-considered 10 Nov 2007
By R. M. Peterson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
At a time when the "politically correct" holds sway in much of the media for intellectuals and all too much of academia, Rudyard Kipling is persona non grata -- the author of charming Victorian children's tales, but irredeemably tainted as an advocate and apologist for the British Empire and its subjugation of so many blacks and browns in the world. This biography of Kipling shows that the popular image de jour of Kipling is oversimplified and, at bottom, unfair and wrong.

David Gilmour deliberately focuses on the "imperial" Kipling, or the political (as opposed to the literary) aspect of his life. Of course, it is impossible to cleave Kipling into two selves, one political and the other literary. No one can be so compartmentalized, but Kipling resists it more than most because he was so unabashedly a political writer. And Gilmour chooses to emphasize that fact by exploring Kipling's politics and his view of the British Empire, as well as his role in celebrating it and then mourning its imminent demise (Kipling died before World War II and the death throes of empire). As Gilmour puts it in his preface: "This is the first volume to chronicle Kipling's political life, his early role as apostle of the Empire, the embodiment of imperial aspiration, and his later one of the prophet of national decline."

Gilmour achives his objective quite well. His Kipling -- as I believe is true of the actual Kipling -- was NOT a jingoistic rascist (although, to be sure, certain lines of his taken as they say out of context could be stretched and cited for the opposite conclusion). Yes, Kipling was a Victorian Englishman who grew up amidst, and believed in, the glory of the British Empire. But, as Gilmour persuasively writes, the empire Kipling touted and valued was a civilizing, even humanitarian, force -- an empire of "peace and justice, quinine and canals, railways and vaccinations". His model of empire had no place for the missionary zeal to transform all the Empire's subjects into brown or black (depending on their class) fish-and-chippers or public-school-educated Church-of-Englanders. Moreover, to Kipling, it was the altruistic responsibility of the wealthy, civilized haves of the world (principally Great Britain and the United States) to relieve suffering and improve the lot in life of the myriad have nots.

Gilmour's biography shows, without explicit lecturing, that Kipling was not a stock "stiff-upper-lip" Victorian cardboard cut-out; he was human, with weaknesses he sought both to overcome and to mask, and with a strength of character that ultimately more than redeems him.

Gilmour does not ignore, but he does not dwell on, the literary side of Kipling. For that, the reader must go elsewhere. But for a sensitive yet objective picture of "Kipling as a figurehead of his country and his age", I don't know where else one should or would care to look.
16 of 22 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars could be much better 7 Sep 2006
By lector avidus - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I've always enjoyed Kipling's poetry, and have long known that a careful reading of his writings prove that many of the less pleasant things promoters of political correctness have to say about him are not true, or at least not true in the sense they understand their condemnations, so I was glad to come across and read this book.

It goes over the stations of Kipling's life: he childhood in India, a country he never stopped loving (Hindi and not English was his mother tongue), boarding school in England, life as a journalist in India, becoming the unofficial poet laureate of the soldier and Empire, his friendships with leading politicians, his marriage to an American, and his disillusionment and embitterment with politics and politicians after the First World War, in which his son died in his first battle. In this book Kipling is not portrayed as the ogre that some insist he was, but he does come across as very narrow-minded, as a man who was an exceptional poet, but out of his depth when he opined about matters like the Irish and their grievances.

And yet, I found this book to be a disappointment. Ideas were rarely fully explained; when poems are discussed, only such short passages that don't allow a good understanding are quoted. Kipling's belief that war with Germany was inevitable is uncritically seen as a sign of prophecy; when in fact it may have been more of a self-fulfilling prophecy common to his times and class. Nor are Ireland and Kipling's radical solutions for Ireland's troubles described with any nuance; the author doesn't more than scrape the surface of the topics he touches. Before I would draw any conclusions about Kipling, I would want to read other books as well.

I can only recommend this book to you if you're a high school student who has to write a report on Kipling; otherwise there must be better.
9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Examines not only his writing, but his world 4 Jun 2002
By Midwest Book Review - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Rudyard Kipling was both a great writer and a representative figure of the British Empire, dabbling in both politics and exploration and winning the Nobel Prize in literature. This biography is the first to examine not only his writing, but his world: The Long Recessional considers the history of his times and provides a lively, revealing probe of the man's changes.
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