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The Man Who Would Be King: Rudyard Kipling, Freemasonry and the Perils of New Historicism

Rudyard Kipling was revered as a literary giant in his lifetime. His writing talents were even compared to Shakespeare’s by renowned philosophers such as William James. But for a few decades now, the author’s Marxist critics, especially those loyal to the poetics of New Historicism, have treated Kipling and his exotic stories with utter contempt and disdain.

Their commentary, rooted in presentism, is predictably focused on the role and influence of colonialism and imperialism in his narratives, highlighting those factors as not just an essential context for understanding the breadth of his plotlines, their characters, and intent in creating them but as the only lens through which one can reasonably interpret them. This absolutism does a disservice not only to the writer but to future generations of readers fully capable of enjoying Kipling without an Orwellian literati looking over their shoulder, reminding them of his thought crimes.

udyard Kipling was revered as a literary giant in his lifetime. His talents were even compared to those of Shakespeare by renowned philosophers such as William James.

Early critics

Early critics, most notably George Orwell, adamantly shunned and sought to deconstruct Kipling’s legacy. In 1942 Orwell, also born in India like the Nobel Laureate, described him as “morally insensitive,” claiming that his oeuvre was a crude, vulgar picture,” and that Kipling himself was “only half civilized, strange and even disgusting.” Several writers and scholars since Orwell have sought to defrock Kipling of the honors once bestowed on him. Yet despite the criticism, and perhaps owing partly to the controversial analysis of his work, his post-romantic, fabulist style, and adventurous tales have continued to interest and enthrall readers. His works include The Jungle BookKim, and the Just So Stories from 1902.

Works of Rudyard Kipling
A sampling of the works of Rudyard Kipling.

Kipling’s Dalliance with Freemasonry

Kipling’s stories, like The Man Who Would Be King, published in 1888, exhibit a masterful use of plot, setting, and imagery by any yardstick. But in addition to the robust mechanics of that particularly odd and adventurous tale, it’s a uniquely post-romantic realist narrative infused with a worldview inspired by his brief flirtation with Freemasonry. Like the craft, The Man Who Would Be King is immersed in symbolism, some of it likely learned as he passed through each degree under the canopy of a Masonic lodge. One critic notes, “It’s a story that examines, with a superbly delicate mixture of comedy and pathos, what empire-building does to the soul, a story that repudiates the harsher aspects of heroic-age law in favor of an infinitely more warm, sympathetic, and transcendent morality.” I agree. Rudyard Kipling may not have been the Shakespeare of his day, despite William James’ infatuation, but he was representative of the period and a compelling storyteller. His contributions to the short story remain noteworthy for future writers and critics.

Freemasonry figures prominently in a few Kipling stories besides The Man Who Would Be King, although ultimately, the author, in revealing and exploiting Masonic rituals, wasn’t as sincerely committed to the craft as he claimed. Whereas Mozart, another artistic genius, leveraged his understanding of Masonry to enhance the ritual with song, Kipling’s use seems somewhat self-serving. Tellingly, he abandoned Masonry shortly after The Man Who Would Be King was published.

Over the years, some have attempted to use Kipling’s reference to Masonic rituals to tie the craft to imperialism and Christianity, but the argument is contrived. Yes, Kipling was influenced by the symbolism and ethics of Freemasonry. Still, it shouldn’t be conflated with a desire to spread the Gospel, which played a significant role in colonial expansion. It’s true that a belief in a supreme being is the prerequisite for membership into Masonry, but the fraternity has always sought to maintain separation between its members and discussions of organized religion and politics. Kipling humorously fictionalizing Freemasonry as if it were a vehicle for colonialism and imperialism is a work of the imagination. Our nation’s founders, many of whom were Freemasons, including George Washington, were also decidedly not dedicated colonialists. If that’s difficult to believe, read their defiant letter to King George.

Masonic Lodge
The author at his Masonic Lodge

And like Freemasonry, much of Kipling’s work remains misunderstood. For example, in The Man Who Would Be King, he describes the “lesser classes” he is forced to share transport with on the train. He writes, “There are no cushions… and the population is either intermediate, which is Eurasian, or native, which for a long night journey is nasty. They carry their food in bundles and pots, and buy sweets from the native sweetmeat sellers, and drink the roadside water. That is why in the hot weather, intermediates are taken out of the carriages dead, and in all weathers are most properly looked down upon.” Indeed, Kipling’s phrasing does feel insensitive, but this was the world of 1888, and it tracks with the type of arrogant attitude you’d expect from the narrator. Why should that language indict the writer if it’s likely character driven? It shouldn’t, and similar arguments have been made to tear down Mark Twain. Furthermore, contemporaneous accounts of Kipling show that the author genuinely loved the people of India and the world and was not some Spanish conquistador.

The Perils of New Historicism

As a creative writer, Kipling knew precisely how to entice readers by drawing his protagonists honestly, warts and all. It’s still standard practice for any influential fiction writer. Although to today’s squirrelly and self-loathing English majors, afraid of adventure beyond their Twitter accounts, Kipling was one evil bastard. And what’s ironic about the obsession with Kipling is that most of his work isn’t intentionally political. But ironically, in the long shadow of new historicism, it becomes historically valuable independent of its subjective quality. One might argue that had Kipling not fictionalized and popularized the region of Kafiristan and its people in The Man Who Would Be King, much of their imprint might have been lost.

A map of Kafiristan
Map of Kafiristan

Unfortunately, for students indoctrinated by a school of thought that sees everything through the gauntlet of new historicism, it’s nearly impossible to enjoy and appreciate Kipling, let alone learn from his technique. Yet, despite all the best efforts of academia to cancel him, they’ve still been unable to relegate Kipling to the trash bin of history. His work has stood the test of time. Like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Fin, or Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman, our literary masterpieces are multidimensional works that live beyond the controversial personalities and perspectives of their writers and transcend the complicated, often unjust eras in which they lived. Yes, we should continue to unpack and understand the historical significance of grave injustices and the role of literature. Yet the virtual burning of books through new historicism is like tearing down statues. Those who forget history are bound to forget and repeat the worst parts of it, and those who erase it intentionally are the most deplorable among us.

The Man Who Would Be King, by Rudyard Kipling

New Historicism, beneath its academic veneer, aims, dishonestly, to redefine stories like The Man Who Would Be King as inexcusable. Were they published to enslave and conquer the feeble reader’s body and mind? No, of course not. We know there is far more contour to the work of Kipling in stories like The Man Who Would Be King than even critics as esteemed as Orwell or as rabid as the pack that now leads the New Historicism school would have us believe. The nuance of his characters, their frailties and humor (which Orwell decries), his strategic use of the frame narrative, and so many other techniques established Kipling’s prowess.

All great writers and their works, from the Greeks to Kipling to modern playwrights like Amiri Baraka, are tainted with some bias. When Philip Roth fairly accused Amiri Baraka of plagiarizing Zoo and criticized his work as deeply flawed, Roth was attacked in ad-hominin style as a racist. But he was right. What, then, will the New Historicism of Baraka’s work tell us fifty years or from now, once his supporters are no longer alive to defend him? Will this great writer who gave us Dutchman be forced to be strictly critiqued through the lens of misogyny and antisemitism, which his later work espoused?

Critiques of Kipling, in some ways, might predict how writers like Baraka and Randall Jarrell will be viewed in the future if New Historicism isn’t checked. Will tomorrow’s readers be able to appreciate what was perceived, at least at that time, as revolutionary thought, art, and culture, or will they dismiss it under the guise of social justice? Is it fair to look at writers like Baraka using only the school of New Criticism, or does he deserve the same treatment as Kipling? The best approach may be that they should be examined under both microscopes, with an appreciation of the work itself independent of the context and the layering of cultural poetics and hindsight. I guess we’ll have to wait and see how the pendulum swings.

Works Referenced

RAFAEL MOSCATEL is the author of the best-selling business book Tomorrow’s Jobs Today and director of The Little Girl with the Big Voice, a critically acclaimed documentary. His third book, The Bastard of Beverly Hills, a memoir about hope, forgiveness, and redemption, will be published in 2023.

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