Recently the students at Manchester University in England tore down a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “IF” and replaced it with Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.” They gave as their reason that Kipling was an imperialist and a racist.
What’s interesting about this latest outburst of political correctness and cultural ignorance is that in a strange way the two poems are similar. Both tell the reader to be strong and fight against defeat and rejection in the idiom of their day, Kipling with his “buck up and play the game” and Angelou with her defiant stand against racism no matter the setbacks. My guess is that Angelou might have liked “IF.”
All this brings to mind something the American literary critic Edmund Wilson once wrote: that nobody reads Kipling anymore. I don’t know if this true—he is no longer in the canon of English studies taught in high school and college where some of his work was anthologized as late as the 1960s—but it’s a shame if it is because the caricature of Kipling as a simple-minded drum beater for the British Empire is superficial and naïve.
Consider the question of Kipling’s attitude towards the British. It was, in fact, complex. He was a great admirer of the independent dominions Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa. He saw them as part of the vast Anglosphere, including the United States, which had a unique role to play in the future. He was characteristic of those who believed in the destiny of what Winston Churchill called the “English Speaking Peoples.” Despite a certain ambivalence about Americans, Kipling admired their patriotism and energy. He was particularly fond of Theodore Roosevelt whom he nicknamed “Great Heart.” His wife was American and he lived in the U.S. for years, only to leave in 1899 after a petty legal dispute, never to return.
One of Kipling’s most quoted—one could say misquoted—lines of poetry was directed at the United States. “Take up the White man’s Burden” had nothing to do with non-white peoples; it was describing the U.S. as it debated whether to annex the Philippines after the Spanish-American War in 1898.
It’s also worth noting that for someone regarded as a bloody-minded imperialist, Kipling was sensitive to the arrogance of empire.