The making and unmaking of literary reputation in the late 19th century.
At the beginning of his late-maturing writing career, Joseph Conrad was dubbed the ‘Kipling of the Malay Archipelago’ – a label which signals both Rudyard Kipling’s extraordinary early renown, and also his association with a particular colonial locale (in northern India). Yet as they sought to write up other parts of the British imperial project (and to move beyond the geographies with which they were initially associated), Kipling and Conrad would follow very different literary trajectories. The aim of this enquiry is to trace some of the main junctures and politico-aesthetic choices which would result in their having such divergent literary reputations in the twentieth century. Kipling’s justification for the Anglo-Boer (or South African) War on the basis of parliamentary democracy was enough to make Conrad ‘die laughing’ – C’est à crever de rire – and by the mid-twentieth century, ‘the Kipling that nobody read’ (to use Edmund Wilson’s phrase) had been outstripped by the proto-modernist canonised in F. R. Leavis’s The Great Tradition (at least until Chinua Achebe’s famous essay of 1977). Intended primarily as a way of broadening my understanding of Kipling’s years at the Cape Colony (1891-1908), this enquiry seeks to read the late 19th and early 20th-century correspondence of each writer in counterpoint. Tracing their various responses to high imperial conflicts, it seeks to probe how they engage (or disavow) the fundamental paradoxes which these wars produced, in particular the dissonance between racialised and nationalist justifications for empire in ‘Sahib’s wars’ like those in the Crimea, southern Africa and finally the heart of Europe itself.
Hedley Twidle, December 2011.