Kevin O’Connor Photo
An attendee at Monday’s first “Kipling in America” symposium uses a cellphone to photograph some of the rare manuscripts and memorabilia at host Marlboro College.
Before Rudyard Kipling settled down to write “The Jungle Book” and “Captains Courageous” in his new home in Vermont, he met a pair of reporters Oct. 14, 1892, seeking comment on his first day in the state.
A newspaper interview, the man who’d go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature replied, was “a crime — an assault — it is cowardly and vile — no respectable man would ask it, much less give it.” American journalism, he continued, had “nothing to admire and less to respect.” As for any reader curious about him, “say I am a boor, for I am, and I want people to learn it and let me alone.”
Fast forward to the “Kipling in America” symposium in Windham County now making news. Yes, some find it unusual that the London-based Kipling Society, founded to celebrate the author’s chronicling of the British Empire, has flown to the revolutionary United States to host its first event outside the United Kingdom. But others, learning the above tale, instead wonder: What would the subject think of all the publicity?
“It surprises me that Kipling was so stupid with the press,” Janet Montefiore, editor of the society’s quarterly journal, confessed Monday. “He was so much liked and respected around here.”
And continues to be, based on the crowd that gathered at Marlboro College to kick off a two-day conference exploring the author’s attempt to settle in the Green Mountains, the classic works he conceived there and the family feud and resulting media firestorm that sent him back across the Atlantic.
“We’ve got the world’s leading scholars on Kipling, and that isn’t hype,” said Montefiore, who traveled all the way from Canterbury along with 60 other attendees representing everywhere from America’s Princeton University to the Anglo University of Kent.
Thomas Pinney, editor of a new complete three-volume Cambridge edition of Kipling’s poems, came from California to share memories found in Marlboro College’s collection of rare manuscripts and memorabilia. First he told the story about the author and the press. Then, in a speech titled “What did the neighbours think?” (the program was spelled out in England), he revealed several rare encounters with the public.
Kipling, born in India in 1865, moved into a ship-shaped Dummerston home he named Naulakha upon his 1892 marriage to American Caroline Balestier. The writer was believed to be standoffish, based in part on his criticism of the media and comments that his neighbors could act jealous and suspicious of him.
“What Kipling thought is clear enough, but did he have it right?” Pinney said in a keynote address. “I found the neighbors were flattered to have Kipling among them. They were keenly interested in his work, that they respected rather than resented his apparent, and only apparent, wish to keep to himself.”
The reportedly reclusive Kipling befriended locals including former Vermont Gov. Frederick Holbrook. He hosted barn dances with cider and sandwiches. And he traveled to nearby Brattleboro — sometimes with skis or snowshoes — to drink lager in a basement bar of downtown’s cornerstone Brooks House.
“Been in Europe, ain’t ya?” one patron was said to have asked the author.
Kipling not only wrote “The Jungle Book” and “Captains Courageous” but also conceived “Kim” and “Just So Stories” while living in Dummerston. But a time that blossomed professionally wilted personally.
A border dispute between the United Kingdom and Venezuela over the South American colony of British Guiana led some in the United States to criticize Kipling’s homeland, prompting him to plan his departure.
“If they really should go away to live,” Brattleboro friend Mary Cabot wrote in her journal, “I should miss the greatest stimulus I have here. I drive down there feeling as if I was in rightful possession of the entire earth.”
Shortly thereafter in 1896, Kipling’s brother-in-law, drunk on the street, threatened the author — leading to the relative’s arrest and resulting publicity that shattered the writer’s privacy and spurred his return to England.
Some 117 years later, his followers have taken great pains to return. Montefiore, for example, watched her scheduled 18-hour trip stretch into 42. But she was happy to be in Vermont, even if more familiar rain and fog hid the promised flaming foliage.
“We’re hoping the symposium,” Montefiore said, “will rekindle interest in Kipling here in America.”
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