Letters of Travel

Rudyard Kipling (1865 - 1936)

Three books of travel writing (between them covering the USA, Canada, Japan and Egypt) by the Nobel Prize winning author of the Just So Stories and the Jungle Book. Rudyard Kipling (an Englishman born and raised in India) offers an interesting outsider's view of the places he visits, candid and sharp witted, yet with a deep humanity.

Letters of Travel comprises three books: From Tideway to Tideway 1892-95 contains pieces first published in the Times covering voyages across north America (USA and Canada) and in Japan; his Letters to the Family first appeared in the Morning Post, while Nash's Magazine was the first publisher of the articles (on Egypt and Sudan) in Egypt of the Magicians.

Kipling's observations are cast in a wry style that permits, as his work often does, different readings. The unsympathetic reader can hear a banal repetition of the patriarchal, racist and imperialist ideas of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century trotted out. (Or even in his characterisation of the Jewish power behind the pedlar in "The Face of the Desert" a suggestion of something worse.) A more nuanced reading will perceive an amused or wry smile in Kipling's remembering and the human sympathy that infuses all his writing. (US listeners should be warned that in Kipling's day "the N word" was in common use, and he therefore uses it naturally to describe people of Sub-Saharan African ancestry.)

A paragraph in the "letter" written on Kipling's arrival in Japan might serve as example. It closes: "The father-fisher has it by the pink hind leg, and this time it is tucked away, all but the top-knot, out of sight among umber nets and sepia cordage. Being an Oriental it makes no protest, and the boat scuds out to join the little fleet in the offing." With its flippant tone ("all but the top-knot"), impersonal reference ("it" rather than he or she) and use of racial terms ("Oriental") and stereotypes ("makes no protest") this can be presented as an example of the worst of Victorian Imperialist prejudice.

And yet... as the fisher family are introduced, not only was "the perfect order and propriety of the housekeeping" noted but mention was made of "a largish Japanese doll, price two shillings and threepence in Bayswater", which turns out to be a baby. At first glance this is merely another example of Western bigotry. Note however the words Kipling uses to show us that this is not in fact a doll: "The doll wakes, turns into a Japanese baby something more valuable than money could buy". The "Japanese doll" is a priceless human child and not a commodity to be bought in Bayswater.

Perhaps the prejudice is not so much on the surface of Kipling's writing as under the surface of the reader's presuppositions? Time and again wry observation turns the familiar world into something fresh, and reminds the reader of shared humanity with the strange and foreign people being observed. Kipling as a tourist is no mere gawker whether in strange yet familiar Yokohama or in foreign Vermont. (Summary by Tim Bulkeley)

Genre(s): Humor, Travel & Geography, Letters

Language: English

Section Chapter Reader Time
Play 01 From Tideway to Tideway (1892-1895) : In Sight of Monadnock Tim Bulkeley (1948-2019)
Play 02 Across a Continent Tim Bulkeley (1948-2019)
Play 03 The Edge of the East Tim Bulkeley (1948-2019)
Play 04 Our Overseas Men Tim Bulkeley (1948-2019)
Play 05 Some Earthquakes Tim Bulkeley (1948-2019)
Play 06 Half-a-Dozen Pictures Tim Bulkeley (1948-2019)
Play 07 Captains Courageous Tim Bulkeley (1948-2019)
Play 08 On One Side Only Tim Bulkeley (1948-2019)
Play 09 Leaves from a Winter Note-Book Tim Bulkeley (1948-2019)
Play 10 Letters to the Family (1907)- :The Road to Quebec Tim Bulkeley (1948-2019)
Play 11 A People at Home Tim Bulkeley (1948-2019)
Play 12 Cities and Spaces Tim Bulkeley (1948-2019)
Play 13 Newspapers and Democracy Tim Bulkeley (1948-2019)
Play 14 Labour Tim Bulkeley (1948-2019)
Play 15 The Fortunate Towns Tim Bulkeley (1948-2019)
Play 16 Mountains and the Pacific Tim Bulkeley (1948-2019)
Play 17 A Conclusion Tim Bulkeley (1948-2019)
Play 18 Egypt of the Magicians (1913-) Sea Travel Tim Bulkeley (1948-2019)
Play 19 A Return to the East Tim Bulkeley (1948-2019)
Play 20 A Serpent of Old Nile Tim Bulkeley (1948-2019)
Play 21 Up the River Tim Bulkeley (1948-2019)
Play 22 Dead Kings Tim Bulkeley (1948-2019)
Play 23 The Face of the Desert Tim Bulkeley (1948-2019)
Play 24 The Riddle of Empire Tim Bulkeley (1948-2019)