When Lionel Trilling collected the essays that became The Liberal Imagination, was it chance or subliminal recognition of affinity that caused him to place his discussions of Huckleberry Finn and of Kipling side by side? Five years separated the essays--that on Kipling written in 1943, in response to the then recent essays by Edmund Wilson and T. S. Eliot ("critical attention . . . friendlier and more interesting than any he has received for a long time"), that on Huckleberry Finn in 1948. No interior references united them. If Trilling remembered Kim (Kipling's "best book" he'd called it in a long and appreciative paragraph) when he identified Huck Finn as a "picaresque novel, or novel of the road" and quoted Pascal's "rivers are roads that move," he did not say so.
Kim, of course, is also about a road, a road that one of its own characters compares to a river. And on that road journey a boy and a man, separated by race and culture, bonded by love. The end of that journey, too, is problematic, a betrayal, Wilson had called it, of the complex relationship that made the book so much more than a boy's adventure story. No wonder that Christopher Clausen, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, remarks that "a persuasive case can be made for studying" the two novels "together, rather than as the products of two presumably discrete traditions."
Yet far from being studied together, the novels have only rarely and fleetingly been associated. Eliot, though he wrote important essays on both books, did not link them. Huckleberry Finn had been around for forty-eight years, Kim for over thirty, before anyone noticed in print that the novels might have something in common. An occasional critic, in an isolated phrase, might suggest a connection between their authors. William Lyon Phelps in 1910 had seen in Kipling a debt to Twain's "deliberate, enormous hyperbole"; in 1926 Brander Matthews recalled Tom Sawyer as he wrote of a book in which "Kipling recovers the days of his youth." But Phelps was thinking of Kipling's farcical "Brugglesmith," Matthews of the schoolboys of Stalky and Co. Kim and Huck remained unmentioned. It was not until 1932 that Bernard De Voto dropped into his polemic with Van Wyck Brooks a first notice of Huck's affinity with Kim. He accorded it a full sentence. Huckleberry Finn "is the story of a wandering--so provocative a symbol that it moved Rudyard Kipling to discover another sagacious boy beneath a cannon and conduct him down an endless road"--"an enterprise," he added, "that fell enormously short of its model."
Seventeen years later the English critic J. M. F. Tompkins devoted three searching pages of a book on Kipling's art to these two "picaresque narratives, with boys as travellers, sweeping in the characteristic scenes and figures, opinions and superstitions of a particular society at a particular time." I know of no more extensive treatment. Though comparisons have recently begun to proliferate as interest in the literature of colonialism mounts, they are confined to partial sentences and glancing suggestions. Kim and Huck are alike in "trying to evade the clamp of civilization," notes Irving Howe. To Daniel Bivona the lama's river suggests a Heraclitean Mississippi. S. P. Mohanty finds Kim's relationship with the lame "culturally vacuous" compared with Huck's with dim, though both boys learn "to value the hardships of an unsheltered life over the privileges of `sivilization.'" In his extensive discussion of Kim, Edward Said, tracing the genealogy of novels that celebrate "the friendship of two men in a difficult, and sometimes hostile, environment," remarks parenthetically that "Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick and The Deerslayer come quickly to mind" but leaves it at that. All of these are in contexts where Kipling, not Twain, is the focus of attention. Although in the astonishing volume of critical writing on Huckleberry Finn there must somewhere be a reference after De Voto's, I have not found it.
Today, with Huck Finn present, or controversially absent, in every American high school, and scarcely a book in the exploding number of studies of imperialism, colonial literatures, and "orientalism" that leaves Kim undiscussed, it seems not only time to make the connection but extraordinary that anyone could have overlooked it. Clausen explains this by "the continuing power of cultural nationalism," the rigid division of English-department curricula between American and British literature that "tend[s] to define the specialties of literary scholars." He is certainly right, as my meager American harvest shows. But there are other reasons, less parochial--or parochial in a different way.
The thing is, Kipling simply isn't as important as Twain. In academic language, Kim isn't in anybody's canon. Comparability here is not a function of theme, of treatment, of authorly preoccupations, of imaginative power, of readerly pleasure or admiration; it is a function of status.
Though academics confer status, the status of Huckleberry Finn is more than academic. The very day that Twain began it is "momentous in the history of American literature." It is not only "the great American novel," wrote Phelps, "it is America." Mencken went further: it is "perhaps the greatest novel ever written in English." And there's Hemingway's judgment, endlessly quoted: "All modern American literature comes from one book called Huckleberry Finn. . . . There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since." In the words of a popular literary pundit of the forties, Clifton Fadiman, Mark Twain is "our Chaucer, our Homer, our Dante, our Vergil." In forty more years, a Washington Post editorialist would call Huck Finn "the Sistine Chapel of our civilization."
American or English, academic or common reader, no one talks like that about Kim. Something deeper than academic compartmentalization underlies such torrid pronouncements. The rhetoric of cultural nationalism is the rhetoric of national need. As once they needed epics, national literatures now need great originary novels. American literature needs Huck Finn as British literature does not and cannot need Kim. "The great British novel"--the absurdity of the phrase bespeaks the disparity of the cultural need between a young nation and an old one that takes its status for granted.
Yet even if the British had yearned for the coming of a great novel, one that should profoundly tell them who they imagined themselves to be, it could not have been Kim. An adolescent America might recognize its mythical self-image in a book for boys, telling the story of a boy's escape from "civilization." England could not. Huckleberry Finn could be felt as central to American experience, psychologically, thematically, even geographically. To English experience, Kim could only be peripheral; part of its charm was that in each of these ways it was as far from England as could be imagined. It was not even, as A Passage to India would be, about the English in India. Its few British characters, though they have their importance to the plot, are as alien to the book's emotional center as the Widow and Aunt Sally are to Huck's relationship with Jim. Kim is overwhelmingly a novel about India--"The Finest Story about India," N. C. Chaudhuri called it in 1957, ten years after independence, and when he added "--in English" to the title of his essay, it was a statement, not a qualification. But there was a greater obstacle than genre or locale to according Kim a status that could invite, or even admit, comparison with Twain's novel. By mid-century, what Trilling called Kipling's "mindless imperialism" had become notorious. Kipling had won the Nobel Prize in 1907, but in the years in which Huckleberry Finn was becoming America's Sistine Chapel--and India was struggling toward independence--his reputation steadily sank. Auden might write in 1938 that Time that "worships language" had pardoned "Kipling and his views"--pardoned him "for writing well." But Time was in no such hurry to absolve. Through the thirties, the forties, the fifties, the sixties, Kipling's reputation resisted rehabilitation with extraordinary tenacity. And not only rehabilitation; it resisted any attempt to take his work seriously. Auden tried. Edmund Wilson tried. T. S. Eliot tried. Lionel Trilling tried. Randall Jarrell tried. To no avail. Kipling had written well enough to burn "the White Man's Burden" into the English-speaking memory, and for three generations that phrase was beyond pardon. However deeply--or finely--Kim might be about India, it was wholly at home with empire. Certainly the imperial voice was less strident in this novel, conceived in Vermont and completed in England, than in earlier stories by Kipling. Yet it was still audible, and that was enough. A book wholly at home with empire could not be a great novel.
Time passes, however. Trilling might write in 1943 that "Indians naturally have no patience with Kipling," but it is Indians, former Indians, and others whose anti-imperialist credentials are impeccable who now take Kipling very seriously indeed. Not only Chaudhuri, but Sara Suleri, S. P. Mohanty, Zohreh T. Sullivan, K. R. S. Iyengar, V. A. Shahane, Salman Rushdie, and Edward Said are ready to examine, to challenge, to praise, even, in varying degrees, to pardon. Kim, like Huckleberry Finn, has never been out of print. But in the last ten years it has become available in paperback in Twentieth Century Classics (Penguin), The World Classics (Oxford), and Bantam publications; a Norton Critical Edition inches toward publication. An irresistible comparison need no longer be resisted.
Kipling and Twain, after all, were not merely contemporaries. They were profoundly aware of each other--acquaintances and mutual admirers long before 1907, when Lord Curzon conferred on each of them Oxford's honorary degree. Kipling was a schoolboy in England when he read Tom Sawyer's adventures. In 1888, at...