Reimagining Rudyard Kipling

Detail from an early cover illustration for Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book."

By Keely Savoie

Christopher Benfey, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, has won a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Award for 2016–2017.

A scholar of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature, Benfey will spend the year investigating Rudyard Kipling’s “American decade,” from 1889 to 1899. He will focus on Kipling’s four-year sojourn in Brattleboro, Vermont, where Kipling wrote some of his most familiar work, including The Jungle Book, Captains Courageous, and a number of poems.

Despite Kipling’s enormous fame, culminating in a Nobel Prize in 1907, his academic reputation was severely tarnished by his reactionary political views, according to Benfey.

“I want to make sense of Kipling’s varied and sometimes disturbing career,” said Benfey. “Kipling’s intense engagement with the United States—on a personal, political, and aesthetic level—has never received the attention it deserves.”

Benfey plans to spend his research time investigating Kipling’s Brattleboro home and his social connections in Vermont to develop a more contextual picture of the author. He will consult Kipling archives in the US and England—and will consider visiting Kipling’s childhood home of Bombay, India.

“The big question for me is what the United States really meant to Kipling. His wife was American,” Benfey said. “He raised his first daughter as an American girl. He was deeply indebted to American writers like Emerson and Mark Twain, and influenced Willa Cather and Stephen Crane. He lived in Vermont for four happy years. But what, finally, did he make of this country, which he adopted as his own during the most productive part of his career?”

The Public Scholar Program aims to encourage “scholarship that will be of broad interest and have lasting impact” by supporting “well-researched books in the humanities intended to reach a broad readership."

“I was absolutely thrilled to win this NEH grant,” said Benfey, who has previously held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEH, and the American Council of Learned Societies. “I believe in the mission of the Public Scholar Program, to bring serious scholarship to a wide audience. It’s what I do in the classroom at Mount Holyoke, too.”

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