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The Commons
Voices / Letters from readers

We can honor Kipling's historical legacy in our community while learning from historical context

Also signing the letter: Tom Bedell, Jerry Carbone, Dede Cummings, Karen Hesse, and Tristam Johnson, all members of the committee for the Rudyard Kipling Young Writers Award.

Originally published in The Commons issue #416 (Wednesday, July 12, 2017).

RE: “Award named for Kipling is a disservice to the education of student participants” [Letters, Jun. 21]:

Joe Berry is right to point out that Rudyard Kipling was a product of and spokesman for the British Empire, many of the underlying attitudes and assumptions of which we now find — to say the least — extremely objectionable.

But if we were to condemn every writer for cultural attitudes we currently consider toxic, we’d have to include Edith Wharton, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, and many, many others.

We think it’s important to recognize when the flaws of an author are actually flaws of an entire class, culture, or society. It’s important not only for historical accuracy — which in itself seems increasingly scarce these days — but also because it allows us to see ourselves more clearly.

We strongly condemn the racism and colonialism that Rudyard Kipling and vast reaches of the society that produced him — including many of our own ancestors — took for granted.

At the same time, we celebrate that we as a society have to a partial — and, as yet, lamentably incomplete — degree left those views behind, and we recognize that we may well possess additional cultural blind spots that future generations will rightly abhor.

We believe it’s possible to keep all these thoughts in our minds at the very same time that we honor Kipling’s historical legacy in our community and his contributions to world literature.

We believe it’s possible to celebrate that legacy and those contributions while at the same time drawing a bright line of demarcation between society as it was then and society as it is now.

Perhaps it’s analogous to the way many Americans view the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence: great documents, representing true advancements in human thought, that were produced by authors all-too-representative of their society’s widely held views, many of which — were they to be articulated today — would be nothing short of reprehensible.

By recognizing where we’ve come from — where we’ve made progress and where we have not — we become better human beings, and we work toward a better, more progressive, tolerant, and equitable society — one we hope our young writers will help produce.

Tim Weed


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