At times I could hear Mark Twain behind Rudyard Kipling. Pawing through a volume of Twain (the first volume of Library of America Collected Tales, Sketches, etc.) it occurred to me that Kipling might have benefitted not just from Twain’s stance or rhetoric but even from his subject, that Twain’s strange world of the Nevada territory and early San Francisco had some curious correspondences to Kipling’s world of the Himalayan frontier. Mostly differences, yes, but both India and California were examples of a civilization re-creating itself helter skelter in a land far from wherever the settlers and fortune-seekers call home. The order is scrambled, seams become visible, odd features are emphasized.
Did Kipling even read Twain? Angus Wilson (The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling, 1977) says yes, since he was a schoolboy in England:
They consumed Ruskin, Carlyle, Emerson, and later (subject to a fierce argument between Kipling and his English master) Whitman. Here Kipling formed his taste for the American humorists, Breitmann (a long-lasting and, I think, harmful love of Kipling’s), Twain and the new craze – Harris’s Uncle Remus. (44)
An obstacle has appeared: who is Breitmann? Hans Breitmann, Künstlername of Charles Godfrey Leland. A sample of Hans Breitmann’s Ballads (1871):
Der noble Ritter Hugo
Rode out mit shper and helmet,
Und he coom to de panks of de Rhine.
Und oop dere rose a meermaid,
Vot hadn't got nodings on,
Und she say, "Oh, Ritter Hugo,
Vhere you goes mit yourself alone?"
And he says, "I rides in de creenwood,
Mit helmet und mit shpeer,
Til I coomes into em Gasthaus,
Und dere I trinks some beer." (and so on)
I see, a dialect act. This sort of thing is pretty funny when Danny Kaye does it, right? Kipling’s Barrack-Room Ballads (1892) are a little bit like this stuff. I can see how it would wear. Kipling’s early books of poems, written about and in the voice of the soldiers in India, Cockney or Irish or what have you, have the great virtue of being short.
Twain, though, I still wondered exactly what Twain Kipling had read. Kipling must have read Tom Sawyer and The Prince and the Pauper before he returned to India. The travel books would be more relevant – I think the tone I was picking up was like that of Innocents Abroad (1869), and Roughing It (1872) is about Twain’s adventures in the American West.
I have no idea how much of the Twain articles and squibs and miscellanea I am reading now could have been read by Kipling. Some of it was gathered into Sketches Old and New (1875), but any number of pieces could have been republished in newspapers, especially once “Jim Smiley and his Jumping Frog” made Twain more or less famous in 1865. Wilson accidentally answers my question while describing a hospital visit by the teenage Kipling:
He had told his sister that he wanted to be a doctor but that a post-mortem had put him off. “Oh! In fact, Mark Twain had a word for it. I believe I threw up my immortal soul.” (55-6)
That vivid phrase is lifted directly from Twain’s “How to Cure a Cold” (1863, included in Sketches Old and New), where “a quart of salt water, taken warm” is the specific purgative.
I’ve read the Twain selections up into his early thirties. Twain was as young as Kipling when he started writing professionally, but by the standards of Kipling, who had created a unique and outstanding body of short stories by the time he was twenty-three, Twain's achievement is minimal. Kipling really was unusual. And Twain had, it turns out, created the one thing he needed, though, his instrument, his voice. His shtick.