Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Kipling's engineers and talking horses - The Day's Work

In a given book of short stories, how many of the stories should be from the point of view of a horse?  A narrow reader, my answer would be “None,” although really I do not grudge one.  The Day’s Work, Rudyard Kipling’s 1898 collection, has two, which is pushing it.  One of those is really from the perspective of the narrator-Kipling, who is listening to the horses debate.  They are debating American labor politics.  This story, “A Walking Delegate,” was a mistake.

These stories are contemporaries of The Jungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895), so Kipling has talking animals on the brain.  He had always been good with animals.  But The Day’s Work also has a story about chatty railroad engines (“.007” – “.007 quivered; his steam was getting up, but he held his tongue”) and another one that does not personify an Atlantic freighter on its maiden voyage but rather all of the individual components of the ship including its steam (“The Ship that Found Herself”).  More characters: rivets, “a huge web-frame, by the main cargo-hatch,” and the garboard-strake (“the lowest plate in the bottom of a ship”).  These stories are not mistakes but are self-limiting.

Three more stories continue the train theme; two are farces about Americans running into trouble with the English railroad system, while one is about the apocalyptic cosmological implications of building a bridge across the Ganges.  Thus it introduces both the “men in India” theme, which continues in three stories, and the engineering theme, ditto in two.  One of those is about the destruction and part-by-part reconstruction of a ship’s engine (“The Devil and the Deep Sea”).

That one and “The Bridge-Builders” ought to be part of the curriculum at every engineering school.

One of the “men in India” stories, “The Brushwood Boy,” turns out to be a dreamy weird tale superior to Lovecraft’s except that it turns out to be a love story, and I do not want to read any Lovecraft love stories for comparison.  “William the Conqueror” is a terrific love story, too – this is one of the “men in India” stories, although William is a woman in India.

I am sorting the stories in this manner because when I describe The Day’s Work to myself in this way it sounds like a disaster, or at best a collection of oddities.  But I count five masterpieces out of twelve stories, which is a smaller proportion than in either Jungle Book but still, pretty rare.

That is one problem I have had thinking about this book – why would anyone write a story about repairing an engine and how could it be any good?  The other is that the overall themes of the collection are work and duty, as unfashionable a pair as I can imagine.  Perhaps Kipling has been done in not just by his political opponents but by his emphasis on ideas that have lost their literary audience, much like what happened to Walter Scott.

But who cares.  Some of these stories are terrific.  I sometimes use the metaphor of criticism as the dismantling of a story’s mechanism.  Never before has the image been so appropriate.


  1. I'm guessing the fifth (unlisted) masterpiece is The Maltese Cat, one of the horse stories. This was the collection that made Henry James doubt his friends' approach: "[Kipling's work has degenerated] steadily from the simple in subject to the more simple-from the Anglo-Indians to the natives, from the natives to the Tommies, from the Tommies to the quadrupeds, from the quadrupeds to the fish, and from the fish to engines and screws".

    There's something about the number five. Kipling's next full collection, Traffics and Discoveries would include 5 masterpieces out of 11 tales; while Actions and Reactions contains 5 good short stories. On the other hand, Kipling's last 3 full collections (A Diversity of Creatures, Debits and Credits, Limits and Renewals) are beyond belief: they're so packed with masterpieces.

  2. I was reading this, last year maybe, but got stuck in The Walking Delegate and can't even imagine myself finishing it.

  3. Yes, that's right, "The Maltese Cat." I am tempted to say "My Sunday at Home," but that would be willful perversity. I may write about it, though. In its way as weird a subject as building an engine or winning a polo game.

    Not as strange as horses discussing labor politics, though. "The Walking Delegate" is a good one to skip. Most people will feel the same about "The Devil and the Deep Sea," though, and maybe the polo game, and possibly - well, Kipling is pushing the form pretty hard here.

  4. Kipling within his Victorian contexts is the only way that I can read his work. I do not expect relevance to me. Am I being too narrow minded?

  5. Relevance, Kipling has that.

    When you see my next post, which is among the most skimmable I have ever written, you, a Navy veteran, will see one possible point of entry: Kipling at sea. He was more interested in merchant vessels then fighting ships, though.

    So maybe you, a career military man, will enjoy Kipling's many tales of military life including, just in this particular book, "William the Conqueror," "The Tomb of His Ancestors," The Maltese Cat" - which is about a polo match, so the relevance is questionable - and "The Brushwood Boy" - I would not want to push that one too much either for its relevance.

    Forget this book - you could have fun with a book like Soldiers Three.

    Then there is the mythic, cosmic Kipling, scattered all over his work. A different kind of relevance. He had a rare kind of imagination.

    1. I shall look forward to my amendment through closer reading.

  6. "Relevance" is a pretty distant concern for me, so, well, grain of salt, right.

    But how many other writers take military service as a subject at all, much less with the interest of Kipling? Tobias Wolff is our modern Kipling.