English professor Benfey receives grant to study Jungle Book author

Photo by Crystal Seo '18

Photo by Crystal Seo '18

BY HOA NGUYEN ’18

Christopher Benfey, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English, is a recipient of the Public Scholar Award granted by the National Endowment for Humanities this academic year. 

The research project, already in progress for the past several years, closely examines English writer Rudyard Kipling's stay in the United States during the 1890s. Kipling is renowned worldwide for his works of fiction such as "The Jungle Book," "Captain Courageous" and poems such as "The White Man's Burden."

The Anglo-Indian Kipling, according to professor Benfey, is "an international writer and a rootless wonder," given his experience living and working in India, Great Britain and the United States.

As a committed student of the American Gilded Age in the early 1900s, Benfey considers Rudyard Kipling one of the most popular and influential writers in the U.S.

 "Very few people I've talked to have any idea that Kipling lived here in the States and we would imagine him sitting in India or in England writing The Jungle Book," he said, "but [Kipling] was here in Brattleboro, Vermont, just an hour away from Mount Holyoke."

Professor Benfey believes it was by no accident that The Jungle Book has been adapted into movies and cartoons across generations through different remakes, one of which just hit the box office earlier this year. "The myths of The Jungle Book are still very much with us,"he said.

Benfey's research is titled, "Kipling's Ark: The Making and Unmaking of an American Writer." As for the "making" half, the scholar pointed out that for a short period of his life, Kipling really wanted to be an American writer, write an American novel with an American audience in mind and perhaps become an adopted American. Interestingly, "all of the main characters in his books were adopted in some ways."

Consequently, the other half of unmaking took place following some quarrels with his American in-laws, in combination with a moment of international dispute between the States and Great Britain over the border of Venezuela. "Kipling was surprised by the anti-British feeling in Vermont, so it was time to leave, move to England and turn himself into an English writer," Benfey continued.

Beside the hankering to investigate Kipling's sojourn in Brattleboro, Benfey is thrilled to explore the history of Vermont in the 1890s, a period of economic depression and stagnation, when people were leaving the agricultural world because of the destruction of natural resources.

"I always believe that difficult research and difficult ideas can be made clear for general readers, it's partly the way I teach as well," he said. 

Benfrey's ideas and methods therefore match the core purpose of the Public Scholar Award, as stated on the NEH website, which is to bring scholarship in the humanities to a broad audience.  

"The great advantage of writing about Rudyard Kipling is that everyone has heard of him and The Jungle Book," he said, "but not everyone has any idea who this man was, where he's lived, what he believed and what in the world he was doing in Vermont."

Once the research finishes taking shape, Benfey hopes more general readers will a deeper understanding beyond Rudyard Kipling's popularity and fame, shedding light on the writer's influence on the American literature and the American Gilded Age through his eyes.

Mount Holyoke News

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