Friday, November 16, 2007

Rudyard Kipling 's Description of Omaha

America irritated by Kipling's 'American Notes'

I recently found the book American Notes, by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), on the books-for-sale shelves at the library. Because of it, I've done some minor research and now I know that Kipling took several excursions in North America. In fact, there's a town in Saskatchewan named Kipling in his honor.

In American Notes, Kipling gives an account of his travels from San Francisco to Vancouver, and thence to Yellowstone, Salt Lake City, Denver, Chicago and eastward. Apparently, he took the trip in 1889, and as he traveled, he wrote letters that were published in a newspaper in India. Later, he put the letters together as American Notes, a book that was published in 1891. A revised edition came out in 1899.

Kipling traveled by rail from Denver to Chicago. He probably took the Burlington line. Enroute, he passed through Omaha, Nebraska, and his comments included the following:

Omaha, Nebraska was but a halting-place on the road to Chicago, but it revealed to me horrors that I would not willingly have missed.

The city to casual investigations seemed to be populated entirely by Germans, Poles, Slavs, Hungarians, Croats, Magyars, and all the scum of Eastern European States, but it must have been laid out by Americans.

No other people would have cut the traffic of a main street with two streams of railway lines, each some eight or nine tracks wide, and cheerfully drive tram cars across the metals.

Every now and again they have horrible railway crossing accidents at Omaha, but nobody seems to think of building an overhead-bridge. That would interfere with the vested interests of the undertakers...

Rudyard Kipling, about 1915
American Notes was widely criticized in America when it was published. Americans readers thought Kipling  was sneering and sarcastic, and after browsing through the book, I understand their reaction. Perhaps you can feel a bit of his bite in the excerpt above.

Many were disappointed in an author whom they respected. Others were just irritated. Mr. G. A. England of Harvard University, in a letter to the editor of the New York Times about Kipling, stated, "His is a bad case of megalomania, complicated with Intellectual myopia."

Somewhere else (I'm unable to relocate the webpage), I read that a dislike of the crassness and excesses of unfettered democracy was behind Kipling's sarcasm in American Notes.

The publisher of the 1899 edition was a bit anxious. He admitted in a foreword, "[The letters] seem supersarcastic, and would lead one to believe that Mr. Kipling is antagonistic to America in every respect." However, he suggested, the caustic flavor of the letters was interesting to students of Kipling, and thus the letters were worthy of publishing.


Collagemama said...

Very interesting! Kipling certainly comes across as a racist snob. I like most of his writing, but I'll look at them through a slightly different lens now.

Omaha's traffic flow left much to be desired when I lived there in the 80's, but it is much better now.

Omaha has the headquarters of the Union Pacific Railroad, and a history museum in the fancy old railroad station. It also has one of the best zoos in the nation.

Genevieve said...

Thanks for your comment, Collage Mama. I agree that Kipling didn't make much effort to disguise his prejudices.

I read that the Burlington depot was on 10th Street. Elsewhere, I read that the biggest Czech neighborhood in Omaha was also on 10th Street. I don't know how close it was to the Burlington depot. Anyway, that may help explain his idea of the main ethnic backgrounds of Omaha.

Pondering Pig said...

I believe that about fifty years earlier, Charles Dickens also wrote a similarly caustic report on the USA for his English readers that he published as American Notes. I read it many years ago but I still remember his fascination with the American male habit of chewing tobacco and spitting without discrimination on any floor they happened to be standing on.

Genevieve said...

Thanks for visiting, Pondering Pig. I hope you and Patrushka are doing well.

I am glad that it's no longer acceptable to spit anywhere you please. I don't want to even think about that. Ugh.

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