Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Fame, Duration and Quality

Combining both Noveleye's question about lasting works and authorial identity, with Scott Walters' recent thoughts on entertainment and art, I offer up the following key observation from John Derbyshire in his rather lengthy review of Rudyard Kipling's poetry in the New Criterion:

Kim is a very fine novel, but I don’t know that it is superior to, for
Lavengro —yet who reads Borrow any more? Who— outside the academy, I mean—reads Meredith, a much better novelist than Kipling? The world is full of good books. For a novel to be still in print after a century it is necessary that the novel be good, but it is not sufficient. All but the most celestial literary quality needs assistance from its author’s name. The author must have done something else that keeps him in our mind, or at least must have been representative of something, or scandalous or controversial in some way.

The fact of Kipling’s name still being known to the general
educated public today rests on two of these props. In the first place he was representative of a cast of mind which later generations came to deplore. In the second place he was a great poet. The first is, to a large degree, consequent on the second, for it was through his verse that Kipling’s opinions became widely and generally known. Midcentury intellectuals seeking to disparage Kipling did not quote Kim or The Jungle Book; they whacked you over the head with “the white man’s burden” and “lesser breeds without the law.” Kipling’s fame, and his infamy too, rests above all on his verse. This is a tribute, and a back-handed one, to the power of that verse.

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