In this fresh examination of Kipling, Benfey hangs a provocative "what if” over Kipling’s American years and maps the imprint Kipling left on his adopted country as well as the imprint the country left on him
...Kipling’s American years make for a fertile foreign chapter. They yielded the bulk of his most popular work. Benfey eloquently argues not only that Kipling’s engagement with the United States made him the writer he became, but that he lavishly returned the favor ... It is not Benfey’s fault that Kipling flies about in reckless disregard of his subtitle, but it does at times make for something of a disjointed narrative. One gets the sense of a subject straining at his leash, unhappily confined, stubbornly untamed ... Benfey reminds us of our debt to a category-demolishing, globe-striding man who indeed contained multitudes...
Christopher Benfey, a professor at Mount Holyoke, writes that some of his friends, when they learned what he was working on, asked him what on earth he was thinking, and warned that he’d better be ready to defend himself. Benfey’s best defense turns out to be the book itself, which doesn’t attempt a full-throated rehab job ... Kipling’s American sojourn is hardly an 'untold story'—it figures in all the biographies—but Benfey tells it well, catching nuances that some biographers have missed.
Benfey strolls through Kipling’s American years with the sensibility of a flaneur, pausing here over particular points of interest, turning back there for another look. The approach delivers memorable insights ... But too often Benfey lets go of the bright ideas that bob through If like a fistful of balloons and allows them to float away ... If concludes with an unsatisfying epilogue on citations of Kipling during the Vietnam War, which feels both too little (in terms of what it says about Kipling) and too late (leaping straight from the 1910s into the 1970s) ... What If makes clear, however, is that Kipling’s offensive politics must be understood as a product of American influence as much as British ... Anchoring Kipling in American history and literature shows how much more extensive and complicated the legacies of empire actually are.