May 31, 2013

Was Kipling a plagiarist?


A signed letter from 1895, in which Rudyard Kipling says he plagiarized other works in writing The Jungle Book, is up for auction. The lines Kipling may have borrowed appear in “The Law of the Jungle” as advice given from Baloo to Mowgli, which the author says may have been part of the “(Southern) Esquimaux rules for the division of spoils.”

Autograph expert Adam Andrusier, who is auctioning the letter for £2,500, said to Claire Carter of The Telegraph, “Letters by Kipling that mention his most enduring work are extremely rare.”

Andrusier bought the letter from Jarndyce Antiquarian Booksellers in May, after the letter was found in a collection of uncategorized papers and books.

Kipling’s letter reads:

I have been absent from home for some days. Hence the delay in answering yours of no date, in regard to my account of the Law of the Jungle.

I am afraid that all that code in its outlines has been manufactured to meet ‘the necessities of the case’: though a little of it is bodily taken from (Southern) Esquimaux rules for the division of spoils.

In fact, it is extremely possible that I have helped myself promiscuously but at present cannot remember from whose stories I have stolen.

Very sincerely, Rudyard Kipling

The first English language writer to be awarded Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1907), Kipling was once believed to be the highest-paid writer in the world.

Sarah Churchill argues in The Guardian that originality has only risen to an aesthetic ideal since the invention of copyright law, and says she believes Kipling is more “literary magpie” than plagiarist.

Andrusier says of Kipling, “Personally, I rather like his candidness about the possibility of his plagiarism in The Jungle Book; I think people tend to have a misapprehension about writing needing to be unswervingly original, when so much literature is either consciously or unconsciously borrowed.”

As we reported, Kipling made the news in February when fifty unpublished Kipling poems were discovered by academic Thomas Pinney.


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.