Rudyard Kipling in a Bad Mood

by zunguzungu

At age 24, Rudyard Kipling was angry with the United States. His books were being pirated, since American copyright laws took a liberal approach to defending British authors. So, en route from India to England, he took time to write a “Brit goes to America!” book (starting in San Francisco), which begins with the fantasy of burning it to the ground. Things kind of go downhill from there.*

When the “City of Pekin” steamed through the Golden Gate, I saw with great joy that the block-house which guarded the mouth of the “finest harbor in the world, sir,” could be silenced by two gunboats from Hong Kong with safety, comfort, and despatch. Also, there was not a single American vessel of war in the harbor.

This may sound bloodthirsty; but remember, I had come with a grievance upon me—the grievance of the pirated English books.

Then a reporter leaped aboard, and ere I could gasp held me in his toils. He pumped me exhaustively while I was getting ashore, demanding of all things in the world news about Indian journalism. It is an awful thing to enter a new land with a new lie on your lips. I spoke the truth to the evil-minded Custom House man who turned my most sacred raiment on a floor composed of stable refuse and pine splinters; but the reporter overwhelmed me not so much by his poignant audacity as his beautiful ignorance. I am sorry now that I did not tell him more lies as I passed into a city of three hundred thousand white men. Think of it! Three hundred thousand white men and women gathered in one spot, walking upon real pavements in front of plate-glass-windowed shops, and talking something that at first hearing was not very different from English. It was only when I had tangled myself up in a hopeless maze of small wooden houses, dust, street refuse, and children who played with empty kerosene tins, that I discovered the difference of speech.

“You want to go to the Palace Hotel?” said an affable youth on a dray. “What in hell are you doing here, then? This is about the lowest ward in the city. Go six blocks north to corner of Geary and Markey, then walk around till you strike corner of Gutter and Sixteenth, and that brings you there.”

I do not vouch for the literal accuracy of these directions, quoting but from a disordered memory.

“Amen,” I said. “But who am I that I should strike the corners of such as you name? Peradventure they be gentlemen of repute, and might hit back. Bring it down to dots, my son.”

I thought he would have smitten me, but he didn’t. He explained that no one ever used the word “street,” and that every one was supposed to know how the streets ran, for sometimes the names were upon the lamps and sometimes they weren’t. Fortified with these directions, I proceeded till I found a mighty street, full of sumptuous buildings four and five stories high, but paved with rude cobblestones, after the fashion of the year 1.

Here a tram-car, without any visible means of support, slid stealthily behind me and nearly struck me in the back. This was the famous cable car of San Francisco, which runs by gripping an endless wire rope sunk in the ground, and of which I will tell you more anon. A hundred yards further there was a slight commotion in the street, a gathering together of three or four, something that glittered as it moved very swiftly. A ponderous Irish gentleman, with priest’s cords in his hat and a small nickel-plated badge on his fat bosom, emerged from the knot supporting a Chinaman who had been stabbed in the eye and was bleeding like a pig. The bystanders went their ways, and the Chinaman, assisted by the policeman, his own. Of course this was none of my business, but I rather wanted to know what had happened to the gentleman who had dealt the stab. It said a great deal for the excellence of the municipal arrangement of the town that a surging crowd did not at once block the street to see what was going forward. I was the sixth man and the last who assisted at the performance, and my curiosity was six times the greatest. Indeed, I felt ashamed of showing it.

There were no more incidents till I reached the Palace Hotel, a seven-storied warren of humanity with a thousand rooms in it. All the travel books will tell you about hotel arrangements in this country. They should be seen to be appreciated. Understand clearly—and this letter is written after a thousand miles of experiences—that money will not buy you service in the West. When the hotel clerk—the man who awards your room to you and who is supposed to give you information—when that resplendent individual stoops to attend to your wants he does so whistling or humming or picking his teeth, or pauses to converse with some one he knows. These performances, I gather, are to impress upon you that he is a free man and your equal. From his general appearance and the size of his diamonds he ought to be your superior. There is no necessity for this swaggering self-consciousness of freedom. Business is business, and the man who is paid to attend to a man might reasonably devote his whole attention to the job. Out of office hours he can take his coach and four and pervade society if he pleases.
In a vast marble-paved hall, under the glare of an electric light, sat forty or fifty men, and for their use and amusement were provided spittoons of infinite capacity and generous gape. Most of the men wore frock-coats and top-hats—the things that we in India put on at a wedding-breakfast, if we possess them—but they all spat. They spat on principle. The spittoons were on the staircases, in each bedroom—yea, and in chambers even more sacred than these. They chased one into retirement, but they blossomed in chiefest splendor round the bar, and they were all used, every reeking one of them.

Just before I began to feel deathly sick another reporter grappled me. What he wanted to know was the precise area of India in square miles. I referred him to Whittaker. He had never heard of Whittaker. He wanted it from my own mouth, and I would not tell him. Then he swerved off, just like the other man, to details of journalism in our own country. I ventured to suggest that the interior economy of a paper most concerned the people who worked it.

“That’s the very thing that interests us,” he said. “Have you got reporters anything like our reporters on Indian newspapers?”

“We have not,” I said, and suppressed the “thank God” rising to my lips.

“Why haven’t you?” said he.

“Because they would die,” I said.

It was exactly like talking to a child—a very rude little child. He would begin almost every sentence with, “Now tell me something about India,” and would turn aimlessly from one question to the other without the least continuity. I was not angry, but keenly interested. The man was a revelation to me. To his questions I returned answers mendacious and evasive. After all, it really did not matter what I said. He could not understand. I can only hope and pray that none of the readers of the “Pioneer” will ever see that portentous interview. The man made me out to be an idiot several sizes more drivelling than my destiny intended, and the rankness of his ignorance managed to distort the few poor facts with which I supplied him into large and elaborate lies. Then, thought I, “the matter of American journalism shall be looked into later on. At present I will enjoy myself.”

* Bonus for Sepoy, from chapter V:

“I have struck a city—a real city—and they call it Chicago. The other places do not count. San Francisco was a pleasure-resort as well as a city, and Salt Lake was a phenomenon. This place is the first American city I have encountered. It holds rather more than a million of people with bodies, and stands on the same sort of soil as Calcutta. Having seen it, I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages.”