Saturday, June 9, 2012

Bradbury on Dunsany (and Sime)

So, Ray Bradbury's passing reminds me of his brief account about the time he went to see Lord Dunsany on one of the latter's trips to America near the end of his life, in the mid-1950s.

"The Seeming Unimportance of Being Sime"

At UCLA some 25 years ago* Lord Dunsany stood before a mob of students and was about to name the finest writer of English during our century.

He hestitated before giving us the answer. My mind flashed authors at me. Aldous Huxley? Thomas Hardy? Writer of English? Well, after all, Hemingway did write English, yes, and what about Faulkner, or even Steinbeck? Then back to the English -- English: Shaw. Yes, Shaw must be it!


Lord Dunsany waited on himself, and made us wait as he gathered the name like a dry wisdom in his mouth. Then he uttered it.

Rudyard Kipling.

A gasp ran through the crowd. A shocked laugh knocked itself out of my throat. Good old Ruddy Rudyard, of course. An old love of mine, lately gone out with the tide, but perhaps now coming back.**

Indeed, Kipling has come back. Not all the way, but he will survive because he is truly excellent.

Meanwhile, Lord Dunsany himself went out with the tide. But as with all things of varying quality, especially fantasy writers, he is re-appearing in our midst.

And Someone named Sime with him.

--at this point, Bradbury goes into an discussion (interesting, but tangental to our purposes) of how the young generation were teaching their teachers the value of science fiction and fantasy: "Heinlein and Tolkien and Clarke", while at the same time rediscovering for themselves "the imaginative calligraphies of Escher, the storm-wracked arthritic landscapes of Rackham, the shadowed haunts of Dore, the delightful animal and bug frolics of Grandville, and perhaps now into such territory as Sime seems to have inhabited". He concludes with the possibly rhetorical query: "Can you name another time in history when such a literary and artistic rediscovery rused and fired by teenagers -- existed or existing -- succeeded and prevailed? I can think of none."

--Introduction to SIDNEY H. SIME: MASTER OF FANTASY, cmp Paul W. Skeeters [1978]

*this was written in 1978 --JDR

**given that folks have been predicting Kipling's come-back since 1939 at least (cf. Auden's poem on Yeats' death), I'm thinking it's time we stopped waiting for that Godot. Ain't gonna happen. --JDR

So, an interesting little glimpse into a great writer of one generation coming all too briefly into contact with a great writer of a previous generation. I'm glad we have this little vignette; wd that we had more like it.

--John R.


David Bratman said...

But Kipling has come back. He was in very deep literary disrepute indeed in the 40s and 50s, and has returned quite a ways since then. My thought on reading here Bradbury's 1978 comment was "yes, indeed": it was already happening, and it's happened more since then.

Of course, no claim that he was the greatest master is universal (they never are), but there are people who think so, and today you can sing his praises without getting the gasps of astonishment that greeted Dunsany's declaration in the 1950s.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi David
I don't think that he's come back in any significant sense. Kipling was considered a major author a century ago. He was held in such esteem that he was the first writer in English to win a Nobel Prize. Now he's remembered as some guy who inspired Neil Gaiman to write a really good book. How far the mighty have fallen.

Magister said...

Kipling is also the _youngest_ writer ever to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

David Bratman said...

Neil Gaiman's book? I haven't seen any separate comment on Kipling in that context at all, only notations of Gaiman's reference. And he's far, far better remembered than that. To say he's remembered only for that would imply he'd been entirely forgotten before Gaiman's book, and that came out only a few years ago. I was thinking of before that. He really has recovered a place in literary history, as Bradbury was keen enough to observe as far back as 1978.

John D. Rateliff said...

Thinking it over, I've realized that David and I were going by different definitions of what a 'come back' for Kipling would look like. I meant by it that he was once taken seriously as a literary figure: recipient of the Nobel Prize and someone whose ideas were considered significant commentary on major issues ("the white man's burden"); there was a general feeling that he shd have been made Poet Laureate, back in an era when that still meant something (Wordsworth, Tennyson, and the' in-absentia' Morris all being in living memory), despite his having once spoke slightly disrespectfully of the queen (which doomed his chances for good).

That's no longer the case, and hasn't been since right about a century ago. He's now remembered as a children's writer who was a sort of literary Leni Riefenstahl of his time, the champion of colonialism.

So yes, his name has never been forgotten, and people do still read his books. But, like Dunsany (who was initially ranked with Shaw and Synge as a leading light in the Irish literary revival), he's now a niche author. I passed through three degree programs at three different universities, and never once had a Kipling assigned in any of the classes I took in English lit. His name only came up once, in a discussion by the most well-read professor I ever had, of whether he might one day 'come back' (Dr. Kimpel thought it possible, having seen the rise of Melville in his own lifetime).

Similar, I guess, to Wells having been a major novelist of the mores of his time and now being remembered for his science fiction work, or Barrie going from being a leading playwright to 'the guy who wrote Peter Pan'.

--John R.