Kipling in Vermont
There has been a recent renewal of interest in Rudyard Kipling’s experiences in Vermont and in the house he established as a residence near Brattleboro.
His writings certainly reflect some of those experiences. For instance, he wrote at least some of the “Just So Stories” for children while in Vermont, and one of those stories is about Jonah and the whale. When the whale finally brings Jonah to land, he steps out of the animal’s mouth saying:
“Change here for Winchester, Ashuelot, Richmond, Swanzey, Keene and stations on the FITCH-burg line.”
Not many people these days realize that when passenger train conductors entered a car to announce an approaching station, they also said if that was a place to catch a connecting line.
The towns that “Jonah” mentioned are in southwestern New Hampshire. There has not been a railroad going through those towns for decades, if not for at least a half century. Yet when Kipling was in Vermont, railroads were the chief method of long-distance transportation.
Somehow, my family preserved an atlas of the United States that was printed in 1900. It listed more railroads than highways, including the main line up the Connecticut River from Hartford and New York City to Brattleboro and beyond. That was the one Kipling would have taken when heading for his Vermont home.
And sure enough, branching off that main line at a point below the Vermont-Massachusetts line was a rail line that wound through those southwestern New Hampshire towns mentioned in the story about Jonah. Kipling would have heard that announcement every time he took that main route.
The “Fitchburg line” that was mentioned went from Bellows Falls in Vermont and stretched in a roughly southeastern fashion through towns in New Hampshire until reaching Fitchburg in Massachusetts.
A noted characteristic of Kipling’s writings was to endow nonhumans with human characteristics. There’s a word to describe that: “anthropomorphism.” That’s from the Greek word “anthropos,” meaning “man” or “human being.” He gave that characteristic to animals, as is well-known in the “Jungle Books.”
There’s also a lesser-known story entitled “A Walking Delegate.” This involves conversation between horses in what’s described as a Vermont back pasture. And the conversations are very much like what Kipling would have heard when he was in downtown Brattleboro on the way to the post office or some other building.
It was not just to animals that Kipling gave human characteristics. He gave it to inanimate objects such as machines — and it’s not always remembered that Kipling had an abiding and highly educated interest in machine of all kinds.
There’s a story entitled “.007” in a volume called “The Day’s Work.” Engine .007 is a steam locomotive, newly made, who has just gone into a round house where he is being looked over by other locomotives.
It shows how far we are from the time Kipling was writing that he didn’t feel it necessary to explain what a “round house” was. In the days when railroads were supreme, such round structures in rail yards were where the engines were kept when they were not hauling loads on the road. Many of the most sophisticated round houses had a turntable in the center upon which was a track. A locomotive would be moved onto that inner track and then it would be shifted to connect with whatever outside line of rails it was intended to operate on.
In any event, .007 gets to the round house, which might have been in the Brattleboro rail yards. Then, “He said goodbye to his best friend in the shops — the overhead traveling crane — and the other locomotives were taking stock of him. He looked at the semicircle of bold, unwinking headlights, heard the low purr and mutter of the steam mounting in the gauges — scornful hisses of contempt as a slack valve lifted a little — and would have given a month’s oil for leave to go through his own driving wheels into the brick ash-pit beneath him.”
A heavy Mogul freight engine is the first to say something rather condescending, and several others add their comments. And then a switching engine speaks up for him: “That kid’s all right. Eustis designed him and Eustis designed me. Ain’t that good enough?”
As the story continues, the Mogul heads out to haul a line of freight cars, hits an obstruction and overturns. Engine .007 is assigned to go out and haul him back to the round house, but refrains from making any gloating remarks and is accepted in the community of locomotives.
Another story called “The Ship That Found Herself” shows Kipling’s mastery of mechanical construction. The ship is on her maiden voyage, and every part of its structure has a voice of its own, from the rivets holding the steel plates together to the smokestack and foremast. For instance:
“‘Rigidity! Rigidity! Rigidity!’ thumped the engines. ‘Absolute unvarying rigidity — rigidity!’”
At the end of the voyage, the ship has acquired a single voice. That was an example of how Kipling was an expert in many other things besides events in British India.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.