Although Kipling was one of the most popular writers of his time, his work was often met with sharply differing criticisms by the literary establishment. His work previous to Kim, which included more verse, political essays, and children’s stories than longer works, was often met with contempt and scorn; indeed, his receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1907 was criticized by the literary establishment, who viewed him more as a popular writer than a true artist, a writer of verse rather than a poet, and who disapproved of the often coarse nature of his political writings.
When Kim was first published in 1901, however, it was largely met with praise both from the press and the general readership; most critics agreed that it was Kipling’s most polished work to date. J. H. Millar wrote in Blackwood’s Magazine, December 1901, that “Mr. Kipling has decidedly ‘acquired merit’ by this his latest essay. There is a fascination, almost magic, in every page of the delightful volume, whose attractiveness is enhanced by… superlative excellence.” William Morton Payne, writing on recent fiction in The Dial in November of that same year, called Kim “singularly enthralling” and said that “few Europeans understand the working of the Oriental mind as Mr. Kipling understands them, and far fewer have his gift of imparting the understanding to their readers.” While The Bookman ran a piece calling Kim “mediocre and meaningless,” it seems that they were equally enthralled by Kipling’s riveting and enjoyable descriptions of life in India. The article states, “The author would be applauded for his very minute and exact knowledge of Asiatic life and Oriental superstition.” While Kipling’s contemporary critics discussed and argued his merit as an artist, it appears that the most praiseworthy item they agreed on in Kim was Kipling’s vivid descriptions of Indian life and India’s native peoples.
Throughout his career, Kipling wrote many works of fiction and nonfiction that gave strong voice to and supported the imperialist efforts of the British Empire, especially its governance over India. While the idea of imperialism was popular and well supported by the intellectual community during the first part of Kipling’s life, by the 1920s — after Britain had fought a major world war and was struggling with more difficulty to maintain its enormous empire — the romance of colonization had been replaced by world-weariness, and Kipling’s work suddenly came to be viewed as utterly old-fashioned, if not incorrect and vulgar.
It was not, however, until the school of thought known as postcolonial studies emerged in the 1960s that criticism of Kim was taken up again in a whole new light. Postcolonial study concerns itself with the effects and methods of subjugation and colonization on a subordinate people. In other words, postcolonial studies see imperialism from the point of view of the colonized. Most notable in postcolonial criticism of Kim is Edward Said, whose groundbreaking work Orientalismexplores how Western concepts of the colonized peoples of the East created unflattering, generalizing, inaccurate stereotypes — such as the Asian as a liar, the Asian as conniving, and the Asian as superstitious and irrational, which contributed greatly to the rationalization for the imposition of Western rule. Said has edited an annotated edition of Kim, in which he writes in the introduction: “Kim is a major contribution to [the] orientalized India of the imagination, as it is also to what historians have come to call ‘the invention of tradition…. Dotting Kim‘s fabric is a scattering of editorial asides on the immutable nature of the Oriental world . . . for example, ‘Kim could lie like an Oriental.'” What Said points out is that the “exact knowledge” of Asiatic life so extolled as by Kipling’s contemporaries were not accurate at all, but were myths that Kipling and his Western contemporaries not only bought into, but perpetuated.
Kim has not received only negative criticism in recent years, however. The reintroduction of Kipling’s work through the growing popularity of postcolonial studies has brought about a renewed interest in the novel, especially its role in and its use of historical occurrences of British India, from interest in the Great Game of espionage between Russia and Britain to examinations of how Kipling portrayed The Great Mutiny of 1857. Today, Kim is still considered a minor classic, more for its historical interest than for its artistry.