In December 1897 Rudyard Kipling was in low spirits. The weather was inclement, he had an atrocious cold, and a review of Captains Courageous in the Atlantic Monthly (LXXX Dec 1897, pp 856/7) had left him smarting. The Atlantic critic complained that, although the book achieved `relief from the go-fever and insistence of Kipling’s earlier work, `it is relief procured at the cost of life…. There is an almost incredible lack of significance in parts of it, as if it were a steamer underengined for its length.’ Kipling was startled by the reviewer’s strictures. These were, he said, exactly the qualities which he associated with the United States. Interpreting `relief’ in his own way, Kipling explained his position to an American friend, Charles Eliot Norton:
Had I gone about with a lantern to describe America I could not have hit on a more splendid description than `relief at the cost of life’. Relief from the material cares of the Elder Peoples at the cost of what the Elder Peoples mean by life! And again `There is an almost incredible insignificance in parts of it, as if it were a steamer underengined on its length’. Why, hang it! that’s his own very country and in half a dozen words he gets at the nub of the thing I was laboriously painting in C. C.
`For this’, went on Kipling, `did I change my style; and allegorize and parable and metaphor.’
Few critics of Captains Courageous have seen it in quite that way, although some have been inclined to agree with Kipling (Letters of Rudyard Kipling ii, 323) that it is `thin, and tinny, and without passion’. Kipling’s belief that he had changed his style and used allegory, parable, and metaphor to suit his subject is at odds with the common assumption about Captains Courageous: that Kipling produced a book whose tension is confined to the two opening chapters, and that his employment of
complex nautical terminology, particularly in Chapter III, has rendered it opaque.
Composition of Captains Courageous probably began in early February 1896 when the Kiplings were living at Naulakha, their home in Vermont. The local doctor, James Conland, had been telling Kipling about his time on a schooner, thirty years before, and this seems to have been the stimulus. On 11 February Caroline Kipling noted that Captains Courageous was `taking shape’ (A Kipling Companion), and Kipling continued to write rapidly.
The story of Captains Courageous, like that of the earlier Jungle Book, is of a boy who finds himself in a new environment and is profoundly affected by the experience. While Mowgli is no more than a baby when he is adopted by the wolves, the protagonist of Captains Courageous, Harvey Cheyne, is 15, and has already acquired bad habits from his way of life-that of a millionaire’s over-indulged son. When he falls into the sea from an ocean liner Harvey is rescued by a Portuguese fisherman, Manuel, and taken back to the We’re Here, a schooner from the port of Gloucester, Massachusetts, under the captainship of Disko Troop. Harvey, at first protesting, but soon licked into shape by Troop, remains a member of the crew of the We’re Here throughout the summer season on the Grand Banks of the North Atlantic. When the We’re Here returns to Gloucester, Harvey is reunited with his parents, and a brief coda shows him as a university student about to take over control of part of his father’s maritime interest.
Kipling was entranced by his research. For weeks he was `bung full of it’ (Letters of Rudyard Kipling ii, 237) as he collected material on the New England fishing fleets. On 18 February he asked a Washington lawyer, William Hallett Phillips, for charts and other information about the Grand Banks, material which reached him in less than a week. In May he sent a request to another friend for `deep-sea yarns. . . such as running down whales, derelicts at sea, frozen compasses: and the like’.
In the same month, May 1896, Conland and Kipling visited two New England fishing ports, Boston and Gloucester, where they researched the harbour area, studying fishing vessels, instruments, and charts.
Conland took a large cod and the appropriate knives with which they are prepared for the hold, and demonstrated anatomically and surgically so that I could make no mistake about treating them in print. Old tales, too, he dug up, and the lists of dead and gone schooners whom he had loved, and I revelled in profligate abundance of detail-not necessarily for publication but for the joy of it.’
(Letters of Rudyard Kipling ii, 240)
From his autobiography, Something of Myself, it is clear that Kipling paid a later visit to Gloucester, in August 1896, when he `attended the annual Memorial Service to the men drowned or lost in the cod-fishing schooners fleet’. (Something of Myself 130)).
Kipling was later to deny that Captains Courageous was `all reporterage. I wanted to see if I could catch and hold something of a rather beautiful localised American atmosphere that was already beginning to fade. Thanks to Conland I came near this.’ (Something of Myself 131)
The book was written at a difficult time in Kipling’s life. He and his wife had quarrelled with her brother, Beatty Balestier, a close neighbour in Brattleboro. Balestier had been declared bankrupt in March, and, in early May, had abused Kipling and threatened to kill him. Kipling took his brother-in-law to court, an action he was to regret since it produced a deluge of unwelcome publicity. It was against this background that Kipling and Conland travelled to Boston and Gloucester, and it would be far from surprising if Kipling began to feel less enthusiastic about his American book. In letters to friends he described
Captains Courageous as a `story in prose’ (Letters of Rudyard Kipling ii, 247) , ‘a `boy’s story’ (ibid 237,242) , even a `sketch for better work’ (ibid 237) , only occasionally as a `novel’ (ibid 249) .” On 31 August Kipling told William James that the `long tale’ was finished, and would appear in McClure’s Magazine from November. On the following day, 1 September, the Kiplings left for England after four years in the United States. The quarrel had forced them to retreat.
Kipling gave the manuscript of Captains Courageous, now in the Pierpont Morgan Library, to Conland. A number of changes were made before serial publication in McClure’s Magazine in the United States and Pearson’s Magazine in Britain. The majority of changes are in the opening chapters. Many involve the deletion of colourful adjectives, similes, and metaphors in order to produce a clearer text. In the manuscript, for example, Harvey, falling from a liner into a dory or small fishing boat, finds himself `in a sort of coffin’. Manuel’s original account of Harvey’s fall was that he `come flying all spread eagles’ (Manuscript of Captains Courageous, Pierpoint Morgan Library, p 10), later changed to the simpler `come all down’. Characteristically, Kipling attended closely to numbers. Twenty-five fathoms become 15 fathoms, half an hour an hour, 200 boats around the Virgin Rock are reduced to `nearly a hundred’. There are eleven sailors on the We’re Here in the manuscript, nine in Pearson’s Magazine, and eight in the final text. Working in the opposite direction, a dozen fishing boats becomes twenty, Cheyne’s millions rise from 15 to 30, and the pay offered by Disko Troop goes up from $8.50 to $10.50. Further changes were made between the magazine and book versions. For the final text Kipling added several fine pieces of prose, including the passage on Harvey’s first sight of the Virgin Rock, and another on his terror at the sinking of Uncle Abishai’s boat, as well as a remarkable impressionistic section describing the sea and Harvey’s reponse to it on the return journey to Gloucester.
Kipling’s changes to the text do not alter the general direction of a story which Daniel Karlin is right to see as an allegory of the American future. (‘Captains Courageous and American Empire’, Kipling Journal Sep 1989, 11-12). Harvey’s two ‘fathers’, Harvey Cheyne senior and Disko Troop, are contrasted figures of the West and East coasts. Cheyne (chain) is the `kinless’ self-made man of the mechanical future while Troop is descended from generations of Gloucester fishermen. One of Kipling’s original titles was Harvey Cheyne: Banker, and by the end of the book Harvey is proud to have earned his wages and to have become a `banker’, one who has fished on the Grand Banks. Even so, he will never row or rig sails as well as Disko’s son, Dan, trained to the task from a young age. Appropriately for his future role as a captain of industry, Harvey’s most useful function on the We’re Here is to do Disko Troop’s arithmetic.
An Allegory of Changing Times
Even while Kipling researched and wrote Captains Courageous, he knew that these schooner fishermen and their skills were doomed. It has been said that he was describing the practices of thirty years before, when Conland himself was at sea. The future lay with the Cheynes and with Dan Troop, who is fascinated by ideas of the `progressive’. Appropriately, the book ends with Dan as a mate on board one of the Cheynes’ liners. As his mother concisely puts it, he accepts a job which will take him out and in on short voyages, not out for months like his father into the mysterious world of the Grand Banks. The pattern of the American twentieth century is established.
Kipling’s allegory of the American future places him in the tradition of an author he admired, Mark Twain. Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer of 1876 and, more particularly, Huckleberry Finn of 1884, analyse some of the problems of American society after the Civil War. Both writers present their vision of America through the experiences of a boy, and Huck’s raft journey along the Mississippi provides a loose parallel with Harvey’s experience of the sea. Both writers are demonstrating the disappearance of innocence in a society increasingly dominated by the getting of money. However, by largely restricting himself to the account of life on the ocean, where most men retain certain values of comradeship and responsibility, Kipling sidesteps the more alarming complications of Huckleberry Finn. His `happy ending’ seems to enwrap the new millionaire and the old fishing community into a common America.
Kipling did not, however, look into the future with optimism. He told Norton that he objected to the Atlantic reviewer’s description of Captains Courageous as `healthy’, `simple’, and ‘vigorous’.(Letters of Rudyard Kipling ii, 323, Atlantic Monthly Dec 1897). He had not meant, he said, to commend Harvey’s conversation with his father in Chapter X, but believed the attitudes shown there to be `flagrantly un-moral not to say heathen’.(Letters of Rudyard Kipling ii, 323.) Kipling was probably referring to Cheyne’s account of his successful career, `seeking his own ends, and, so he said, the glory and advancement of his country’. Kipling’s whole treatment of Cheyne senior is, however, far more ambivalent than this comment about him would suggest. In Captains Courageous, Kipling conveys considerable admiration for Cheyne and for his career as a successful self-made man. He is presented as a representative figure of the new America, and as such he is representative of Kipling’s own uncertainty about his American experience. For the late twentieth-century reader, Cheyne’s words contain, in any case, little which could be classed as `heathen’, except perhaps his comments on his educated rivals, part of an attempt to persuade Harvey to go to college: `I can break them to little pieces-yes-but I can’t get back at ’em to hurt ’em where they live.’
Cheyne sits between `a secretary and a typist, who was also a telegraphist’ in his `raw new palace in San Diego’. Troop’s element, by contrast, is the open sea, with a return to the ‘eighteen-hundred-dollar, YELLOW-trimmed white house, with a retired dory full of nasturtiums in the front yard and a shuttered parlour which was a museum of overseas plunder’. This is true pastoral, but, whether Kipling recognized it or not, he responded with quite as much excitement to Cheyne’s world, something which reveals itself in his account of the millionaire’s special train and its record-breaking dash across America.
At night the bunched electrics lit up that distressful palace of all the luxuries, and they fared sumptuously, swinging on through the emptiness of abject desolation. Now they heard the swish of a water-tank, and the guttural voice of a China-man, the clinkclink of hammers that tested the Krupp-steel wheels, and the oath of a tramp chased off the rear platform; now the solid crash of coal shot into the tender; and now a beating back of noises as they flew past a waiting train. Now they looked out into great abysses, a trestle purring beneath their tread, or up to rocks that barred out half the stars. Now scaur and ravine changed and rolled back to jagged mountains on the horizon’s edge, and now broke into hills lower and lower, till at last came the true plains. (p. 123)
Here man challenges the natural world, and drives his engines through what had once been impassable terrain, `abysses’, `rocks’, ‘scaur’, `ravine’ and `mountain’. The repeated `nows’ and the accumulating phrases register the sound of the wheels as the train rushes on.
A Maritime Novel
As a maritime novel, Captains Courageous belongs to a distinct genre of fiction. Kipling differed from most practitioners in not being a seaman himself. His experience of the sea (on which he drew for the opening section of his novel) was as a passenger on ocean-going liners, and the awareness of possible limitation presumably lies behind his intensive background research. Herman Melville was among the earliest of maritime novelists and story-tellers. In 1904 Kipling was to recommend him as an author for school texts, but it is not clear whether Kipling knew Moby Dick (for many years less popular than Melville’s other works). Like Captains Courageous, Moby Dick describes life on board ship, under a powerful captain who controls a strikingly diverse crew. Ahab and Disko Troop are both committed to pursuing their prey, and both believe in their ability to predict that prey’s movements. The very parallels, however, underline the differences. Ahab is a man obsessed with his white whale, where Troop is meditative and almost affectionate about the cod: `when Disko thought of cod he thought as a cod; and by some long-tested mixture of instinct and experience, moved the We’re Here from berth to berth, always with the fish, as a blindfolded chess-player moves on the unseen board’.
In 1893 Pierre Loti, the French naval officer and novelist, published his Pécheur d’Islande, a romantic story of life in a Breton community, with occasional scenes among the Iceland fishing fleet. Loti became a popular writer in England in the 1890s, although it was his exotic tales of the Orient which established his reputation. Kipling certainly knew Loti’s work. In Pécheur d’Islande, Loti stresses the cruelty of fate, and the destruction of the young in a hostile environment. These things are far less insistent in Captains Courageous, although references to the death of Otto, Harvey’s predecessor on the We’re Here, and the account of the Memorial Service at Gloucester presuppose the same dark relationship between human lives and the sea. The most striking difference between Loti’s novel of a fishing community and Kipling’s Captains Courageous results from Loti’s characteristic concern with a female figure, in this case Marguerite (Gaud), whose love for the fisherman, Yann, lies at the centre of the book. The stress in Captains Courageous falls on events on the We’re Here, not on those waiting at home.
Just under a year after Captains Courageous appeared, the first instalment of Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the `Narcissus’ was published. Like Kipling, Conrad underlines the importance of communal endeavour under the leadership of a controlling and right-minded captain. Both captains have fine navigational skills, and the image of the ship at sea becomes a model for a society of men employed on a difficult and isolating task. When Arthur Symons complained that both The Nigger of the `Narcissus’ and Captains Courageous were full of brilliant descriptive prose but of nothing more, Conrad sprang to the defence of Kipling and himself, insisting upon their serious purpose in an article, `Concerning a Certain Criticism’, which was submitted to Outlook, but not published.
One marked difference between the two novelists lies in their treatment of rifts between members of the crew, a theme upon which Conrad insists but which Kipling almost entirely avoids. A few passages on the subject were deleted between the manuscript and published versions of Captains Courageous. Kipling originally conceived of Disko’s brother, Uncle Salters, as a more abrasive character, and gave a fuller account of Salters’s arguments with the former minister, Pennsylvania Pratt. Among the other victims of Kipling’s YELLOW pencil were some of the more aggressive taunts shouted from the We’re Here to passing vessels. These cuts had a similar effect, domesticating a crew whose originals would certainly have used stronger language. Even Disko was conceived as a less controlled character. Another deleted passage describes how he breaks off the boom of a young Gloucester captain who encroaches upon his water.
In the final version of the novel, Disko is furious when Harvey offers to recite Whittier’s `Skipper Ireson’s Ride’, which purports to be the true story of a captain punished by the community of Marblehead for leaving another crew to die. In fact, Whittier had misunderstood the circumstances. Ireson’s crew had refused to attempt the rescue of the Active‘s men as they thought it too dangerous, and had then blamed Ireson to protect themselves. Kipling decided to use the Ireson story after completing the bulk of the manuscript version and neatly contrasts it with Disko’s relation to his own crew. When the rascally Abishai’s boat sinks with all hands, `Thet’s one more boat gone along o’ leavin’ port all hands drunk’ is Disko’s epitaph; `Glory be!’ said Long Jack. `We’d ha’ been obliged to help `em if they was top o’ water.’
Like The Nigger of the `Narcissus’ and Moby Dick, Captains Courageous is a book about a male world. Following a pattern familiar in other works by Kipling (including The Jungle Book and Kim), the boy Harvey reaches maturity through contact with other males, presented as contrasting father figures or teachers. This limitation to masculine society, a common feature of the maritime novel, is also characteristic of other popular late nineteenth-century works of fiction. Captains Courageous is not a novel for feminists. The boat, traditionally female, is allowed to display a woman’s characteristics, but Disko and the crew work together to discipline her, to keep her under control, and to prevent her from being overwhelmed by the larger forces of the open sea.
Of the two main women characters, Constance Cheyne and Mrs Troop, the former is held to be largely responsible for her son’s failings (although it could be claimed that her husband’s neglect is the real cause of both her neurasthenia and Harvey’s brattishness). Kipling dropped the rings, and the comparison to a fictional sister, with which he ‘feminized’ the unreformed Harvey of the manuscript, but the cherry red blazer, knickerbockers, and bicycle shoes remain to disgust Disko Troop. After his experience at sea, it is to his father that Harvey turns, his mother being left on the sidelines, a state of affairs that Kipling confidently attributes to Harvey’s maturity. Mrs Troop, in keeping with her role, is more reliable, and not subject to hysteria, but her part in the book is strictly stereotyped. She stands for the home virtues: `a large woman, silent and grave, with the dim eyes of those who look long to sea for the return of their beloved’.
In both Captains Courageous and Kim a boy has to negotiate a world of multiple languages and closed dialects. Most of the characters of Captains Courageous speak American English, but problems of translation are nevertheless present. Harvey, for example, does not at first understand the speech on the We’re Here, where the main activities, keeping the boat moving and fishing, involve the introduction of many technical terms. Harvey’s functions are at first lowly, but it is important that he learn the intricacies of sails and rigging from Tom Platt. Not surprisingly, he stumbles over some of the names, but, even with a beating impending, Harvey displays a Kiplingesque delight in an arcane vocabulary: `Lower till that rope-loop – on the after-leach – kris – no, it’s cringle – till the cringle was down on the boom.’
Adding and tallying alone among his school-learnt abilities stand Harvey in good stead on the We’re Here. When he tries to communicate with a group of sailors from St Malo and Miquelon: `Harvey found his French of no recognised Bank brand, and his conversation was limited to nods and grins. But Tom Platt waved his arms and got along swimmingly. Tom Platt later tells Harvey that his sign language, a Masonic one, is `a heap older’n your French’. Kipling, a Mason himself, makes the same point in a number of his stories, including “The Man who would Be King”.
Dan, who spends half the year at school, `interprets’ the boat for Harvey and for the reader. Dan is one of the only two characters who understand something of Harvey’s ‘otherness’ in the community of the We’re Here. Dan believes that Harvey is telling the truth about his wealthy background. The other character who grasps this, if at a quite different level, is the cook, a negro from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, who speaks very little, and, when he does, most easily employs the Gaelic of the Scots community. The cook, whose nickname of Doctor seems close to witch doctor, arrives at understanding through intuition, and is one of the two sailors gifted with second sight. The other, the one-time Moravian preacher Jacob Boller (otherwise Pennsylvania Pratt), achieves it only in flashes, as when he tells the bereaved sea captain that his son will be restored to him: ‘”They have found his son”, cried Penn. “Stand you still and see the Salvation of the Lord!”‘
The Mystery of the Sea
Captains Courageous has pronounced elements of realism, not least in its precise recording of the fisherman’s life. Realism is only one of its modes, however. Kipling drew upon other skills when facing the challenge of conveying the `loneliness’ of the ocean. Here his response was inevitably a more meditative one, dwelling on the frailty and vulnerability of human beings, not their pioneering instincts. There are two passages in Chapter VIII of Captains Courageous where Kipling paints word-pictures of the sea, the first (at the opening) a scene of fishing boats around the Virgin Rock, which we see through Harvey’s eyes:
To the end of his days, Harvey will never forget that sight. The sun was just clear of a horizon they had not seen for nearly a week, and his low red light struck into the riding-sails of three fleets of anchored schooners-one to the north, one to the westward, and one to the south. There must have been nearly a hundred of them, of every possible make and build, with, far away, a square-rigged Frenchman, all bowing and curtseying one to the other. From every boat dories were dropping away like bees from a crowded hive; and the clamour of voices, the rattling of ropes and blocks, and the splash of the oars carried for miles across the heaving water. The sails turned all colours, black, pearly-grey, and white, as the sun mounted; and more boats swung up through the mists to the southward. (p. 96)
This is Kipling at his finest. Patterns of darkness and light, isolation and society run through the novel, and here, as mist gives way to sunlight, Harvey finds himself transported from the single world of the Were Here to a crowded `town’, evoked through images of old-fashioned decorum (`bowing and curtseying one to the other’) or through the natural simile of a regimented and ever-active beehive. The extended but controlled sentences contribute to a sense of inexhaustible activity, an effect which Kipling was to use again in Kim, where another boy’s fresh seeing eye suddenly opens on to the crowded activity of the Grand Trunk Road.
Kipling was not an idealist. After the concentrated power of this passage comes a swift recognition of man’s polluting effect upon the ocean: `the water was speckled with rubbish thrown overboard’. Even this may be equivocal, however, for Kipling may have favoured litter as a sign of human community. In other ways, too, we may find Kipling at odds with current thinking. We know today that the seas are being fished out, and so cannot respond with Kipling’s enthusiasm to accounts of huge catches. Harvey calculates that there are cod worth `Three thousand six hundred and seventy-six dollars and a quarter’ in the hold of the We’re Here, once Disko (a week ahead of the rest of the fleet) can persuade Wouverman to pay it.
Kipling’s second word-picture of the ocean in Chapter VIII has a very different effect from that quoted above. While the chapter opened upon a landscape full of fishing boats, in a later passage inserted into the first edition, and not found in the manuscript or magazine versions, the We’re Here is returning to Gloucester, and Harvey looks out upon an empty ocean:
Harvey … began to comprehend and enjoy the dry chorus of wave-tops turning over with a sound of incessant tearing; the hurry of the winds working across open spaces and’herding the purple-YELLOW cloud-shadows; the splendid upheaval of the red sunrise; the folding and packing away of the morning mists, wall after wall withdrawn across the white floors; the salty glare and blaze of noon; the kiss of rain falling over thousands of dead, flat square miles; the chilly blackening of everything at the day’s end; and the million wrinkles of the sea under the moonlight, when the jib-boom solemnly poked at the low stars, and Harvey went down to get a doughnut from the cook. (p. 111)
The persistent alliteration, the hyphenated words, the static effect of repeated participles dominate a single extended sentence, whose stress falls upon emptiness and upon the littleness of man. So strong is the effect that Kipling may have felt the need to undercut his own mood piece or prose poem by ending the sentence with a swift return to the mundane concerns of a young boy.
This passage, for all its metaphorical power, is unusual in being written almost without a simile. Kipling’s range of simile in this book gives him an extra dimension, constantly referring the reader to a wider world beyond the schooner. A few of Kipling’s images are appropriate to a fishing boat: when Harvey, for example, is beaten by Long Jack, he `danced over the deck like an eel at ebb tide’. Most similes, however, are drawn from settings strikingly removed from the world of the novel. Some evoke exotic animals, like the description of the fog-horn with the note `of a consumptive elephant’, or the whale’s eye, ‘something like a circus-elephant’s eye’. A series of feminine images are used to describe the skill of the fishermen or the movement of the vessels. Dan stows away the trawl and its hooks `like tatting on an old maid’s lap’; the stripping of fish from a trawl, rebaiting and resubmerging, is `something like pinning and unpinning linen on a washline’; Abishai’s boat is `for all the world like a blouzy, frowzy, bad old woman sneering at a decent girl’; the incompetently navigated Carrie Pitman `looked just like a bewildered woman half lifting her skirts to cross a muddy street under the jeers of bad little boys’; the We’re Here, passing through the hollows on her homeward run, ‘trampled like a woman tripped in her own silk dress’.
Superstition and the Supernatural
Another of Kipling’s departures from realism comes with his exploration of the supernatural and of the prevalence of superstition among sailors. No one on the We’re Here will sing the unlucky last verse of the song `It’s sixan’-twenty Sundays’, and Tom Platt recalls a `green dory on the Ezra Flood… Drowned four men she did, an’ used to shine fiery o’ nights, in the nest.’ The crew regularly discuss theories of good and bad `luck’. Manuel, the Portuguese Catholic, explains that he gives the church in Gloucester `two, three big candles for my good luck’. Long Jack, an Irishman, responds with an account of his vow during a storm at sea: `If iver I stick my boat-huk into T-wharf again, I’ll show the Saints fwhat manner o’ craft they saved me out av.’ Having survived, he fulfilled his promise by making a model of the boat, the Kathleen, and then giving `ut to the priest, an’ he hung ut up forninst the altar. There’s more sinse in givin’ a model that’s by way o’ bein’ a work av art than any candle. Ye can buy candles at a store, but a model shows the good Saints ye’ve tuk trouble an’ are grateful.’
Certain sailors and boats are regarded as unlucky. Salters is one such. When the We’re Here encounters Uncle Abishai’s ill-loaded boat and drunken crew, Disko wishes that Salters had stayed below. Abishai, it is said, has been a Jonah (a potent source of bad luck) `fer years an’ years’, taking liquor from French boats in return for `makin’ spells an’ sellin’ winds’. When he curses the We’re Here, even the former navy man Tom Platt (who argues against superstition in the debate) decides that it is not worth putting out the trawl. It is only paid out after Abishai’s boat has gone under, taking his `luck’ with it. So bad is his reputation that even Disko would not `hev a match thet belonged to Abishai aboard’.
In this context, Christianity merges with paganism. When Pennsylvania Pratt lectures the crew on the `folly of superstitions … public opinion was against him and in favour of Long Jack, who told the most excruciating ghoststories till nearly midnight’. After that, the cook exorcises the dead Frenchman. He puts `a lighted candle, a cake of flour and water, and a pinch of salt on a shingle, and floated them out astern . . . Dan lit the candle because he had bought the belt, and the cook grunted and muttered charms as long as he could see the ducking point of flame.’
The Salvation of Harvey Cheyne
A belief in superstition and magic implies the existence of a non-material world, and Captains Courageous certainly suggests the possibility of this. Though not couched in Christian terms, this is a book about conversion. When `a low, grey mother-wave’ takes Harvey `under one arm’ and drops him into the sea, he enters upon a process of rebirth. He falls without a struggle, `the great green closed over him, and he went quietly to sleep’. Harvey wakes to find himself `drowned and dead in mid ocean’, lying on a pile of ‘half-dead fish’. Another sleep, on board the We’re Here, follows, and then another awakening, this time to the unfamiliar cabin of the boat. Strong smells and sensations are again evoked as the boy becomes aware of his new environment. Soon afterwards comes his second rite of passage as Disko Troop knocks Harvey down, enraged at the boy’s accusation of theft. Again, Harvey passes through the experience without at first understanding what has happened. `He was lying in the scuppers, holding on to a nose that bled, while Troop looked down on him serenely.’ All of this happens in Chapter I, and Harvey’s conversion has already been completed. What follows is merely an exemplification of a first premiss, that Harvey’s is a fortunate fall which will lead to his salvation.
It could be argued that Captains Courageous merely preaches the virtues of physical punishment and of prolonged hard work in reforming a spoiled adolescent, a reading which would no doubt commend itself to those who regard Kipling as an apologist for repression. Kipling himself cut out a paragraph about Troop’s training Dan through blows, before he published his book. A more accurate account of the processes of Harvey’s conversion would be to see it as a result, not so much of physical hardship, as of the chance to play a useful part in a group bound together by common activity and dependent upon mutual trust. Harvey learns that the safety and survival of each depends upon each of the others. That is why those who keep watch must keep awake, however exhausted they are. The perils of a disorderly ship are brought home directly to Harvey when Uncle Abishai’s boat sinks with all hands.
In the brief glimpse which we have of the unregenerate Harvey before his fall from the luxury liner, Kipling states themes he will retrieve later in the book. Most obvious is the bored Harvey’s appalling wish that the liner might run down a fishing boat in the fog. Much later, in Chapter VII, out on the Grand Banks with a liner heading towards him, Harvey recalls the statement with a bitter chill at his own vulnerability. A few. minutes afterwards, the liner does run down a boat, though not the We’re Here. Harvey first witnesses a part of the body of a seaman floating past him, then sees the skipper brought on board, When the man’s son is found alive, if injured, the pattern of Harvey’s own rescue and return to his father is mirrored. Kipling, who refers to the story of Joseph obliquely in Captains Courageous, would have been well aware of the biblical parallels.
The dark side of a near fairy-tale is that this seemingly miraculous coming together of father and son does not conceal from Harvey the truth of other losses, nor the fact that the rest of the crew of old Olley’s boat are all drowned. This subtext of loss at sea (with no rescues) repeats itself throughout Captains Courageous. Abishai’s boat goes suddenly to the bottom, four men are lost or killed in the storm at the Virgin Rock, and, most telling of all, there is the annual Memorial meeting in Gloucester, when the names of one hundred and seventeen dead are read out: `Mrs Cheyne, with some others, began to breathe short; she had hardly imagined there were so many widows in the world.’
Harvey is made regenerate through water, a pattern which recalls the theme of a book which Kipling knew well, Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. Both books, however, teach that this is not the universal fate. The sea remains an alien element, however far Disko Troop’s efficiency or the Cheynes’ shipping lines succeed in controlling it. Harvey fills the place of Otto Svendson, `swept overboard in a gale off Le Have three months before’. When Otto’s name is read out at the Memorial Service, Harvey’s `blood tingled all over him’. Otto’s fiancee cries out in distress and Harvey faints, provoking his mother to demand (in a passage added for the first edition) that such things should be put into the newspapers, not read out in public. Constance Cheyne is wrong, as usual, and Mrs Troop is not much nearer the point when she explains the faint as what boys `do … when they’re gettin’ their growth’. Harvey, once washed overboard himself, recognizes that Otto is both his predecessor on the We’re Here and his double. Their fates are entwined, and, if the recovery of her son means that Constance Cheyne’s cries of anguish have been stilled, those of Otto’s betrothed, and of the parents, wives, and sweethearts of those others named on the Memorial Day, have not. Those who go down to the sea in ships and do business in great waters (another biblical passage to which Kipling alludes in Captains Courageous) are not simply making a living, they are also in constant danger from the many perils of the ocean.
Kipling was right to say that his novel has a strain of allegory and metaphor. It has much in common with Kim, where the characters reflect aspects of the writer’s vision of India. As with Kim, the mixture of adventure and allegory makes it hard to be sure exactly what the audience for Captains Courageous was meant to be. Both books have sometimes been regarded as `boys’ stories’, one of the epithets Kipling himself applied to Captains Courageous. Given the youthful hero, and the nature of his experience, the book has an evident accessibility to an adolescent reader. If less complex than Kim, Captains Courageous raises certain issues which can only be fully grasped by an adult, particularly those of contrasting cultures and of American national identity.
Several of Kipling’s books, including Captains Courageous and Kim, have been adapted into films. The 1937 version of Captains Courageous, directed by Victor Fleming, is one of the most successful. Spencer Tracy, who won an Oscar for his performance, contrived to make Manuel the dominant character, and it was Manuel, not Disko Troop, who reformed Harvey. Kipling’s original story was further subverted when Manuel died protecting Harvey, and so turned the film into a `weepie’. Other stars were Freddie Bartholomew as Harvey and Lionel Barrymore as Disko Troop. The film was a considerable box office success and was nominated for three further Oscars. The 1977 remake for television by Harvey Hart was less vigorous, but truer to Kipling, with Manuel (played by Ricardo Montalban) appropriately subordinate to Troop (played by Karl Malden).
The audience for the two films was assumed to be a young one, but they were not made for children. They belong to a world with which Kipling is particularly identified, that of the rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. Like Huckleberry Finn, in another book which appeals to very diverse readers, the young hero of Captains Courageous learns many lessons from an unexpected voyage. Among those lessons are not only the necessity for hard work and for a sense of community, nor even that of the future of the United States, but, most insistently of all, the lesson of the inevitability of physical death.