Captains Courageous

Note on the text

by Leonee Omond


Captains Courageous was serialized in McClure’s Magazine from November 1896 to March 1897, and in Pearson’s Magazine from December 1896 to April 1897. The first book edition was published by Macmillan in London and New York in 1897, with 22 illustrations by I. W. Taber. The text used here is that of the book edition.

The manuscript of Captains Courageous, given by Kipling to James Conland, is in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. Although Kipling made numerous changes between the manuscript and the published versions, the main outlines of the narrative remained the same. All three texts of Captains Courageous (manuscript, serialized, and volume versions) have ten chapters in which the same events occur.

In revising the manuscript for publication, and then going on to revise the serialized version for book publication, Kipling made most of his changes in the early chapters. He does not appear to have established a policy either for the removal of certain passages or for the addition of others. A few patterns can, however, be discerned.

Like many writers, Kipling seems to have had problems with the first pages, problems which he often resolved by adopting an increased economy of expression. He may have decided that a sparing use of language was more appropriate for an `American’ novel than the richer expression of European fin de siecle fiction. So, in the first sentence, `the greasy seas’, found in both manuscript and serialized versions, disappear, while, on the same page, the New Yorker lounging on the cushions of the smoking-room is deprived of the cigarette smoke which curls upwards in the manuscript.

When Harvey falls into the dory of the Portuguese fisherman, Manuel, Kipling progressively cut out the details of the sailor’s activity as he moved through the three versions. His aim, presumably, was to render the passage more convincingly from Harvey’s viewpoint. He may also have wished to maintain the mystery of what has happened to Harvey for as long as possible.

In the opening pages of the manuscript version, Kipling included precise details about Harvey which he later decided to omit. The reference to Harvey’s be-ringed fingers was cut out, together with the narrator’s comment that he would have made an attractive girl. In their place, Kipling inserted subtly different qualities. Harvey tells Disko Troop that it will `pay’ him to take Harvey back to shore, and that he has `done the best day’s work you ever did in your life when you pulled me in’. He even threatens: `Take me back to New York or I’ll see you -‘.

These additions are capped by the witty comment on Harvey’s tactless demands for his `stolen’ $134 pocket money: `This Harvey thought would be a knock-down blow, and it was – indirectly.’ The emphasis shifts from Harvey as an unappetizing and flashy boy to Harvey as the silly braggadocio. In Chapter V Kipling added a telling comment evidently dictated by a wish to make the later Harvey more appealing. Here the narrator explains that Harvey did worry about his mother’s grief at his loss, a point not made in the earlier versions.

After the account of Disko’s blow and of Harvey’s fall at the end of Chapter I, Kipling made fewer changes between manuscript and magazine versions. A high proportion of these relate to the account of the relationship between Uncle Salters and Pennsylvania Pratt, the former minister whom the irritable Salters has supported after the Johnstown flood. When he published the novel, Kipling decided to reduce greatly the number of arguments between Salters and Penn, together with the passages which describe the effect of these upon the rest of the crew. Kipling’s intention, here and elsewhere, seems to have been to reduce any suggestion of serious disharmony on the We’re Here. He may also have felt that the Salters-Penn relationship was threatening the balance of his tightly constructed narrative.

Other omissions were made to lessen any impression that the crew of the We’re Here might be rough or brutal. Between manuscript and serial publication Kipling removed a paragraph from Chapter V describing how Disko Troop deliberately cut the jib boom on the boat of a young Gloucester captain who was encroaching upon him, together with the wisecracking which accompanied the act. On the next page, Kipling excised a few words in a commentary on Disko’s dislike of mixing with the crews of other nations. The deleted words specifically stated that Disko avoided contacts which might be undesirable for his son, Dan. An exchange of reasonably friendly interracial insults disappeared from Chapter VIII, and Harvey’s interplay with Wouverman’s clerk over the value of Disko’s fish was taken out of the following chapter. With each of these changes Captains Courageous moved further away from the `realist’ tradition of the ouvrier novel.

In his account of life on board Kipling made a few significant additions, many of which must have incorporated new information which had come to hand. Among these are the frequent changes to numbers which are quoted in the Introduction to this edition. Other passages, however, are among Kipling’s finest writing. The eerie account of the grampus jumping out of the water at the end of Chapter II was one such, as was the concentrated description in Chapter III of Harvey’s running around the deck while Long Jack teaches him about rigging and ropes. The two magnificent passages on Harvey’s vision of the sea which Kipling added to Chapter VIII are discussed in the Introduction.

Two important episodes were written at the end of the manuscript and inserted into the magazine text. One is the account of Harvey’s attempt to recite Whittier’s `Skipper Ireson’s Ride’ and of Disko’s reactions. The second passage, which now comes in Chapter V, occurs after the crew have discussed Harvey’s `tales’ about the life of a rich boy, tales which were considerably augmented after the manuscript version. Uncle Salters tells the story of Sim’on Peter Ca’houn’s reactions when his fellow sailor told him of the imaginary marriage of his sister to a certain Lorin’ Jerauld. Ca’houn’s response was to describe Jerauld as half `on the taown’ and half a fool. This is exactly what the crew imagine Harvey to be, but in their case, if not in Ca’houn’s, they are mistaken.