Posted by: zhiv | June 5, 2009

Captains Courageous, Rudyard Kipling

What do we think of Rudyard Kipling these days? His popularity had already dipped precipitously when I started reading literature 30+ years ago, although I knew about The Jungle Books and had a vague sense of Kipling a decade before that, perhaps some of my earliest literary references, right up there with Alice in Wonderland. I guess I need to study the topic a bit, and it seems like Kim still makes some reading lists although I’ve never read it. But my general sense is that Kipling was hugely popular at the height of the British Empire, a dominant writer expressing the point of view of a dominant, imperial culture, and then it all fell off a cliff. Or perhaps more accurately, it was wiped out in the trenches of World War I, where Kipling’s own son died, crashing his world down and a lot of his assumptions. My question, more specifically, based on the idea there was no imperative to read Kipling in his increasingly faded status 30 years ago, is what happened to his work in the interim amidst the rising tide of political correctness and the development of postcolonial studies? And what kind of author was Kipling to begin with, on his own terms? I don’t know. How is that possible? Another good question–and the answer may be that he’s a very late Victorian, and more of an Edwardian writer. It’s a transitional period, and I’ll have to line up the dates and do some more digging, like I said.

I was mildly surprised when Captains Courageous showed up on a list or two of books on literary Boston. My knowledge of it was based on the 1937 Spencer Tracy–Freddie Bartholomew movie, which I watched at least 10 years ago, and remember as a nice bit of classic 30’s Hollywood studio fare. The simple story in the movie is memorable too in its broadest outlines, which consist of a star turn by Tracy as a Portuguese fisherman who tames and educates a spoiled rich kid who has fallen off a yacht. Film adaptation is always an interesting topic, especially in its more egregious slash and burn encounters with literature, but I won’t get into that here. Now that I’ve read the book I’m excited to watch the movie again (and I can’t believe that I haven’t rented and watched The Bostonians yet–how is that possible?), but it will suffice to say that the movie takes great liberties with the book, where Manuel, played by uberstar Tracy, is a minor character.

I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that the story has anything to do with Boston, that’s for sure. Or more accurately, the Cape Ann/Gloucester fishing fleet, which is the true subject of the novel. It so happens that I’m on a plane to Boston to visit my daughter as I write this, and expect to explore Cape Ann, the “Essex National Heritage Area,” and Gloucester over the next few days. To get out there you go through Salem and Hawthorne and Peabody Sisters country of course, and James T. and Annie Fields had a summer house in Manchester-by-the-Sea, but once again, I digress.

There’s a great description of Gloucester and its fishing history in The Perfect Storm as I recall, another thing I need to check on. I wouldn’t be surprised if Captains Courageous gets a bit of play there, but that’s something that I’ve forgotten or didn’t notice in the first place. What I do remember is that Perfect Storm gives a state-of-the-art, contemporary best-selling creative non-fiction treatment of the hard, heroic lives of the fishing community. Perfect Storm is an eminently readable book, as well, and it could easily be joined with Captains Courageous in a high school literature course that would hold the interest of young boys, no easy feat. CC is dated and quaint (and it contains racism) and it would bore kids on its own, but it is short, and combined with Perfect Storm (and two movies) it might do the trick. I would probably have kids read Perfect Storm first, which they should be able to get through easily, and the information there will give them the necessary leg up on CC. And from there, I suppose, you move on to The Old Man and the Sea. Fishing, if you like that sort of thing. And by that time you’re well on your way to Billy Budd and The Secret Sharer, which are short enough to read, but a little more tricky to understand.

It was striking to see the variety of character in CC, after arriving with simplistic assumptions. The main focus in CC, aside from young heir Harvey Cheyne, is really Captain Disko Troop, and as I mentioned Manuel is very much in the background, along with a small collection of other minor fishermen characters, each of which has his own calling card and interest. The Captain is generally referred to as “Dad” in the novel, because the next major character is his son Dan, a young man a couple of years older than Harvey, who is 15. The Dan-Harvey relationship is similar to the Artful Dodger and Oliver Twist, in the world of Grand Banks fishing rather than London street crime. CC provides a detailed portrait of fishing in schooner-based dories for cod on the Grand Banks, an organic livelihood of tradition and highly-developed skills. It’s a world that ran concurrent, one assumes, to the era of whaling described by Melville, and it of course predates the swordfishing industry of Perfect Storm. Intuitive skills garnered over time have a great value in the book, reflecting the organic nature of the profession. Manuel has the timeless abilities and values of generations of dory fishermen, and he’s perfectly at home on the water in any sort of fog or weather. And Disko Troop is portrayed heroically as a savant of the Grand Banks, spending hours thinking like a cod and always staying one step ahead of the fleet of lesser captains and fishermen, who follow his every move. Another device Kipling puts to good use is young Harvey’s ignorance, as we learn about boats and fishing and this peculiar profession through his eyes.

If the setting of the novel is the world of the Gloucester fishing fleet, a regionalist topic, its larger subject and concerns are class and capitalism, told through the moral development of an adolescent boy. A good question about Kipling’s reasons for writing this American story can be raised, and the answer, which I don’t know, should be interesting. (Kipling’s research and method for writing about this specific world is also a great question.) When Harvey Cheyne Jr. falls overboard he’s a pampered, spoiled mess and a bit of a monster. I’m reminded of Twain’s Prince and the Pauper, which I only know in concept, but its historical setting and royal elements seem to generalize it. And Oliver Twist is an innocent victim, a blank slate. The realism of Kipling’s fishing fleet is revealed after the contrasting brief introduction of Harvey Jr’s family and its wealth, a highly advanced stage of bourgeois captialism at the end of the century. The thrust is that a robber baron father preoccupied with making millions, and a culturally sophisticated, indulgent mother, will have no hope of raising a solid citizen.

It’s worth remembering that this is the era where Theodore Roosevelt moved to the Dakotas and turned himself into a genuine cowboy and a true Westerner. I suppose the idea is that it’s incumbent upon the rich, in a country of vast resources and open spaces, to develop their values through a connection to traditional American lifestyles. The education of Harvey Cheyne Jr., at the hands of his buddy Dan, Captain Disko Troop, Manuel and the others is fun, absorbing, and satisfying, and there are overtones of the class warfare that was roiling in the industrialized world at the time. CC is a very interesting text from the point of view of economics and Marxist criticism, especially coming from a colonialist author.

And all the while it’s building towards a compelling, if rather melodramatic climax, which is fascinating from the economic perspective. We’re waiting with rising impatience through a relatively short tale for Harvey’s parents to learn that he’s alive, and to see the changes in him. And the story, for all of the manipulative elements here, goes to another, deeper level of intriguing significance, as it goes into close focus on Harvey Cheyne Sr., robber baron and multimillionaire. The story is set up to ask the simple question, how does the robber baron, with all of his millions, feel when he loses his son? The obvious answer is that he questions the value of his various capitalist enterprises, and is reduced to grief and philosophy. But Kipling puts considerable topspin on this volley. He makes robber baron Harvey Cheyne a self-made man, who holds the same values that his son has just learned, having gone to work himself as an adolescent. Junior’s fateful sojourn has simply made him a better, more dynamic capitalist, with a certain degree of enlightenment and appreciation for hard work, values which his father already possessed, that in fact fueled his rise. With all of its engaging description of the fishing industry, Harvey Cheyne’s breathless, record-setting cross-country railroad journey from San Diego to Boston, racing with his wife to reclaim his lost son, is truly exciting and builds to an extremely effective emotional climax. And it serves a deeper purpose of showing what the energy and spirit of the American 19th century had created, depicting the impressive accomplishments of the captialist. From this point of view, it’s an inspiring generational story, but apparently the thing that Kipling couldn’t stomach was the way that the generation coming of age just after Harvey Jr. and Dan, European boys growing up just 10 years later, marched off expecting soldiering to make them men, and they were slaughtered by the thousands.

One can’t leave the book without mentioning its racism, which doesn’t come as a surprise considering Kipling’s colonial background and assumptions, and the deep current of race running through American literature. The cook on Disko Tripp’s schooner, essentially nameless and mostly silent, is a black from Cape Breton who is treated as a second class member of the crew at best. He recognizes young Harvey as a master from the beginning, and at the end of the book he follows Harvey to become his personal servant as Harvey moves into his semi-enlightened future. Young Harvey gains his black companion, reminiscent of Huck and Jim, but it’s shoehorned into the story awkwardly, gutting the novel’s message about class like a codfish. The n-word is sprinkled about, and the “mighty white of you” compliment shows up at a couple of key emotional moments. The language is largely incidental and of its time, easily edited I suppose, which wouldn’t be necessary, but the cook’s story is unsettling and woven into the fabric of the novel, and the presence of these elements isn’t gaining Kipling any extra readers.


  1. Another belated comment:

    Captains Courageous is one of the few Kipling books I haven’t read. And I don’t know much about when and how far his reputation dipped. Circa late 30s or wartime Orwell wrote an essay in defence of him; although to a Kipling fan it reads like a half-hearted defence now.

    But as for ‘expressing the point of view of a dominant, imperial culture’ … in some of his poems, yes. But in the Indian stories, and Kim… he’s just an artist describing what he sees. From reading them I couldn’t tell what his attitude to colonialism was; and I gather that he was initially regarded as something of a radical. To take one example, there’s a story featuring a secret mixed marriage between an English man and an Indian woman. He doesn’t judge it; he doesn’t comment; he doesn’t care. The story isn’t even about that. It’s just an exotic and almost arbitrary backdrop to a tale that could be about any man and woman. It must have been years ahead of its time – maybe even ahead of our time? – but I bet he didn’t care about that either. He’s just an artist, a reporter, a storyteller and a bloody good one too.

    I found only one thing in all the Indian stories that made me wince as a modern liberal. They’re all worth reading. As for Kim, it’s a love letter to India and the Indian people, and simply one of the best adventure stories ever written.

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