By Rudyard Kipling
Foreword by Max Hastings
Hesperus Press, September 2008
Apparently, Rudyard Kipling didn’t have any great opinion of America.
In his foreword, Max Hastings quotes him as saying – I paraphrase slightly – that it was a preachy, sanctimonious nation whose wealth was built on slavery and on the displacement and near-genocide of its native population. Not quite the standard, ‘special relationship’, ‘two nations with shared values’ line at any rate.
This novel, originally published in 1897, was written when Kipling lived in America and it is mainly set at sea – he seems to have been loath to come ashore, poor dear. The protagonist is Harvey, a spoilt teenage boy with more money than sense. On a liner bound for Europe (where perhaps some Old World manners are to be drilled into the lad), he falls overboard and is picked up by a crew of fishermen. There is no chance of the skipper bringing his schooner into dry dock anytime soon – he has a livelihood to earn, money doesn’t grow on trees – so Harvey has to pull his weight and earn his keep, along with the rest of the ‘salt of the ocean waves’ fellows. It does Harvey the world of good in the end, and you might even say that it makes a man of him.
On one level, Kipling’s sea-faring yarn is simply a boy’s adventure story; yet on another it is maybe his diagnosis of what is (or was) wrong with America (i.e. spoilt, arrogant, overly rich and also somewhat overweight) and a suggested remedy (i.e. discipline, hard work, plain talking and the lash; OK, I made that last one up).
Best thing about Captains Courageous is the fishermen’s banter and the authentic nautical atmosphere. Kipling knew much regarding fishing at sea and the men who did this often risky work. Or at least he could write the talk to convince you that he did. Worst thing about the book is the casual racism, albeit this is infrequent because there is but one black character. Would Kipling have sympathy, or indeed a baseline understanding, for the boy whose experience is recounted in Countee Cullen’s great poem ‘Incident’? One doubts it, somehow. He just wouldn’t get it.
Don’t get me wrong, Captains Courageous is an enjoyable novel; and it is even Oprah-worthy, being a positive tale of personal growth… But certain attitudes within the novel have dated.