Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 887

Captains Courageous was written in 1896 while Rudyard Kipling was living in the forests of Vermont. The period during which Great Britain’s poet laureate—who wrote during Britain’s imperial heyday when “the sun never set” on an empire stretching “from palm to pine”—wrote a sea story while living in the North...

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Captains Courageous was written in 1896 while Rudyard Kipling was living in the forests of Vermont. The period during which Great Britain’s poet laureate—who wrote during Britain’s imperial heyday when “the sun never set” on an empire stretching “from palm to pine”—wrote a sea story while living in the North American woods is a little known phase of the writer’s career. Kipling loved Vermont’s forests, especially during the colorful Indian summer season, and he also deeply appreciated the vital kinship between the United States and Great Britain. He equated such “captains courageous” of the Grand Banks as Disko Troop with the pioneers who journeyed into the American-Canadian West (Daniel Boone, George Vancouver, and Kit Carson as well as railroad magnates such as Mr. Cheyne) with Sir Francis Drake, Sir John Hawkins, Sir Martin Frobisher, Sir Walter Ralegh, Sir Philip Sidney, and other bold Elizabethan adventurers. He believed that the Elizabethan spirit of adventure and accomplishment survived in the modern fishing captains and railroad magnates and that they were blood brothers of the earlier Anglo-Saxon adventurers, displaying the same spirit of freedom, free enterprise, and bravery against odds.

Kipling lived for many years among Asian peoples, and he believed that people of his kind could never exist naturally and thus could never be more than a dissolving white drop in a colored ocean. Partly for that reason, Kipling experienced great relief to find himself in Vermont. It must, however, be conceded that in Captains Courageous Kipling reveals a certain typical respect for all sturdy breeds. The British poet implies that men and the civilizations they create need challenges, not security, and must maintain healthy folk instincts while rearing each generation of their own kind in hardiness. In Captains Courageous, the representatives of European, expansionist, seafaring races—British, French, German, Portuguese—who have braved the Grand Banks for centuries are favorably presented, as is the black cook. His nineteenth century racist belief in a white man’s burden notwithstanding, Kipling sometimes praised members of other races such as the tough Sudanese.

The novel stresses traditional virtues such as those of Horatio Alger. Harvey Cheyne learns practical skills and escapes emasculating luxury. He also learns the salutary value of hard work, sweat, and plain living, and he returns to nature and healthy simplicity by capturing his self-reliance amid the sheer beauty of the high seas. The physical environment of sea and shore is thus a character in the story, and it has been pointed out that Captains Courageous concerns the environment more than it does the protagonist. Even the theme of the boy’s conversion stems from environment, though it is also linked to individual will and hereditary character. The driving ambition of Harvey’s father, Mr. Cheyne, parallels Kipling’s eulogy of the redoubtable fishermen who brave cold storms and fogs off the Grand Banks to fish for cod in their small dories. A millionaire’s son becomes a man through enduring hardships on a fishing boat and through sharing the lot of toiling fishermen from Massachusetts, Canada, Germany, and Portugal.

The pith of Kipling’s story is found in Mr. Cheyne’s conversation with the redeemed young Harvey when the father relates the story of his life—how he had to toil for everything he earned, how he fought Indians and border ruffians before the West was tamed, how he encountered deadly struggles against odds, and how he built his railroad empire. He stresses the progress that railroads represented, enabling families to cross the immense and mountainous continent without suffering for months in covered wagons, sometimes having to bury their children along the way, as they were forced to do before Mr. Cheyne built his railroads. Infused with the pride of his heritage, young Harvey returns to Gloucester, borrows money from his father, and invests it in fishing boats. Hiring some of the friends he made on his first fishing expedition, Harvey starts his own fishing empire in the true Anglo-American tradition of creative enterprise.

Kipling’s familiarity with the sea is evident. His descriptions of life on a fishing vessel, of how fish are caught and processed, and of the abrupt tragedies that sometimes overtake the “captains courageous” are not superficial. He evidently familiarized himself with Gloucester accents and idioms, for they are reproduced with the dialectal skill for which Kipling is noted. Like so many Kipling works, Captains Courageous is easy for children to read, enjoy, and understand, but its meanings are subtle and its literary virtues considerable.

After experiencing personal troubles and an unfortunate lawsuit, Kipling left Vermont. It is interesting to note that shortly after this military poet wrote one of the better novels of North Atlantic sea literature, he composed his famous Recessional honoring Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in London in 1897. On this august occasion, rather than vaunting Great Britain’s military might, however, Kipling shocked Empire enthusiasts by worrying over the fact that England’s regiments were shedding their blood over the entire earth and that Royal Navy ships were sinking on distant headland and dune. Fearing “lest we be one with Nineveh and Tyre,” Kipling wrote “Lord God of hosts, be with us yet, be with us yet.” With these words, he shed light on the beliefs underlying his reasons for having written Captains Courageous.

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