Captains Courageous

by Rudyard Kipling

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Captain Courageous, Kipling's only American novel, is about the way in which its protagonist, a 15-year-old indulged boy named Harvey Cheyne, turns into what the author considers a real American boy: one who is hardworking, humble, and tolerant. Harvey is emblematic of what Kipling saw as the true American character.

It is significant that at the beginning of the book, Harvey is on a steamer bound for Europe. His direction on the sea is symbolic, as is his near drowning and his rescue at the hands of a Grand Banks fisherman named Disko Troop and his Portuguese crew member, Manuel. Harvey has become effete and spoiled (and far too influenced by European tendencies) in the hands of his rich and indulgent parents, but hard work on board the schooner We're Here strips Harvey of his arrogance and laziness.

Disko and Manuel serve as kind of replacement fathers for Harvey as he learns the ways of the sea. In one telling passage, Harvey says the following:

"'I'm, I'm ever so grateful,' Harvey stammered, and his unfortunate hand stole to his pocket once more, but he remembered that he had no money to offer. When he knew Manuel better the mere thought of the mistake he might have made would cover him with hot, uneasy blushes in his bunk."

Harvey tries to pay Manuel for saving him. Harvey at first relies on his money to make connections to others and to keep them subordinate to him. Over time, however, and with the guidance of his new father figures and his new brother figure, Dan (the captain's son), he learns how to work hard and how to relate to others, even if they are not his social equals, with respect. In this sense, he begins to relate to others with a sense of American democracy. The sea is a leveling force in this novel, and the novel is the story of an American boy's maturation into a diligent, hardworking, and tolerant character through his experiences on the sea. These are the qualities that Kipling saw as quintessentially American.

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