CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS (1897). Captains Courageous, written by
Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936), was published serially in November 1896
by McClure’s Magazine and in book form in 1897. Harvey Cheyne, the
dissolute fifteen-year-old son of a multimillionaire, falls off a steamer bound
from New York to Europe and is presumed dead. He is rescued by the
Gloucester* fishing schooner We’re Here, commanded by Disko Troop, an
expert fisherman and a just man. Kipling is interested in the life of the
fishermen rather than in the transformation of Harvey, and he concentrates
on Harvey’s acquisition of the fishermen’s skills. After a season fishing on
the Grand Banks, the We’re Here is the first vessel back to Gloucester, Massachusetts, therefore commanding the highest prices for its fish. Harvey
sends a telegram to his father, a captain of industry (hence, the plural “Captains” of the title), and his parents cross the United States in a record-setting
trip in a private railroad car. Through the influence of both captains, Harvey
achieves maturity and understanding.
Kipling, the Anglo-Indian son of a sculptor, was born in Bombay, spent
his childhood in England, did not even visit the United States until 1889,
yet seven years later wrote a fine novel of Gloucester fishing, Captains Courageous. In London Kipling had met Wolcott Balestier, an American writer
working as a publisher’s agent. Together, they wrote The Naulahka, a Novel
of the East and West (1892). Kipling married Balestier’s sister on 18 January
1892, and they set off on their round-the-world honeymoon voyage, arriving eventually at her family home near Brattleboro, Vermont. Dr. James
Conland, who assisted at the birth of Kipling’s daughter, introduced him
to Gloucester fishing, as Kipling later explained in his autobiography, Something of Myself for My Friends Known and Unknown (1937). Kipling made
three visits to Gloucester and one to Boston to observe and absorb details
of the fishermen and their lives. His part was the writing, Kipling later explained, and Conland’s the details. Conland showed him how to split cod
and sent him out on a pollock-fisher, where Kipling was “immortally sick.”
Kipling also got charts of the Grand Banks and information on the American
cod fisheries from the Washington lawyer William Hallett Phillips.
In Captains Courageous, Kipling captures the danger and the heroism of
fishermen’s lives. During the sixty-eight years between 1830 and 1897, 668
Gloucester schooners and 3,755 Gloucester men were lost. In 1879 alone,
Gloucester lost 29 schooners and 249 fishermen, including thirteen vessels
and 143 men who died in a single gale on the night of 20 February. During
this period, Gloucester rarely had a population larger than 10,000. The memorial service at the end of Captains Courageous, when the names of
117 dead from that year alone are to be read out, one of the most powerful
scenes in the novel, tears Harvey Cheyne apart and makes him feel “all
crowded up and shivery” (ch. 10).
Kipling thought he’d written a great story. He wrote to Conland, after
the book had begun to appear serially, “I tell you that tale will be a snorter”
(Letter of 8–24 November [1896]). Just before he died, Kipling sold the
film rights to the novel, and it was made into a film directed by Victor
Fleming and starring Spencer Tracy (1937). The use of authentic footage
of actual fishermen and fishing schooners at work on the Grand Banks makes
the film an invaluable document. A musical based on the Kipling novel, with
music by Frederick Freyer and book and lyrics by Patrick Cook, enjoyed
moderate success in a run that opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club in
February 1999.
FURTHER READING: Bercaw Edwards, Mary K. “ ‘That Tale Will Be a Snorter’:
The Writing of Captains Courageous,” The Log of Mystic Seaport 48 (1996): 16–21;
Garland, Joseph E. Down to the Sea: The Fishing Schooners of Gloucester. Boston:
David R. Godine, 1983; McAveeney, David C. Kipling in Gloucester: The Writing
of Captains Courageous. Gloucester, MA: Curious Traveller, 1996.