American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

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.

Mary K. Bercaw Edwards