Mr. Kipling's Captains Courageous

A review

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The story of Mr. Kipling's Captains Courageous is one of those simple, vigorous conceptions which we have come to expect from him, and the motive is one to which we are all ready to respond. Redemption by a strong hand pleases our willful philanthropy. To drag a putty-faced, impudent fifteen-year-old heir to thirty millions away, by the winds of heaven and the deep sea, from his devil of indulgence, though the devil be in this instance also his mother, and by the same winds and sea to instill manliness into him, is a grim and delicious idea. The gorgeous simplicity of it would befit the Arabian Nights. A big, soft-armed wave picks the boy from the deck of an ocean steamer, and drops him into a dory which happens with fairy-tale appropriateness to come by, and this convenient conveyance delivers him over to a crew of stern-faced, laconic fishermen, who knock the nonsense out of him and put him in the way of learning the two lessons that in Mr. Kipling's eyes make up the chief duty of man—to work and not to be afraid. This is the whole story. The task, to be sure, requires nine months, and the account of it stretches over three hundred and twenty pages, but after the first twenty pages there is no plot, no development, no surprise. It awakens neither suspense nor hope nor fear. Everybody is reasonably safe, and the redemptive process apparent from the first goes on without check or hindrance.

The theme, however, gives an opportunity for dealing with a phase of life which Mr. Kipling has never before attempted to portray, and we have as a result the most vivid and picturesque treatment of New England fishermen that has yet been made. The atmosphere is unlike that in any other of Mr. Kipling's books; it is sober almost to sombreness, for the New England fisherman does not countenance hilarity or undue mirth. From the doleful chantey of Disko Troop in the cabin of the We 're Here to the funereal Memorial Day at Gloucester and Mrs. Troop's despairing plaint of the sea, the tone of the book is never thoroughly merry. Neither is the movement of it ever swift, for the story is of men to whom time is seldom pressing, and whose lives are ruled by the moods of the unhasting sea. Perhaps it is by reason of this that there is in the book greater restraint and serenity of language than in much of Mr. Kipling's earlier writing. There is less prodigality of words and of figures than in some earlier work, and the charm is that of fitness rather than form. These good things there are in Captains Courageous: a theme that is healthy and satisfying, a mood and an atmosphere that fit the occasions, and a measure of that serenity of manner which many of Mr. Kipling's critics have missed and almost despaired of. Yet this last excellence is paid for with a great price. Though it may bring relief from the go-fever and insistence of the earlier work, it is relief procured at the cost of life. We miss here the throb of impatient power that made the Light that Failed and The Man who Would be King intoxicants.

Two incidents arouse a perceptible degree of excitement—the rush over the mountains in the private car, and the weeping of the widows of Gloucester. But these have nothing to do with the story proper, and are manifestly dragged in. For the rest, the slow words are most unlike the tense sentences that the maker of Mulvaney was used to write.

The characters of the book are hardly less disappointing. To be sure the boy Harvey has disadvantages as a hero. He has not the plasticity of Wee Willie Winkie to be moulded into a child knight-errant, nor the hardness of Dick Heldar to be hammered into fierce heroism. He is just an ordinary boy at the hobbledehoy stage, and it is due him to say that he appears as he is.

Most of the characters with the exception of Disko Troop are mere outlines, distinguishable by Dickens-like tags. Tom Platt was on the Ohio and Long Jack is from East Boston. What the inner natures of these men are, whether they have like passions with the men we know, is a matter of assumption. Disko Troop, however, is more than an outline. Though the workings of his heart are curiously concealed through three hundred pages we come to feel that he has a certain individuality, as of a mingling of the wiliness of the much-enduring Ulysses with a stern, Puritan sense of justice. Manuel and Salters are little more than dummy figures, and Mrs. Troop is hardly more than a voice that complains against the sea. At the end of The Courting of Dinah Shadd we knew Mulvaney as we know none of the characters of Captains Courageous.

The essence of the book is to be found, apart from the healthy, masculine notion of it, in its exploitation of the Grand Bankers. We can understand that these toilers of the deep, holding a part of the ocean almost to themselves and living lives separate and full of peril, must have appealed powerfully to Mr. Kipling's imagination. And he has laid bare the conditions of their toil and the fog-wrapped wastes in which it falls as no other writer has done, as perhaps no other writer could have done. Few other men, indeed, know the sea as he knows it, and in describing it he discovers always some of his peculiar witchery of probing words, some of his familiar and expected thrust of phrase.

The first dressing-down on the tilting decks of the We 're Here and her run home when her hold was full,—"when the jib-boom solemnly poked at the low stars" and "she cuddled her lee-rail down to the crashing blue" in a pace that is joyous to every one who loves the lift and slide of a ship at sea,—these remain like the flavor of a well-known wine. Such passages, however, are all too rare. The style of this book is not as the style of the others. Some measure of beauty it retains, but it is not the bloom that we have known. Nowhere between its covers is there a passage to match the description of the sleeping city in The City of Dreadful Night. Yet there are bits that are thoroughly good, like this about an iceberg: "A whiteness moved in the whiteness of the fog with a breath like the breath of the grave, and there was a roaring, a plunging and spouting;” and this about a ship: "Now a bark is feminine beyond all other daughters of the sea, and this tall, hesitating creature, with her white and gilt figurehead, looked just like a bewildered woman half lifting her skirts to cross a muddy street under the jeers of bad little boys." One looks and listens in vain, however, for language chaste and rhythmic like the style of The Spring Running, or for the melancholy grace of words that made Without Benefit of Clergy half-intoxicating and all pitiful.

Captains Courageous has not the sweep of power that of right belongs to the handiwork of its maker,—the old-time rush and energy, the straining pace of syllables doubly laden, the silences that come where words fail for weakness. One misses the eager thrill of phrases like this from The Light that Failed, "the I—I—I's flashing through the records as telegraph-poles fly past the traveler." There is an almost incredible lack of significance in parts of it, as if it were a steamer under-engined for its length. Some chapters are floated by mere description, and go crippled like an ocean-liner relying on its sails. It is matter of doubt whether in all Mr. Kipling's other books together one could find so many barren pages as are here. Page after page drags on after the story is told, like the latter joints of a scotched snake. Some of Mr. Kipling's early short stories, The Courting of Dinah Shadd, Love O' Women, and Beyond the Pale, have greater wealth of human interest, more import of life, death, and destiny, than this whole volume carries. The power of humor in The Incarnation of Krishna Mulvaney, the glare of race feeling in The Man who Was, and the splendid reaches of imagination in The Man who Would be King are all lacking here. Captains Courageous awakens no hot emulation to make one up and tread the floor like the Nilghai's choruses in The Light that Failed, nor any grim joy of fight to endanger table-tops as Ortheris's fight with the captain in His Private Honor does, nor any gulp of suspense to catch you'r throat such as rises at the charge at Silver's Theatre in With the Main Guard.

We take Mr. Kipling very seriously, for he is the greatest creative mind that we now have: he has the devouring eye and the portraying hand. And Captains Courageous is badly wrought and is less than the measure of his power. It may be when he sent it out some words of his own had been forgotten—words with which he dedicated one of his earliest books,—

"For I have wrought them for Thy sake And breathed in them mine agonies."
It seems to us to lack this sort of inspiration.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1897/12/mr-kiplings-captains-courageous/306594/