Kipling - Captains Courageous

April 21, 2004

Rudyard Kipling, Captains Courageous, Audiobook.

This is a classic YA and still one of my favorites. Kipling was visiting the US, got interested in the New England nautical world, and spent a summer down in Boston and Gloucester Harbours talking to everyone in sight. He then took that mess of information, combined it with a coming-of-age tale and mediation on masculinity, and wrote it as a YA novel.

The book is interesting on several levels: what was it like to go fishing for cod in the 1890s? what model of masculine adulthood is Kipling presenting, and why does the schooner We're Here sometimes remind me of an English public school? How does Kipling's use of racial terms shape his notion of masculinity?

That first of these is the obvious draw of the book, and Kipling takes us through the fog in a small dory, shows how to bait a hook and land a cod or halibut, and how to dress down the fish and pack it in salt for the trip home.

The second is Kipling's underlying purpose to the book. Harvey, our protagonist, starts as an obnoxious kid; he finishes as a good kid and has a coda as a very sharp young man. Kipling preaches hard work, responsibility, and the way that men among men will do their best, own up to their mistakes, help one another out, and work as a team to accomplish collective goals - for Kipling a ship is the model for the larger world.

The third was the most jarring, and the reason why I would not want to hand the book to a kid in 2004 without pausing for a moment. It is not just that Kipling casually refers to niggers a few times, or has a character praise another's good deed as being "mighty white" - these are turns of phrase, part of the normative world of a man born in colonial India and writing for an audience looking for "scientific" new methods of race relations. It is that the black cook, MacPherson - a "coal black gaelic speaker" from Novia Scotia, has the second sight, is double close to nature as a black man and a gael, and resolves at the end of the book to give up his own life and spend the rest of his days caring for Harvey's every need - the spiritual black man willingly devotes himself to life as a body servant, and this choice then validates Harvey's manhood and move to take up his inherited family wealth and power. The structure is jarring, for racial norms and character-defining norms have changed a great deal since the 1890s.

I might sometime want to team-teach something on novels for young adults, and their social and cultural contexts. Certainly Captains Courageous works well as a snapshot of late nineteenth century assumptions about class, work, race, and wealth.

I do like the book.

Posted by Red Ted at April 21, 2004 08:57 AM
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