Kipling writes seven fine chapters on ordinary life in the cod fisheries, extraordinary only because so risky. He has to wrap the book up, though. The hold is full of fish; our hero Harvey returns to shore; his parents learn that he is not dead. For thematic reasons as well as elementary story-telling, Harvey, having lost his callowness at the hands of a substitute father, the sea captain, Captain Courageous #1, needs some sort of scene with his father, the self-made millionaire, Captain Courageous #2. Thus the odd plural title.
Mr. Cheyne is in San Diego and needs to get to Gloucester, Massachusetts. He will travel by private rail car – we get a scene where he and his secretary plan the necessary connections and couplings:
The train would take precedence of one hundred and seventy-seven others meeting and passing; despatches and crews of every one of those said trains must be notified. Sixteen locomotives, sixteen engineers, and sixteen firemen would be needed – each and every one the best available. Two and one half minutes would be allowed for changing engines, three for watering, and two for coaling. (Ch. IX)
And then we see the trip unfold just as planned. The entire section, of roughly six pages and two thousand words, is “a classic of railway literature,” as a Wikipedist succinctly describes it. Of trainspotting literature, says I. The intricacies of private intercontinental rail travel have a mild interest, and I was anxious for Harvey’s parents to reunite with their lost son – I’m not a monster! – but the whole thing is baffling. Nothing is at stake. At least Phileas Fogg was trying to win a bet. So a connection is missed and the reunion is twelve hours late. So what. Some vague attempts are made to symbolically mix the father’s rail journey with the son’s sea voyage, the effects of which are vitiated by the next scene, the one suffused with the ideology of Thomas Carlyle.
The depth of Carlyle’s influence continues to astound me. Here we are, fifty-five years after the publication of Past and Present, and a writer as strong as Kipling has nothing more original to offer than Carlyle’s idea that the Captains of Industry are (or at least should be) the new Great Men of history, filling the roles of Frederick the Great and Oliver Cromwell and Odin (yes, the Norse god – see On Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History, 1840). Harvey’s father tells the story of his rise to wealth and power (“Harvey gasped. ‘It’s just the greatest thing that ever was!’ said he.”), and offers Harvey a choice: he can be a layabout or a lawyer. Useful or useless, labor or laziness. I spent the book watching Harvey develop, so I know that he will choose to produce! produce!
Captains Courageous does thus modify the boys’ book formula. Harvey does not just learn through adversity how to be a man, but how to be a Great Man, a Carlylean hero. The idea that he might be inspired to become, I don’t know, an ichthyologist, that never comes up. The novel demonstrates how an other-made man can becomes just as heroically useful as a self-made man.
It’s the dangedest thing, and between that and the railroad nonsense almost staves in the end of the book. Luckily, there is one more scene.