Tuesday, August 14, 2012

It’s just the greatest thing that ever was! - Kipling's Great Man, and Carlyle's

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.


  1. I had not noticed it before. But now that you mention it, the love of Kipling for the "Sons of Martha" is not love for the industrious man, the engineer, but love for the captains of industry, the CEOs. As it turns out, the following verses are not against capitalism as it seemed to me up to now:

    With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch.
    They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch.
    They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings.
    So we worshiped the Gods of the Market Who promiced these beautiful things.
    When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promiced perpetual peace.
    They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
    But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
    And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: 'Stick to the Devil you know.'

  2. Oh, that's interesting. I know so little about of Kipling's work. "The Sons of Martha" is from much later, but is closely related to this novel.

    Kipling positions the Carlylean CEO, the heroic and benevolent capitalist, as a kind of engineer. His machinery is the firm, or factory, or railway system. Thus the cross-country railroad trip is a demonstration of the engineer at work on his machine. Ah ha, I see!

  3. I haven't read Carlyle in 20 years, and I've never read Captains Courageous either as a child or an adult (for that matter I have never, to recycle the old joke, even Kippled), but I'm greatly enjoying your posts on this story. The cigar thing is a hoot. It's interesting to see that notion of CEOs as the great men of history being touted about with abandon these days in certain U.S. political circles.

  4. I mostly see the remnants of Great Mannery in the tech sector, the Jobs and Gates worship. The CEOs with not just competence but "vision," those are the remnants of Carlyle' ideas.

  5. Your nephew, by the way, has taken recently to announcing that "I don't want to grow up to be a man".
    I think he's holding out for cat or fire truck, but I'm not totally sure.

  6. Perhaps his future reading of ideologically sound adventure novels will change his mind.

    Gotta get that train in the mail.