“When captains courageous, whom death could not daunt”
Since this was mentioned under my previous post on Two Years Before The Mast I thought I’d quick one on it.
Kipling knows how to tell a story. This is a classic 19th-century bildungsroman. At points the phrases used, spoken in an Englishman’s perspective of a thick Main accent talking about antiquated sailing and fishing terms, were opaque to me. If you are reading the book and get to those parts, don’t despair! There aren’t that many and context provides enough clues to pick up the gist if not the specifics.
The main character, Harvey, starts out as a callow, spoiled, pampered, mama’s boy. The book plot is about his transformation into a young man with his feet set on the path to becoming an adult. It also captures a now distant past of a vibrant community of hard men that worked the unforgiving seas to earn their daily bread. Kipling allows us to see, albeit briefly, into their world, governed by the harsh laws of sea and work, directed by their own social rituals and rites.
So, even though on the surface it’s an enjoyable bildungsroman, it’s also a character sketch of men and business no longer part of our world. It’s a study in how to be a man, to know hard work and how to work hard, to get paid fair and square for that work, to work on your education, in whatever form, while young.
It’s a short book, a novella really, and yet Kipling packs a lot into it besides just Harvey’s transformation. Chapter 9 has been called “a classic of railway literature” as one example.
The lessons highlighted in the book don’t need to be learned under duress. We can take Harvey’s example and apply it to our lives without needing to get stranded on a fishing schooner in order to learn the value of hard work and male acceptance for that work. We can understand honor is a function of our peers and not just personal integrity.