Glenn Uminowicz - April 2009

Raise the Symbolic Titanic


Glenn Uminowicz

At the Cape Race, New Foundland, wireless station, last Sunday night, about half-past ten, came a wireless message, telling of a disaster which filled the world with horror. The message was from the greatest of ocean greyhounds, the palace-passenger steamer Titanic, and she said that the mammoth boat had struck an iceberg and was in distress.
From the Denton Journal, April 20, 1912

   In 1912, an extraordinary editorial appeared in the Denton Journal regarding the sinking of the Titanic. It appeared in this Eastern Shore weekly just five days after the great ship plunged beneath the icy waves of the North Atlantic. In Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster (1996), Steven Biel insisted that wireless telegraphy that reached even Denton revolutionized the reporting of news, providing a “modern sense of simultaneity.”
    The actions of Captain Arthur Rostron of the rescue ship Carpathia illustrated the insatiable desire for news reported simultaneously as a major event unfolded. As his ship steamed toward New York, the captain restricted wireless communication to official business and personal telegrams from Titanic survivors. Members of the New York press corps expressed deep frustration, running stories under headlines such as “WATCHERS ANGERED BY CARPATHIA’S SILENCE.” In a scene worthy of our modern paparazzi, smaller vessels swarmed around the Carpathia on the evening it entered New York harbor, the flashes from photographers’ cameras illuminating the ship. Reporters aboard tugboats blared questions at Titanic survivors through megaphones.
    The Denton Journal editorial also combined musings about the limitations of modern technology with technical information regarding the fate of the ship. The editorial writer quoted Lord Byron, noting that humankind might “mark the earth” with its farms and cities, but that control stopped at the ocean’s shore. Upon the “watery plain,” man just might sink to the depths with a “bubbling groan.”
    The Titanic was the largest moving object ever produced in the history of the world. It stood eleven stories high and stretched the length of four city blocks. Its makers proclaimed it “unsinkable.” This “technological hubris” was shattered after the ship struck the iceberg. Titanic was indeed laid low upon the “watery plain.”
    Beyond the poetic, the Denton Journal editor also cited comments by the Chairman of the Department of Experimental Physics at Johns Hopkins University. At a pressure of six thousand pounds per square inch, he observed that unfilled compartments of the steamer would crumble “like tissue paper.” The natural buoyancy of corpses was insufficient for them to ever rise to the surface. In short, the force of nature trumped even the proudest technological achievement.
    Finally, the Denton newspaper reported that Titanic survivors praised the bravery of the ship’s officers and crew. The editor wrote, “They worked like Trojans while it was possible to save a single one of the passengers, while death, sure and swift, stared them in the face.” Contemporary newspaper accounts indicated that Captain Edward J. Smith inspired his crew to save “women and children first” by exhorting them to “Be British.” This image of Anglo-Saxon chivalry and selflessness also extended to first-class male passengers who willingly acknowledged that second- and third-class female passengers and children should be seated in the lifeboats first. By contrast, the press often cast third-class male passengers, many of whom were immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, as “crazed men from steerage” who sometimes had to be kept from the boats by force.
    Commentators often cast the Titanic disaster as marking the end of an era. In 1959, for example, the local Salisbury newspaper ran an interview with Titanic survivor Mrs. Henry B. Harris, who lamented that the sinking “spelled the end of an age of security the world has never know since.” If the unsinkable ship went down, how could people be certain of anything? Moreover, the Titanic epitomized the well-ordered Edwardian world where the captains of finance and industry remained insulated from those in steerage. On a chilly April night, did that world descend into the depths with a “bubbling groan”?
    Steven Biel cautioned against considering the Titanic disaster as a world-altering event. The sinking of the great ship seared itself into American memory not because it was a timeless tragedy, but rather because it proved a timely expression of concerns about society, politics and culture. The cold Atlantic was as “calm as a pond” that April night in 1912, but the “symbolic Titanic” encountered some pretty rough seas.
    In 1912, a parade of 15,000 women suffragists crowded the funeral of Titanic victim John Jacob Astor off the front pages. In San Diego, the International Workers of the World filled courtrooms and jails to defend their right to free speech and assembly. In the nation’s capital, a Senate subcommittee considered a bill to limit the numbers of so-called “new immigrants” from Eastern and Southern Europe, who booked passage to this country in steerage on ships like the Titanic.
    In short, Americans in 1912 confronted significant issues related to gender, class and ethnicity. In this context, the theme of first-cabin male heroism aboard the Titanic reasserted traditional gender and class roles. First-class male passengers displayed both a sense of noblesse oblige toward those from steerage and an understanding of the dependence of the “weaker sex” upon them. One New York daily reminded suffragists that, on the boat deck, the cry was not “Voters first” but “Women first.” A St. Louis man stated the case even more bluntly. He insisted, “I suggest, henceforth, when a woman talks women’s rights, she be answered with the word Titanic, nothing more – just Titanic.”
    Conservative social commentators insisted that members of the ruling class aboard Titanic displayed true character when put to the test. They exemplified a commitment to duty, morality, integrity and manhood. This commitment transcended the drive to get ahead in a corporate, urban society that resulted in the mere accumulation of wealth. Socialist congressman Victor Berger from Wisconsin begged to differ, stating “greed and speed are the characteristics of the capitalist system.” Even in the pages of the Denton Journal, the act of racing across the Atlantic in the “big flyer” in quest of a speed record while economizing on the number of lifeboats drew criticism.
    After American and British investigations into its sinking concluded, the Titanic vanished from the American cultural scene for four decades. Native-born Marylander Walter Lord was responsible for raising the symbolic Titanic with the publication of A Night to Remember (1955). A gripping minute-by-minute account of the ship’s final hours, the book served as the basis of a feature film.
    In 1926, nine-year-old Walter Lord and his mother traveled from Baltimore to board Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic, where he prowled the decks trying to imagine how “such a huge thing” could sink. After receiving a law degree, Lord edited business newsletters and served as a copywriter at an advertising firm. He eventually applied his writing skills to bring drama, terror and suspense to his historical narratives. A Book-of-the-Month Club selection, A Night to Remember became an immediate critical and financial success.
    Lord shared the view that the Titanic disaster lowered the curtain on the first-cabin lifestyle. He wrote, “The Titanic was the last stand of wealth and society in the center of public affection.” While the practice of chivalry was lost, so too were prejudices, especially the “firm and loudly voiced opinion of Anglo-Saxon courage.” In writing his book, Lord insisted, “I tried to get across the point that wealth, position, rank and the like have very little to do with whether a person is good or bad, quick or slow, brave or perhaps not so brave. We get all that somewhere else.’’
    Biel traced the appeal of A Night to Remember in the 1950s to the emphasis on “traditional” middle-class family roles. The book also offered a nostalgic alternative to a world in “rude transition” to the atomic age. The Titanic disaster unfolded slowly, allowing time for passengers and crew to display their nobler instincts. By contrast, nuclear annihilation threatened destruction in the blink of an eye, crumbling everything that marked the earth like so much tissue paper.
    In the 1980s and ’90s, the symbolic Titanic rose again with the discovery of the wreck by a team headed by Dr. Robert Ballard and the release of James Cameron’s film Titanic (1997). Media attention on the technology required to discover the ship and produce the film rivaled that lavished on the Titanic herself before her maiden voyage. In Cameron’s film, the love story centering on the fiancée of a first-class passenger and a young artist from steerage pivots the myth of first-cabin chivalry on its head. In a climactic scene, the artist and his love are chased through the sinking ship by someone who can only be described as a gun-wielding crazed man from a first-cabin. Cameron hints at the old socialist assertion that “greed and speed” potentially lead to disaster.
    In the 21st century, the symbolic Titanic continues its voyage under full steam. The great ship, for example, receives mention in Thomas E. Ricks’ recently published The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq (2009). Ricks describes meetings between Capt. Samuel Cook, commander of an American armored cavalry unit, and insurgent leader Sarhan Hassan Wisme, who boasted of planting more than 200 bombs to attack U.S. troops. Cook knew that Iraqis loved American movies, especially James Cameron’s Titanic. Sarhan admitted to seeing the film seven times and crying every time the Kate Winslet character let the dead Leonardo DiCaprio slip beneath the waves.
    The Iraqis’ fascination with Titanic is perhaps understandable. After all, when word reached America of its sinking, thousands were shocked and in awe of the power of nature to destroy this penultimate example of Western technology. The effectiveness of Sarhan’s explosive devices against American forces in Iraq illustrates that we still have much to learn about the true cost of “technological hubris.”