My fascination and reverence for the Titanic and its story began when I was a teenager. I followed Robert Ballard's expeditions prior to, and including, his discovery of the hallowed ship in 1985. I recently found a fellow faculty member on campus who has had that same fascination and reverence, Grace Moser from the history department. Grace was nice enough to share her reflections of the Titanic as we approach 100 years since it sank on April 15, 1912.
Remembering the Titanic:
Reflections of One Enthusiast age 12 and 28
Reflections of One Enthusiast age 12 and 28
This Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Combined with the re-releasing of James Cameron’s epic film, Titanic, in 3D, the ship is once again on our minds. Cameron’s epic film of the one of the worst maritime disasters in history ranked as the highest grossing movie until it was surpassed by another Cameron feature, Avatar, in 2009. The movie’s long run at the top of the list clearly demonstrates the fascination of the world for the story of the ocean liner, and it’s held the imagination and attention of the world since its sinking in 1912. Countless movies, plays, and books have been written with the Titanic as the backdrop. Today and then, fans consume souvenirs emblazoned with the White Star Line logo or the Titanic’s image. The ship and its story have been mass-produced and capitalized upon almost shamelessly, but still we want more, and have wanted it since 1912.
Like many, I harbor a fascination with the tragedy and have since I first learned of the events as a child. I don’t quite remember first hearing the story of the Titanic, but I remember a research paper I wrote at age twelve on the subject. I was haunted by the lives lost that night. I mused over the many who either drowned or froze in the waters that night, and I’m pretty sure I wrote of their fates in an overly dramatic twelve-year-old fashion. I wish I still had that essay. I can only imagine the cruel judgment in my writing, outlining the pride of the designers in inventing a cutting edge liner, both beautiful and technologically superior, relishing in the idea of their pride demolished with its sinking. I seem coldhearted to myself; relishing in the failure of the ship at the expense of those that died. Still, isn’t that part of the attraction of the story? The moral, if you will? My twelve-year-old self liked the black and white simplicity of the story. My present self does not see it in such black and white terms.
There is still mystery with the Titanic, and like many historical tragedies, myth. Often the story the public is most familiar with is more conspiracy than truth. For example, the dominant historical narrative I chose to focus on in my adolescent paper was the “unsinkable” claim of the ship’s makers. In truth, mistakes were made in the design process of the Titanic. For example, it is true there were not enough lifeboats available for the passengers on board due to an artistic decision; someone decided the adequate amount of lifeboats required would mar the ship’s appearance. However, like many historical tragedies, some of the famous points of the narrative are false. The source of my childish moral play on pride, the bragging of the ship’s makers of its inability to sink, fails to be entirely true. The claim more likely came from the news media coverage of the ship’s launch and the disaster afterwards rather than White Star Line or its designers. Another famous myth surrounds the last song played by the ship’s musicians. In a last ditch effort to comfort the doomed as the ship sank, the band famously played one hymn, “Nearer my God to Thee”. The message of the story is both comforting and religious, yet different eyewitness accounts list several different songs played that night, and some on the list are not as sober or Christian. Despite these inaccuracies, the elemental attraction to the story has remained strong in the 100 years since the ship sank.
So what about the story captures our attention? I believe it is unlucky combination of multiple horrors that captivates and fascinates us, a perfect tragedy, if you will. When people discuss the Titanic, they usually point to a specific list of tragic elements. These tend to center around those who were on board, and conversely those who were supposed to be on board but were not, the fact of this was the ship’s maiden voyage, the number of lifeboats and how full they were, and finally, the plight of the third class. If we take a closer look at these obsessive narratives, I believe we can identify what attracts us to these stories, and ultimately identify why the story is still one we discuss today.
Obsession tends to center around the multiple famous people on board first class that night: millionaire John Jacob Astor and his wife, Madeline, the owner of Macy’s andhis wife, Isidor and Ida Straus, Benjamin Guggenheim, a member of the famous family for whom the Guggenheim Museum in New York City is named after, and of course cultural sweetheart and millionaire Molly Brown. Molly Brown, in particular, is a classic part of the story; nearly every portrayal of the Titanic since its sinking includes a heroic Molly taking command of a lifeboat and rescuing passengers stranded in the water. Her whole image since the disaster is linked to the ship, identifying Molly as “unsinkable.” To add to the list of famous people on board that night, the ship’s designer Thomas Andrews, and White Star director J.Bruce Ismay were also on board to test the success of the ship and hunt for bugs on that fateful first journey. Ismay survived; Andrews did not.
Besides those actually on board, the story usually includes those supposed to be on board that voyage, but for some lucky reason, were not. One of the most famous of the “almosts,” commonly discussed is that of American finance capitalist JPMorgan. According to the narrative, Morgan had purchased a ticket and had intended on sailing, only to delay his journey and narrowly escape an early grave. In this way, the sinking of the Titanic parallels other “almosts” in history, including various celebrities almost on board the flights that crashed into the World Trade Center or the Pentagon on 9-11. The narrow escape narrative continues to be a popular element of disaster stories today.
The fact the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage adds an extra touch of drama to the epic tragedy. We tend to trust things that are new, trust technology. It is much more common for old age to be a factor in failure of a major means of transportation, than youth. Granted, it wasn’t an engineering mistake that caused the ship to sink that night; the Titanic’s sister ships, the Olympic and the Britannica, sailed without malfunction. Still, most people didn’t expect a tragedy on the ship’s first time out on the ocean. People trusted the Titanic, trusted its inability to sink, and the first time it was tested, the ship failed miserably. This parallels our own love affair with technology and disasters; we hardly hesitate before stepping on a plane or into a car, and most of the time we arrive at our destination perfectly safe. It is always the disasters, plane crashes, automobile accidents, or train wrecks, that capture our attention, mainly for our ability to empathize. These tragedies remind us of our own mortality and the possibility that “it could happen to us” and allows us to feel relief when it doesn’t.
Finally, the obsessive narrative tends to emphasize the tragedies that could have been prevented, i.e. the lack of lifeboats and the disproportionate death of the people in third class. I think this is particularly important in a modern age as we address racial, social, and economic inequality in America. The passengers in steerage, or third class, were locked in the bowels of the ship and were among the first to drown even before the ship sank. The decision to lock the doors was made by the ship’s staff, believing the catastrophe to be much less severe than it actually was. As a result, there were a disproportionate number of immigrants and lower socio-economic people killed in the disaster. Ultimately, intentional or not, the chance of survival became directly connected to the wealth or race of the person in question, a circumstance of which we are not unfamiliar today. With the lifeboats, this was again a decision made for the passengers without their consent. It parallels with decisions made by companies for consumers today that could potentially lead to harm or even death. The shame, and I think the source of attraction for those interested in the Titanic story, lies in how easily the scale of the disaster could have been reduced and the helplessness of the consumer in the whole situation.
The story of the Titanic represents my first love affair with history, a fascination that has become my occupation. Although I have moved onto different topics, there is something about the sinking of the Titanic that still captures my attention. It has become a point of comparison for other maritime and land disasters ranging from 9-11 to the recent cruise ship disaster, the Costa Concordia’s sinking off the coast of Italy. It is this story’s relevance to modern disasters that haunts us, and makes us wonder at the possibility of it happening again. For this reason, I believe we will continue to remember the early morning of April 15, 1912 and the sinking of the Titanic for at least another 100 years.
Grace Moser, history professor - St Charles Community College