Friday, July 13, 2012

Titanic Century

Media, Myth, and the Making of a Cultural Icon

We've been swamped this year by all things Titanic: postage stamps, restaurant menus, museum exhibits, artifact auctions, memorial cruises, and graveyard tours, to name just a few. There's also been an outpouring of volumes that add to those already covering the subject from every possible angle, including cookbooks. There`s even a Titanic for Dummies.

Yet there have been worse calamities at sea, so why our fascination with that particular ship? Why did it create “a scar on the very soul of Western civilization”? The author ascribes it to a number of factors, but key among them is the role played by communications media, first in the use of shipboard radio to alert the world of the disaster, next in the newspapers that feasted upon the event, and finally in the imaginative retellings in books and films that turned the story into myth.

Shipboard radio communications were still in their infancy, and the regulations governing them were just as sketchy as those regarding the number of lifeboats. The radio operators were not employees of the White Star line, but instead worked for Marconi's company. They wore their own uniforms and (except in an emergency) were forbidden to exchange dots and dashes with operators of competing firms. The lack of regulatory structure in the fledgling industry contributed to the initial confusion of newspaper reports. Was the ship safe or not? At opposite ends of the spectrum were the New York Times, which got the story right, and the New York Evening Journal, which declared all passengers safe and the ship being towed to Halifax. This confusion gave the event an immediacy that held readers spellbound.

The author provides a day-by-day account of how the New York papers handled the story, and far from being a dry rendition of facts, it communicates some of the excitement of covering a story when newspapers were in their heyday. An interesting bonus is a chapter entitled “Canadian Journalists in New York” by contributor Michael Dupuis.

Imagining Disaster

The final section of the book begins with the involvement of several literary heavyweights. Who better to render an opinion about the disaster than master mariner Joseph Conrad? George Bernard Shaw and Arthur Conan Doyle exchanged heated words in the newspapers, Thomas Hardy penned a poem (included in the appendix), and Canadian poet E.J. Pratt produced a 30-page narrative epic.

By the turn of the century several novels had appeared as well as a play and a Broadway musical, but the book's most detailed examination is saved for the six films and three TV treatments. Among the former are a Nazi propaganda effort, a box office disaster, and the most expensive movie ever made. How all these productions positioned themselves is interesting. For example, in the James Cameron blockbuster no mention is made of the role played (or rather, not played) by the nearby vessel Californian, perhaps to put some metaphorical distance between it and the movie's great predecessor, A Night to Remember.

The concluding chapter discusses the “mythic connotations” of the fated ship. One of the most interesting observations is a comparison between Titanic and Noah's Ark. The author concludes:

What began as an accident of history has become one of its enduring moral lessons – a real-life counterpart to high tragedy in literature. The works of Shakespeare, Sophocles and Melville seem as appropriate to understanding the implications of what happened as do the conclusions of any purely historical study.

Though the book has a scholarly bent, the writing is lively and the author's wry asides and observations add a personal touch. For instance, he mentions passing up an opportunity to appear as an extra in the James Cameron flick, in part because the movie while still in production was already being touted as “Cameron's folly”.

Paul Heyer is a media historian and prof at Wilfrid Laurier. Titanic Century is now in its second edition.

Titanic Historical Society
Encyclopedia Titanica
Titanic: Adventure out of Time (cult computer game)