American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

TITANIC. Built in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1912, the R.M.S. Titantic and its wreck have become an important international legend of the twentieth century. On the evening of 14 April 1912, the Titanic, essence of modernity and technological achievement, was steaming across the Atlantic from Southampton to New York on her maiden voyage. On board, her passengers and crew were oblivious to an iceberg’s presence and the impending destruction and death. When the Titanic struck the iceberg in the North Atlantic, her steel hull was opened below the waterline for a length of 300 feet. The inrush of water, with which the pumps and system of hull subdivision could not cope, doomed the ship. There were not enough lifeboats to save all of the 2,201 people on board. There was provision for only 1,178 people, though some of the lifeboats lowered were not filled to capacity. Almost 1,500 people, passengers and crew, perished in the most appalling circumstances imaginable. The sinking of Titanic had a traumatic effect in both the United States and Europe. The great ship, a signifier of the civilized world, lay fractured on the ocean floor, having plunged through two miles of freezing water with American millionaires and immigrant poor on board. It was a mighty blow to the self-confidence of the age.

Logan Marshall’s Sinking of the Titanic and Great Sea Disasters (1912) was the first book-length publication about the disaster. Feelings of loss, bewilderment, and blame were among emotions expressed in a cathartic outpouring of popular verse. Wellesley College English professor Katharine Lee Bates, who had composed “America the Beautiful” in 1893, published her poem “The Titanic” in Current Literature (June 1912). Although most of the ensuing popular verse was doggerel, it did achieve considerable social, cultural, and historical significance.

Entrepreneurs flooded an eager market with mementos. Commemorative postcards were especially popular as they combined a high level of memo- rialization with low cost. The publication of specially composed Titanic sheet music was another commercial endeavor. In the United States the first published song appeared on 25 April 1912; within twelve months, more than 100 Titanic songs had been published in America. Over half of these were published by the Washington, D.C., firm of H. Kirkus Dugdale, which organized a promotion whereby members of the public submitted lyrics, and company hacks set them to music.

The generally ephemeral Titanic sheet music and songs contrast with Titanic narrative ballads of folk tradition. Relating strongly to, and informed by, the emigrant and immigrant experience, together with the experience of racial exclusion, Titanic songs appear in vernacular oral culture, not only in English but also in Yiddish, Hebrew, Czech, Swedish, Danish, German, and Dutch. For many years the late D. K. Wilgus, American folklorist, studied the Titanic traditional ballad complex with all its rich diversity of tradition in the United States, Ireland, and other parts of Europe. These investigations were discussed in an unpublished paper he delivered to the American Folklore Society on 3 November 1977. Wilgus believed that the Titanic disaster contributed more songs than any other disaster, or perhaps any other event, in American history.

Artists and writers also expressed the catastrophic event in terms of their individual imagination. For the English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy, the destruction of Titanic was a dramatic confirmation of his view that humankind existed at the whim of nature. The collision of ship and iceberg precisely reflected Hardy’s sense of humanity being victimized by destiny, powerfully expressed in his poem “The Convergence of the Twain” (1912). The monumental dimension of the disaster and its meanings were also refracted through the imagination of the German expressionist artist Max Beckman in his painting The Sinking of the Titanic (1912).

For many in 1912, the loss of the Titanic was richly symbolic. For some, the event called into question the established order of things and the presence of a good and merciful God. For others, it confirmed belief in divine retribution for human conceit and arrogance. It seemed to demonstrate the folly of vanity and the presumption that nature could be a conquest of science; it shattered popular faith in the supremacy of technology, progress, and privilege.

The Titanic became the subject of messages and meanings from the sublime to the tacky: literature, popular verse, vaudeville, religion, songs, music, opera, dance, drama, art, film, cartoons, jokes, fantasy, graffiti, advertising, satire, politics, pornography, propaganda, science fiction, romantic fiction, exhibitions, and cultural discourse. Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember (1955) is the most famous, although not the most accurate, American book on the disaster; it was adapted to film in 1958. Daisy Corning Stone Spedden’s Polar: The Titanic Bear (1994) is the best known of juvenile* books on the topic.

Titanic, or rather Titanicism, was an international cultural phenomenon even before the remains of the ship were located on the seabed in 1985 by a joint American-French expedition headed by Robert D. Ballard. Despite the magnitude of other twentieth-century horrors, the Titanic has achieved the status of ultimate disaster symbol, or root metaphor, in our cultural consciousness.

The year 1997, eighty-fifth anniversary of the sinking of Titanic, was a vintage year for Titanicism. By June 1997 it was possible to have checked out a $6 million Titanic exhibition in Memphis, Tennessee, become a secret agent in a Titanic CD-ROM, attended a “Titanic at Home” international convention in Belfast, visited thousands of Titanic sites on the Internet, experimented with a Titanic cookbook, and flown to New York for the $10 million Tony award-winning Broadway hit Titanic: A New Musical by Peter Stone and Maury Yeston. Although dubbed by a British newspaper as the “Sing As You Sink Show,” this musical extravaganza succeeded, not least because of its elaborate tilting and tiered set and dramatically upbeat songs.

Released in the United States at the end of 1997 and directed by James Cameron, the blockbuster movie Titanic was the most expensive film to date, at an estimated cost of over $200 million. To save some money, only one side of a full-sized reconstruction of Titanic was built at the Mexican beach town of Rosarito. Nevertheless, in the completed film the resurrected Titanic is a spectacular success. The ship is the real star of the movie, which garnered Golden Globe awards and swept the 1998 Oscars. Cameron has remarked that the film is a metaphor for the inevitability of death. The film is also a manifestation of Titanicism, with its key characteristics of profit, pleasure, and memorialization. The film is rich cinematographic entertainment, simulated reality powerfully projecting the vulnerability of life and its dreams in a capricious and uncertain world.

Beyond popular culture, the Titanic engages the imagination of more reputable artists, writers, and composers in whose creative work the tragedy takes on meanings that transcend the event itself. Poets, particularly Irish poets such as Louis MacNeice, Derek Mahon, and Anthony Cronin, have explored Titanic themes. Internationally, perhaps the most compelling contemporary poem is “The Sinking of the Titanic” by Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Translated from German into English by the poet in 1981, this long and complex poem is an extended metaphorical discourse on human loss and the foundering of Western society. English novelist Beryl Bainbridge’s Every Man for Himself (1996), short-listed for the 1996 Booker Prize and winner of the 1996 Whitbread Novel Award, is a dark and brittle tale of failed hopes and social fracture on board the flawed ship. Erik Fosnes Hansen’s Psalm at Journey’s End, a massive best-seller in its original Norwegian edition (1990) and translated into English (1997), focuses on the lives of Titanic’s musicians and connects their doomed world to the looming upheavals of the early twentieth century. The Titanic is depicted by American author Cynthia Bass in Maiden Voyage (1996), a coming-of-age novel. American short story writer Bailey White combines gentle and fleeting memories of age with the recollected experiences of youth; the ship is luminously observed in her folksy southern collection of domestic vignettes Mama Makes Up Her Mind, and Other Dangers of Southern Living (1993).

The cataclysmic failure of Titanic was, and remains, a paradigm for the inevitable human failure of flaunted technology, emblematic of the death of an era. Titanic symbolizes and prefigures human fears and anxieties about the precariousness of existence, the frightening possibilities of science, the failures of technology, and the indulgence of vanity at the beginning of the twenty-first century. As the twentieth century drew to a close, there was a feeling that, in a way, we had caught up with the Titanic and were recreating the future. Titanic is our fin de siecle. [See also CUSSLER, CLIVE; OCEAN LINER LITERATURE; SHIPWRECK LITERATURE]

FURTHER READING: Biel, Steven. Down with the Old Canoe. NewYork: Norton, 1996; Eaton, John P., and Charles A. Haas. Titanic, Triumph and Tragedy. Wellingborough: Patrick Stephens, 1986; Enzensberger, Hans Magnus. The Sinking of the Titanic. London: Carcanet, 1981; Foster, John Wilson. The Titanic Complex. Vancouver: Belcouver, 1997; McCaughan, Michael. Titanic. Cultra: Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, 1982; McCaughan, Michael. The Birth of the Titanic. Belfast: Blackstaff, 1998.

Michael McCaughan