Friday, June 05, 2009

The Titanic's Enduring Legacy

When Millvina Dean died on May 31, the final chapter of one of the iconic events of the early 20th century was closed.

Miss Dean, 97 years old, was the last survivor of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. She was an infant aboard the White Star liner, traveling with her parents and brother, who hoped to settle in Wichita, Kansas, to create a new future for themselves. That plan never materialized, as her father was killed and her mother decided to return to England.

Twelve years ago, keyed to the 85th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, I wrote a review of a book called Titanic Legacy: Disaster as Media Event and Myth, by Paul Heyer. It appeared in The Metro Herald in April 1997. (Note that this was published before the Space Shuttle Columbia was destroyed.)

The Titanic's Enduring Legacy
Richard Sincere
Exclusive to The Metro Herald

This week marks the 85th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Last Sunday, cable's Discovery Channel debuted a documentary about the event, putting forth the theory that the famous ship had not been slit open by an iceberg, but rather buckled upon collision, creating small holes placed evenly along the hull that allowed water to flow into the ship. Two days earlier on MSNBC, Time & Again dug into NBC News archives to commemorate the anniversary with a 30-minute look at previous reports on various Titanic remembrances and efforts to find her wreckage.

The Discovery Channel's report, which focuses on how extremely cold water weakened the Titanic's "impenetrable" hull, reminds us of how cold air was a factor in the 1986 Challenger disaster, another gripping tragedy. Remarkably, the Challenger explosion parallels -- in sometimes eerie detail -- the sinking of the Titanic.

What are some parallels? Both voyages were preceded by enormous public attention, the Titanic because it was the world's largest cruise ship, embarking on its maiden voyage, while the space shuttle Challenger would carry the first average citizen into space, schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. Both ships sank into the North Atlantic. Both accidents involved ice -- the Titanic sideswiping an iceberg, the Challenger breaking up because ice weakened its "O"-rings. Both disasters were quickly followed by official -- and controversial -- government inquiries, which were in turn followed by legislation and regulations meant to address the cause of the tragedy. And, since the Titanic went down, no passenger's life has been lost at sea due to icebergs; since the Challenger, no lives have been lost in space travel.

Both disasters had something else in common: both caught the imagination of the American people (and people across the globe) in an unprecedented fashion.

In the case of the Titanic, however, there was a new element -- the emerging technology of radio communications. Radio imparted news of the disaster much faster than any previous, similar event. (When the liner Pacific vanished without a trace in 1856, it was many months before a message in a bottle landed in Scotland, declaring that the ship had gone down in an icefield. By that time, of course, no rescue or salvage was possible.)

Paul Heyer, professor of communications at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, demonstrates, in a new book-length examination of media treatments of the Titanic disaster, that "everything old is new again" (Titanic Legacy: Disaster as Media Event and Myth, by Paul Heyer. Praeger Publishers, 200 pages, $39.95). Many of the news media's practices that are currently under attack -- for instance, paying witnesses for exclusive first-hand accounts of events -- were similarly criticized in the aftermath of the Titanic's sinking. Sensationalism, luridness, manufactured stories designed to sell newspapers -- these were worries in 1912 as much as in 1997. Who needs A Current Affair or Jenny Jones when you have the New York World and the New York Herald?

In Titanic Legacy, Heyer traces how the New York Times, in particular, emerged from the pack of more than a dozen New York dailies, and how its coverage of the Titanic sparked its ascendancy as the country's premiere newspaper. He goes on to look at how both news and entertainment media treated the disaster in subsequent decades, with special emphasis on the 1953 film Titanic (starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck) and the 1958 British docudrama based on Walter Lord's non-fiction book, A Night to Remember. He also traces more obscure works, such as Thomas Hardy's poem "The Convergence of the Twain," which he composed for a fundraising event for Titanic survivors, and blues singer Leadbelly's ballad, "De Titanic." He pays particular attention to "Titanic Toast," described as part of the African-American oral tradition and performed in the 1910s and ‘20s much as a rap number is today.

Several dynamic characters emerge from the story. Time has faded our memories, and most of us have forgotten that Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of wireless communications, was scheduled to be a passenger on the Titanic, but pressing business in New York forced him to depart Britain several days earlier. Few people remember, too, that the ultimate owner of the Titanic was tycoon J.P. Morgan, whose international shipping trust included White Star Lines. In addition, several famous people went down with the ship, including millionaire John Jacob Astor and Isidor and Ida Straus (owners of Macy's), who insisted on remaining together, hand-in-hand, as the Titanic descended into its watery grave.

In many ways, the story of the Titanic is as much a story of modern communications as it is about shipbuilding or sailing or weather conditions. The U.S. Senate investigation into the disaster led shortly thereafter to the first comprehensive regulation of (what later became known as) broadcasting. Marconi's corporate policies came under particular attack for being monopolistic. Heyer seems to accept this charge at face value, although he acknowledges that Marconi's company had several competitors both in Europe and America. Heyer is also insistent that regulation of the wireless industry was necessary and proper, though he fails to back up these assertions with hard evidence.

Titanic Legacy is a fascinating book. Professor Heyer is sure to find a ready audience for his book among the many amateur Titanic historians. For anyone interested in the history of the news and entertainment media, however, Titanic Legacy is recommended reading.
As a side note, I also highly recommend another book on the Titanic, which I have not had the pleasure of reviewing: The Titanic Story: Hard Choices, Dangerous Decisions by Stephen D. Cox, who is now editor of Liberty magazine.

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