Boats for women, or votes for women?

DOWN WITH THE OLD CANOE: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster by Steven Biel, Norton pounds 18.99
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The Independent Culture
It is said that in the US only Jesus and the American Civil War have been more written about than the Titanic disaster. So do we really need yet another book about the well-known events of 14 April 1912? The answer is yes, if it is good as this one. Eschewing the pure antiquarianism of much Titanic research (for example: it is now generally accepted that the doomed ship's band did not play "Nearer, my God, to Thee"), Steven Biel's book, billed as "cultural history", could easily have lurched into an equal and opposite error; the formal a priori semiotics of so much French theory. What distinguishes his volume is the way in which he melds theoretical perspectives with the fruits of hard archival research.

From the viewpoint of the sceptical historian, the sinking of the Titanic was not intrinsically significant. But it has provided endless fascination for novelists, amateur philosophers and counterfactual theorists, showing, as it allegedly does, that mankind is guilty of hubris, that technology is out of control, that God is not mocked, that contingency not necessity rules, or alternatively that there is no such thing as chance. While not neglecting such universal motifs, Biel concentrates on two main themes: the way "significance" was imposed on the disaster in the American press in 1912; and the very different way people tried to give meaning to the location of the Titanic wreck in the mid-Eighties.

Biel has no patience with commentators who glibly assert that the disaster marked the end of an era. As an historical event, the "night to remember" of 14 April 1912 was neither cause nor catalyst of anything. What it did was to trigger archetypal anxieties about modernity, especially in four main areas: race, immigration, labour relations and gender. The American press emphasised the heroism of the handful of millionaires, like John Jacob Astor, who went down with the ship, and insinuated a model of chivalry and self-sacrifice that was supposedly the prerogative of the white upper- class male.

Opponents of female suffrage claimed that the law of the sea - women and children first - showed that equal rights were unnatural; when the crunch came, it was boats for women rather than votes for women. But this conventional "reading" of the meaning of the disaster was subverted by voices from the radical fringes and the counterculture. Socialists pointed out that to infer general rules from the law of the sea was erroneous: maritime culture required a ship's captain to stay with his vessel while passengers were rescued, but terrestrial culture permitted captains of industry to put themselves first. The law of the sea might put women and children first, but the law of the land very definitely put women and children last.

As Jimmy Durante used to say, everyone got in on the act. American blacks reacted to the news that there were no Afro-Americans aboard by inventing a fantasy about a fictional hero named "Shine": the only real man aboard, Shine leapt from the Titanic, having rejected the offer of sexual favours from white women desperate to be saved, and swam 400 miles through freezing water to New York, fighting off sharks en route. Bible-belt revivalists thumped the tub, as in the song that gives this book its title: recorded by Alan Lomax, "The Old Canoe" was dedicated to the proposition that you would sink into the ocean in the canoe named Titanic, but not in the canoe captained by "de Lawd".

In sum, then, conventional narratives of the disaster interpreted it as a chastisement for sin, pride, hubris and arrogance, while "deviant" narratives stressed the theme of punishment for the crimes of capitalism. Biel's researches throw up some hilarious variants of the leftist critique. Radicals could not quite decide whether capitalism itself was to blame or whether the White Star Line was uniquely culpable. There was disagreement, too, about the fatal iceberg. Did it represent the proletariat that sank the ship of capitalism, or was it the "iceberg of capitalist profit" that destroyed humanity?

But at least the 1912 discussions had some intellectual content. By contrast, Biel finds the triumphalism surrounding the location of the wreck in the mid-Eighties merely facile. Finding the Titanic and attempting to raise it (or, in Clive Cussler's novel, actually doing so) were events used as a specious metaphor for the West's winning of the Cold War.

This book is packed with fascinating insights and curious knowledge, including identification of the first use of one of the great cliches of our times - "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic" - and investigation of the covens of Titanic buffs, beside whose numbers and fanaticism Star Trekkies seem to pale. Although the author makes a few formal nods in the direction of academic jargon, his enthusiasm and engagement make the book highly readable. Walter Lord's A Night to Remember remains the best dramatic reconstruction of the events of 14 April, 1912, but Biel's volume must now take pride of place as the most sustained meditation on the multiple invented meanings of the tragedy.