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Titanic Still Afloat in Public Imagination

April 03, 2012

RMS Titanic Responding to a reporter’s interview on the loss of her grandfather, John Jacob Astor IV, on the Titanic and the subsequent impact on her father, Jackie Astor 80 years after the sinking replied, “Why can’t people just forget the Titanic?”

As the world approaches the centennial of the April 15, 1912, demise of the supposedly unsinkable White Star passenger liner, that question is still unanswerable. Today, the Titanic is perhaps as much a part of popular culture as it has ever been, thanks to technology and Hollywood. Author Andrew Wilson in his 2011 book Shadow of the Titanic wrote that the ship’s name may well be “the third most widely recognized word in the world, after ‘God’ and ‘Coca-Cola.’”

Ken Heineman

The reason, said Dr. Kenneth J. Heineman, head of the History Department at Angelo State University, is an issue of hubris.

“When humans declare that they have defied the laws of nature and have overcome every lesson that history offers, when things go horribly wrong, it attracts a lot of attention,” he said. “Declaring that the Titanic was unsinkable set into motion a ‘Greek Tragedy.’”

That April 14–15, 1912, tragedy, which claimed some 1,500 lives in the frigid North Atlantic after the great liner on its maiden voyage struck an iceberg, has come to represent everything from nature’s enduring triumph over man to the economic inequities of the Gilded Age to the naiveté of the Progressive Era to the decadence of the modern age. Perhaps the symbolism of the Titanic’s sinking was best summed up in a spoof 20th Century retrospective by the faux headline of the satirical newspaper The Onion: “World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-Berg.”

At the time of its sinking, the Titanic was the largest moving object ever made by man and a striking symbol of the Second Industrial Revolution. While the Industrial Revolution itself helped supplant muscle and animal power with other forms of energy, the second iteration offered new tools which not only conquered time and distance through such innovations as telephones and automobiles, but also provided greater freedom of movement and of thought through more rapid interchange of ideas.

Titanic under construction.

General view of Titanic in the fitting-out berth following her launch, the final stages of construction and outfitting were carried out here.

These developments, Heineman said, “seemingly abrogated what humans had understood about their physical reality.”

“The Industrial Age coincided with, or actually spawned, the scientific management movement, which filtered into the politics of Western societies, including the United States,” he continued. “It occurred to industrial owners that given the large scale and complexity of their industrial organizations, that a ‘science of management’ was needed. Some political reformers then decided that they could bring business rationality to governance. Hence, in the so-called Progressive Era we see the U.S. passing laws regulating food and drugs, and then an entire new federal agency, the U.S. Department of Labor, which sought to manage labor conflict, eliminating strikes, violence and production disruptions. The sinking of the Titanic was an unwelcome reminder that not everything will go as planned.”

The loss of the Titanic was not just a symbol of the deficiencies of the era’s new reality, but also a harbinger of the destructive power of the Industrial Age.

“Two years later, the outbreak of the First World War in Europe upended all notions of human progress and left in its wake a ruin of death, violent revolution and psychological despair,” Heineman said. “By the end of World War I, the sinking of the Titanic became a retrospective warning of the shape of things to come. Thus, the sinking of the Titanic was linked to the Great War.”

The years immediately following the ship’s sinking marked the first great period of popular culture interest in the Titanic.

“That link became more real,” he continued, “when we recall that the Titanic’s sister ship, the Britannic, which had been brought into military service as a hospital ship, was sunk during World War I in a combat zone.”

World War I, like the iceberg, which sank the Titanic, was still over the horizon when on April 11, 1912, the Titanic departed Queenstown, Ireland, its last port of call before its planned arrival in New York City Harbor. On board, according to British Board of Trade figures, were 1,316 passengers and 885 crewmembers. Among the passengers were millionaires as famous as John Jacob Astor IV and hundreds of regular people whose names are known today only because they booked third-class passage on the ill-fated liner.

While the mingling of the privileged and the proletariat on the passenger list created a caste system that many subsequent critics have linked to survivability rates, Heineman said gender was the greater determining factor in who would and would not survive.

Titanic in the harbor

Titanic at Southampton docks, prior to departure.

“So far as class is concerned,” Heineman said, “while many poor, would-be immigrants perished in steerage, upper-class males largely remained on board the Titanic to die while women, including those from more humble origins, went into the lifeboats. The class system of the Edwardian Age, on both sides of the Atlantic, required that ‘women and children’ would be saved first.”

In fact, approximately 110 women and 52 children perished on the Titanic as opposed to more than 1,300 men.

EJ Smith

Titanic Capt. E.J. Smith

“By contrast,” Heineman said, “just think what recently happened in the Mediterranean. As that cruise ship listed, male passengers trampled over women and children after the crew and captain had already abandoned ship and their responsibilities and obligations. I personally miss the old WASP elite. Sure, they may have been insufferable snobs, but at least they knew that privilege entailed sacrifice.”

It is the sacrifice that has made the Titanic such an enduring story because of how fickle fate can be. Some of the liner’s lifeboats were full while others carried only a handful of passengers. Approximately 710 passengers escaped on lifeboats that had a total capacity of 1,178. One of the lucky ones was two-month-old Millvina Dean, who would become the longest Titanic survivor until her death in 2009.

By the time of her death, Dean had become a media star in demand by writers and documentary filmmakers, even though she had no memory of the tragedy itself, instead recycling what her mother had told her about that horrible night and, perhaps, mixing those details with other stories she had heard.

Certainly, the Titanic was a media sensation from the moment it sank. In fact, it was one of the world’s first media events, thanks to the new technology.

At the time of its sinking, the Titanic was the largest moving object ever made by man and a striking symbol of the Second Industrial Revolution.

“In terms of media,” said Heineman, “the wireless, precursor to radio communication, and the age of instant communication coincides with the sinking of the Titanic, helping to make it a trans-Atlantic and even global event. This was also the era of mass circulation newspapers, in the U.S. and Britain, intensely competing with each other for sales to their mass readers.”

According to the British author Wilson, the years immediately following the ship’s sinking marked the first great period of popular culture interest in the Titanic. In fact, the first movie about the Titanic was released in the United States a month and a day after the actual sinking. Saved from the Titanic starred Dorothy Gibson, who survived both the actual and the celluloid sinking in the same dress as part of an acting career that is little remembered today.

With Saved from the Titanic, the ill-fated liner began its still unfinished voyage in the popular culture. That journey has made the fabled vessel a legend far beyond its historical significance.

“With the advent and rise of Hollywood during World War I,” Heineman said, “it became a very difficult task to separate fact from fiction. I believe it is a truism that fact can be more fanciful than fiction. In other words, let the facts lead and they will often be dramatic enough. But humans, in part thanks to hubris, like to improve upon reality. It can certainly clean up a narrative if you eliminate a few actual historic individuals, or merge several together to make a fictional character who becomes the ‘eyes’ and ‘ears’ and ‘point of view’ of film and novel fans.”

The second great Titanic popular culture awakening occurred in the 1950s with the release of the first Oscar-winning Titanic movie, which starred Barbara Stanwyck and won a 1954 Oscar for best screenplay for writers Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch and Richard Breen.

Even more critical to the 1950s refloating of the Titanic was the publication of Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember in 1955. As a boy, the then-advertising copywriter for a New York agency had cruised on the Olympic, a sister vessel to the Titanic, and had become so fascinated with the ship of legend that he began to collect material about her and her survivors, more than 60 of whom he tracked down and interviewed.

The book and its serialization in the magazine Ladies’ Home Journal again created another vision of a ship that had not been seen in more than four decades. A movie by the same name as the book was released in 1958 and featured, among others, David McCallum, who from 1964–68 would play Illya Kuryakin in NBC’s hit TV series “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” and Honor Blackman, who would go on to fame with a feline moniker in the James Bond movie Goldfinger. Of the 10 movies released to date on the ship, A Night to Remember is the only one without Titanic in the title. Of the nine other movies, six are simply named Titanic.

Last lifeboat successfully launched from the Titanic

The last lifeboat successfully launched from the Titanic. Photo taken by a passenger of the Carpathia, the ship that received the Titanic’s distress signal and came to rescue the survivors.

While those movies have been seen by millions, no one had seen the actual Titanic until Sept. 1, 1985, when a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute expedition led by Robert Ballard discovered the wreck some 370 nautical miles southeast of the appropriately named Mistaken Point, Newfoundland. The ghostly images of the Titanic’s shattered remains started the third great awakening of Titanic mania and a gold rush, of sorts, for salvagers who recovered artifacts from the wreck site some 13,000 feet below the Atlantic’s surface and then sent them on profitable museum tours around the world.

The discovery of the wreck provided the key plot element for the greatest Titanic movie of them all, James Cameron’s 1997 Academy Award-winning epic, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. The movie cost $200 million-plus to produce, yet grossed more than $1.8 billion worldwide, demonstrating the power of the Titanic name, if not the accuracy of the plot.

“It was not enough to have upper-class male passengers singing hymns as they awaited death,” said Heineman. “We have to have a young, sexy Leonardo DiCaprio cavorting about playing a fictionalized character embodying every Hollywood cliché ever written.”

And in 1997, more than the movie captivated audiences. The Broadway musical named, you guessed it, Titanic won Tony Awards for best musical (yes, they actually sang about sinking), best book, best orchestration, best original music score and best scenic design (yes, it does sink on stage).

So, whether on the printed page, the silver screen, the Broadway stage, YouTube video or the museum exhibit floor, the Titanic is still with us 100 years after burial in its watery grave. To mark the centennial of her sinking, James Cameron is bringing out a 3-D version of his 1997 film, which takes 34 minutes longer to watch today than it did for the Titanic to sink in the 160 minutes after it struck that iceberg in 1912.

Titanic, June 2004

The bow of the wrecked RMS Titanic, photographed in June 2004.

From ASU historian Heineman’s perspective, even a hundred years after the fact, the Titanic still carries a message that says as much about us as a society as it does about the era in which the great liner sailed and sank.

“The Titanic speaks to our contemporary popular culture, historical memory and social obligation,” Heineman said. “Humans are riveted by tragedy, cannot stand hubris and often want to see a comeuppance. And, they don’t make social elites like they used to.”