With Sunday morning at 2:20 a.m. marking the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking, the doomed ocean liner seems to be everywhere, a giant, ship-shaped shadow looming over our collective conscience. Just about everyone, it seems, has something to say about the vessel whose name has become shorthand for “cautionary tale: human hubris ahead.”
The reasons the catastrophe looms so large are as many as its victims, and no one of us can possible account for them all. But not least among them: the sinking of the purportedly unsinkable Titanic functions as a kind of floating archetype of our familiar pattern:
1. Build something (a person, an experience, a relationship, a thing) up such that our expectations of it are wildly unrealistic.
2. Watch as it all comes crashing down.
3. Be shocked and sad but also maybe wallow in it a little, in a schadenfreude-y kind of way. Because observing this pattern reminds us that we’re part of something bigger than us, namely the flawed nature of the human condition.
The blitz coverage and commemorative events can cause such colossal overwhelm that there’s just no way to process it all. In those moments, I’m inclined to return to the human stories, the individual acts of heroism, or even just survival, that can teach us how to live within this eternally recurring pattern. (Acts of cowardice can also be instructive, in an Oh snap, that is NOT who I want to be kind of way.)
But with so much reading material--enough to sink a ship, really--where is one to begin? Here are three interesting places to start. Even if you don't read anything else, these will provide the briefest peek into the experience from the very human perspective of surviving a catastrophic event.
“Lifeboat No. 8: An Untold Tale Of Love, Loss, And Surviving The Titanic” by Elizabeth Kaye
Journalist Kaye skillfully compresses the many cultural narratives that swirl around the Titanic into the stories of Lifeboat No. 8’s passengers. The story, published as a Kindle Single, begins with where each passenger was when the ship hit the iceberg and follows them through the end of their journey, also delving into what brought them onto the Titanic.
The most poignant story, though, concerns who was not in that boat as it was lowered into the frigid waters: Ida Straus, wife of Isidor Straus, owner of Macy’s department store. Mrs. Straus followed her maid, Ellen Bird, into the lifeboat only to step out moments later. She refused to leave her husband’s side. Ignoring pleas to return to the lifeboat, Mrs. Straus instead handed her fur coat to Bird, reportedly telling her, “It will be cold in the lifeboat, and I won’t be needing it anymore.”
“Book, Inn Remember the Titanic” by Paresh Jha in New Canaan News
On Saturday evening, New Canaan, Conn.’s Roger Sherman Inn hosted a reenactment of the final dinner aboard the Titanic. I had a strong emotional reaction to this idea, in a bad way, but reenactments have a long history and serve a particular function—to provide a visceral experience of a lost age and thus a connection to those who have preceded us and to their experiences. The dinner benefited, fittingly, the American Red Cross, which assisted Titanic survivors. Jha’s article provides details about the idea behind the dinner and also acquaints readers with the well-received “Starboard at Midnight” by Helen Behr Sanford, whose grandparents survived the sinking. Should you wish to pursue additional reading, a book written from a relative of survivors could be the ticket (oh, look, I made a pun without intending to).
“What Were People Reading on the Titanic?” by David Abrams at Book Riot
Curious to know what books passengers may have been reading on their doomed voyage, Abrams researched what titles were bestsellers at the time. The list is interesting and telling and offers a (possibly) shared experience with the lost. Though Abrams may want to do a follow-up piece. One commenter noted that since the ship sailed from Europe, some British titles may have also been on nightstands.
Besides reading, when I want to understand something, I often find myself seeking out artifacts, physical things that function as tangible links between my world and others' because they point to some shared human experience or need--a writing desk, a set of letters, a comb. Each of these opens up the foreign through the familiar and unites us through our common physical experiences and needs.
An upcoming exhibit at Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum in Norwalk, Conn., Titanic: Commemorating the 100th Anniversary, offers an opportunity to explore the tragedy through the life and artifacts of Titanic survivor Helen Chruchill Candee, who grew up in New York and Connecticut. It opens to the public on April 25 at 12 p.m. and will run through October 14.
The exhibit will focus on the life and experiences of Candee, whose daughter was married to one of the Mansion’s owners at the turn of the century. Of the exhibit, the museum website explains, “Photos, books, articles, letters, costumes, and artifacts, many of which have never been publicly exhibited, will interpret the history, customs, and fashions of American life in the early part of the 20 Century, allowing visitors to capture a glimpse of the Edwardian era.”
Candee, who attended school in Norwalk and New Haven, was herself an intriguing figure. The women’s rights advocate, author, and journalist wrote “How Women May Earn a Living” in 1900 and published articles in National Geographic, Atlantic Monthly, and the Ladies’ Home Journal. She served as a nurse in Italy during World War I through the Red Cross and traveled widely, publishing and lecturing about her experiences.
In Europe during the spring of 1912, Candee was rushing home to be with her son, who had been in an accent, when she booked passage on the Titanic. She escaped on Lifeboat No. 6, the same boat that carried ‘Unsinkable’ Molly Brown.
How are you or your towns and cities commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking?