Monday, February 17, 2014

Titanic: A Selected Bibliography

I've developed something of an obsession with the Titanic over the past year or so, and I've listened to several books about it, greedily devouring as much information as I could. There are so many books on this topic, but here are the ones I've read!

A Night to Remember by Walter Lord was the first major book to take on the story of the Titanic, and it's a very good introduction to Titanica. Lord's book doesn't provide a lot of background on the voyage, or the personalities, but simply documents the sinking meticulously, from the moment the ship struck the iceberg. This book is well-researched, well-written and insightful. (Also, it was the basis of the best film to date on the Titanic sinking, the 1958 British film of the same title.) However, if you're like me, you may be hungry for all the background and follow-up information not included here.

The Titanic: Disaster of the Century, by Wyn Craig Wade was actually the first Titanic book I read, and it is an excellent and thorough book. Wade tells the story of the Titanic's fatal voyage through the lens of the American senate inquiry, spearheaded by Michigan Senator William Alden Smith. Before reading this book, I hadn't even known that there was a senate inquiry! If there's one fault in Wade's book, I think it is his praising Senator Smith at the expense of Titanic's officers, particularly the high-ranking surviving officer, Charles Lightoller. Lightoller's testimony seemed evasive and misleading to Smith, but I think we have to keep in mind Lightoller's natural instinct to preserve the reputations of his dead colleagues and to avoid blaming the White Star Line--his employer! Still, this is a wonderful book, particularly notable for Wade's analysis of the historical import of the disaster and his theory that the sinking of the Titanic was the true marker of the end of the Victorian era.

I read two books that consist of  first-hand accounts of the sinking: Titanic: Voices From the Disaster
by Deborah Hopkinson and Titanic: A Survivor's Story, by Colonel Archibald Gracie. Colonel Gracie's short memoir provides a lot of information about the way the lifeboats were loaded, since he was very active in assisting the crew, as well as providing a picture of first-class life on board ship. And Titanic: Voices from the Disaster gives a larger variety of passenger accounts. Many from that book are quoted extensively in other books I read, so I wouldn't consider either of these essential reading.

I almost didn't bother with Voyagers of the Titanic: Passengers, Sailors, Shipbuilders, Aristocrats, and the Worlds They Came From by Richard Davenport-Hines, because I assumed it would also be familiar ground after the many books I'd read, but I'm so glad I did! Most of the survivor accounts you read are from first-class passengers, because more of them survived! And there are efforts to remember the third-class passengers, because they died in the greatest numbers. This is the first book I read that conveyed the second-class passenger experience to me, and I couldn't help being surprised that I'd barely thought about the second class, when it's where I would have been had I been on the Titanic! This book is not just about the Titanic, it's also a social study of the Edwardian class system.

But if you're looking for information on the glamourous first class, that's here too! Every book on the Titanic mentions Archibald Butt--a well-known figure on the Titanic, who had been a highly valued aide to both Presidents Roosevelt and Taft--one of the most regretted heroes who died on the Titanic. But it wasn't till this book that I learned that Butt (a 46 year old bachelor, who was not only intimate with two presidents, but also a favorite of two first ladies!) was traveling with his housemate, homosexual painter Francis Davis Millet! Davenport-Hines' book also gave me  a new perspective on one of the vilified passengers on the Titanic, Lady Duff-Gordon. Other books depict her as a terrible snob, but I learned from this book that she had been a daring businesswoman and fashion designer--introducing some of the less restrictive corseting for women, so deeply linked with women's suffrage and the more liberated 1920s. It's not that I think Lady Duff Gordon's past history changes her callous attitudes during the Titanic sinking, but it brought something home for me: none of us can ever know how we would behave in a situation like this. The passengers and crew were just human beings in a desperate situation, and some of them behaved the way we'd all hope we would behave, and others didn't.

Titanic's Last Secrets: The Further Adventures of Shadow Divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler
by Brad Matsen is an account of a 2005 deep sea diving team excavating the wreck of the Titanic, and this book really focuses more on the excavation than on the Titanic's history. There is some interesting background information on Harlan and Wolff (Titanic's ship-builders ) and its head, William Pirrie, and his nephew, the brilliant designer Thimas Andrews, who designed Titanic and went down with her. The main this book draws is that materials used in the Titanic's construction were somewhat to blame for the damage the iceberg caused--a fact perhaps proved by changes and reinforcements made by Harlan and Wolff to Titanic's sister ship, Britannic.

The Other Side of the Night: The Carpathia, the Californian and the Night the Titanic Was Lost by Daniel Allen Butler might be my favorite book on the Titanic. This book focuses on the wireless operators of three ships, the Titanic, and the two ships in her vicinity in the night she sunk, The Carpathia, and the Californian. Wireless technology was very new at the time and could only be operated by carefully trained technicians, but since the importance of the work wasn't fully appreciated yet, the salaries were so low that the career attracted a certain type of young man--very young and forward thinking, and excited by the future. Titanic's sinking would prove a pivotal moment for wireless telegraphy. The regulations that allowed the Californian to have only one wireless operator, who slept through Titanic's distress signals, though only 10 miles away would be changed after that highly publicized disaster. This book paints a vivid picture of these overworked, underpaid, brave young technological pioneers.

The other thing I loved about this book is Butler's psychological analysis of the two captains of the Carpathia and the Califorian. On the one hand, we have Carpathia's Arthur Rostron, who immediately jumped out of bed and ordered his ship to speed 60 miles through and ice field to the Titanic's rescue as soon as his wireless officer Harold Cottam woke him up to report on the distress signal he'd received: a fearless hero and natural leader of men. Then we have Stanley Lord, Captain of the Californian, a petty tyrant, whose men were too terrified to tell him that they thought the rockets that a listing ship 10 miles away was setting off were distress signals, and who wouldn't get out of bed to see the rockets and form his own opinion. It is a powerful contrast, and Butler described it so well. This is truly a must read for any Titanic buff.