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Photo-illustration by David Woodside/The Globe and Mail (David Woodside/The Globe and Mail)
Photo-illustration by David Woodside/The Globe and Mail (David Woodside/The Globe and Mail)

Essay

The unsinkable metaphor: Our obsession with the Titanic Add to ...

In the preface to the 1976 edition of his seminal Titanic text from 1955, A Night to Remember, the late Walter Lord writes of the then-unabated interest in the great ship and how, in many ways, she has proved unsinkable. Lord’s words could just as easily describe the Titanic fever now gripping the media. On the eve of the 100th anniversary of the disaster, it seems everyone wants to hop on board the ship that refuses to sink.

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Perhaps it’s the re-release, in 3-D, no less, of James Cameron’s blockbuster Titanic, or the new mini-series by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, or Canada Post’s commemorative stamps, or even the inevitable comparisons to the recent Costa Concordia disaster, but it’s been increasingly difficult not to encounter the Titanic.

Our curiosity about the great ship never seems to diminish. In fact, at a time when many governments were implementing austerity budgets, the city of Belfast secured more than $150-million for its recently opened Titanic museum on the land that once housed the iconic Harland and Wolff shipyards. Governments, apart from vain dictators, do not build museums for passing fads.

We’re experiencing a renaissance of all things Titanic. If her discovery by Robert Ballard in 1985 signalled the first wave of renewed enthusiasm, and Cameron’s movie signalled the second, the latest interest is the third, and possibly largest, wave yet – a tsunami.

While this interest is the direct result of the centenary celebrations, it should be noted that many of the political concerns voiced by groups such as the Occupy movement have natural parallels to the inequalities experienced by steerage passengers and crew. This was a disaster, after all, in which pet dogs had a higher survival rate than males in third class.

Of the hundreds of books about the Titanic, Lord’s A Night to Remember is undoubtedly the best-known and most significant. Based on interviews with 63 survivors, the book rekindled interest in the ship in the mid-1950s and inspired a critically acclaimed 1958 docudrama starring Kenneth More. To both historians and readers, this was the gateway book to a lifelong fascination with the ship, her passengers and her crew.

Lord’s accessible prose captured the major themes evoked in many Titanic works: the inequalities of class, the limits of technology and progress, greed, sacrifice and love. He demonstrated an acute eye for detail, along with a strong sense of character and drama, qualities that made the book a natural for the screen. The book is simply a chronicle of the events leading up to and during that fateful night of April 14-15, 1912, though a chronicle with a storyteller’s sensitivity. Almost 60 years on, it remains as engaging as ever.

While dozens and dozens of collections investigate the tragedy through non-fiction prose, quite often accompanied by photographs, menus, comparative graphs and other ephemera, the disaster has inspired other forms, including Broadway musicals, dramas, children’s stories and poetry. Canada’s E.J. Pratt and Thomas Hardy (yes, that Thomas Hardy) both offered memorable poetic takes on the ship. There have also been some questionable books – inviting readers to re-enact the last dinners aboard the ship, and cookbooks filled with White Star Line recipes.

While the highest-profile Titanic books have been non-fiction, a notable exception is Beryl Bainbridge’s Every Man for Himself, short-listed for the 1996 Booker Prize. The novel takes place onboard the ship in the days leading up to her sinking. Bainbridge weaves the events and details of the doomed maiden voyage into a seamless narrative so painstakingly researched and considered that it’s difficult to notice just how much factual information she brings to the text.

Her protagonists are fictional, though she has them interact with characters modelled after actual Titanic passengers and crew. Thus, Bainbridge allows us to speculate on what it would have been like for high-society types such as Benjamin Guggenheim, John Jacob Astor and the unsinkable Molly Brown in the decadent world of first-class travel. Part comedy of manners, part historical drama, Bainbridge’s take on the Titanic saga is a well-crafted addition to the Titanic canon.

In Titanic: The Canadian Story, Alan Hustak offers Canadians and, indeed, everyone else, a better understanding of the tragedy’s Canadian roots and shoots. It goes much deeper than our icy waters prolonging the iceberg’s life or wireless operators in Newfoundland (then its own country).

Far too many Canadians do not know the extent to which the country plays a part in the tragedy, from the Halifax-based ships chartered by the White Star Line to retrieve bodies, to the Mayflower Curling Club used as an impromptu morgue, to Canadians being the third most numerous group aboard the ship. Hustak’s book documents many of the Canadians overlooked by U.S. and British publishers.

For instance, going down with the ship was Charles Melville Hays, president of the Grand Truck Railway, who had been in England securing financing for a cross-country railway running from Montreal through to the port in Prince Rupert, B.C.. This would have changed the landscape of Canada significantly.

Theories abound as to why so many folks share an ongoing fascination for the tragedy and its many stories, especially those connected with the Greek concept of hubris, the seeming maiden-voyage punishment for the White Star Line declaring its luxurious ship unsinkable. But it would be especially interesting to study how whether the obsession follows class lines. Just as it’s difficult to find lottery-ticket outlets in affluent areas, does the One Percent keep up with Titanic lore?

And in this new wave of enthusiasm, how many cookbooks and re-enactment parties and centenary cruises does it take before our fascination becomes fetishistic? Perhaps imitation is the highest form of flattery, but what if it’s not? At what point do we cease to honour the Titanic’s memory? What if the night itself is forgotten?

Billeh Nickerson is the author of Impact: The Titanic Poems and chairs the Department of Creative Writing at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

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