Down With The Old Canoe

Dwight Garner reviews the book "Down With The Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster

By Dwight Garner

Published October 29, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

Steven Biel isn't a Titanic buff--one of those obsessive types who, like the Civil War enthusiasts who scramble over hillsides each summer in authentically itchy uniforms, needs to know every detail about the disaster that killed 1,503 of its 2,208 passengers in April of 1912. In fact, he confesses that "My experience and love of ships are minimal. No matter how many books I read, I can't keep track of who was where when, stateroom and lifeboat numbers, menus and china patterns, speed and displacement." Further, this Harvard writing teacher doesn't buy the popular myth the that Titanic's sinking single-handedly began the modern Age of Anxiety. "In my opinion," Biel notes bluntly, "the disaster changed nothing except shipping regulations."

Biel's skepticism and detachment make him a perfect guide, in his refreshing new book "Down With the Old Canoe," through the Titanic's overlapping cultural meanings. Biel rummages through not only previous accounts of the disaster, but also through decades of folk songs, popular novels, Broadway plays and television drama to compile a book that's as subversive as it is fascinating.

Why subversive? Because Biel pays close attention to the ways in which the "lessons" of the Titanic's sinking were used to thwart social progress. For example, when early accounts of the disaster focused largely--and without much evidence--on the heroism of well-to-do First Cabin passengers like John Jacob Astor, who put "women and children first" in the lifeboats, anti-suffragist agitators used this as evidence that women were too weak to be allowed the vote. What Biel calls "the myth of First Cabin heroism" was also used to trumpet a good deal of racist cant about heroic Anglo-Saxon manhood, at the expense of foreigners, blacks, and lower-class Titanic passengers, who were often depicted in early accounts as cowards.

Nearly everyone had his or her own spin on the tragedy. Priests, who saw the sinking as divine retribution, wrote sermons attacking luxury and greed. Socialist newspapers noted that if the Titanic had been "a mudscow with the same number of useful workingmen on board," nobody would have cared much. While you watch Biel marshal his evidence, you'll often wish he was a sharper writer, one more alert to the scholarly jargon that occasionally creeps in here. But this is nonetheless fascinating social history, a book that, amidst the current revival of interest in the Titanic disaster, moves deftly through crowded water.

Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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