DOWN WITH THE OLD CANOE by Steven Biel

DOWN WITH THE OLD CANOE

A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster

KIRKUS REVIEW

 An intriguing appreciation of how the sociocultural significance of the sinking of the Titanic has been shaped to a variety of ends down through the years. In assessing what he deems the contingent and contextual meanings of the resonant maritime disaster, historian Biel, who teaches writing at Harvard, provides only a summary of its details, i.e., that at 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912, the largest ocean liner ever built struck an iceberg off Newfoundland on her maiden voyage and went down, with the loss of over 1,500 lives. Noting how commentators and interest groups vied energetically to frame the ways in which the great ship's loss would be remembered, the author asserts that the Titanic first functioned as a commodity, the raw material of news stories, books, films, sermons, and even advertising pitches (e.g., by Travelers Insurance); the doomed vessel also has served as the centerpiece of commercial ventures (including at least one video game) and a couple of scientific expeditions. Biel goes on to document how over time the calamity's protean particulars have been employed by advocates as well as opponents of women's suffrage, immigration, advanced technology, mainstream religions, free speech, and other great causes or issues. So far as America's black community was concerned, he reports, the tragedy was an all-white affair and thus--as expressed in folk songs from Huddie Ledbetter (a.k.a. Leadbelly) and others-- a source of relief, if not pleasure. Concurrently, the author observes, the Titanic Historical Society has fostered a high level of amateur scholarship, while the successful effort by oceanographer Robert Ballard to locate the sunken wreckage continues to give the catastrophe and its mythic metaphors new leases on life. Indeed, as Biel points out in closing, the ship's multifaceted saga begs for resolution and always resists it. Thought-provoking perspectives on the myriad uses to which one of the world's epic misfortunes has been put. (22 pages b&w illustrations)

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-393-03965-X
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 1996