Historian Walter Lord once labeled the Titanic disaster “the unsinkable subject.” Indeed, a century after that elegant passenger liner struck an iceberg and went to a watery grave in the north Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912—taking with her more than 1,500 passengers and crew, or two-thirds of the people on board—that vessel and her shocking fate remain fertile topics of research, debate and public fascination.
Read more books about the Titanic.
It’s no surprise, then, that an abundance of new nonfiction books about the Royal Mail Steamer Titanic have been published over the last year, with a particular flood of them reaching bookstores just in time for this month’s 100th anniversary. Several of those works are excellent, but they ought not overshadow a few older volumes that belong in the library of any Titanic enthusiast.
New and especially useful to readers looking for a dramatic recap of the craft’s foundering is Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic’s First-Class Passengers and Their World, by Hugh Brewster. As the title suggests, the focus here is on those fortunate folk able to book the most luxurious accommodations on the Titanic’s ill-fated maiden crossing from Southampton, England, to New York City.
Lily May Futrelle, the wife of American mystery writer Jacques Futrelle (who perished in the sinking), described her first-class shipmates as “a rare gathering of beautiful women and splendid men.” Included in their number were real-estate magnate John Jacob Astor IV and his pregnant 18-year-old wife; tennis player and future Olympic gold medalist R. Norris Williams; Denver socialite and women’s rights champion Margaret Brown (immortalized, incorrectly, as “Molly” Brown); Maj. Archibald Butt, the military aide to U.S. President William Howard Taft; and silent-film actress Dorothy Gibson. (Financier J.P. Morgan had planned to sail on the Titanic as well, but instead stayed behind with his mistress in France.) Although Gilded Lives relies often on speculation about the shipboard activities of the Edwardian celebrities lost in that 1912 calamity, Brewster balances that with a splendid use of firsthand accounts from the survivors—a much greater percentage of whom were cabin-class passengers than poorer, steerage travelers.
Interestingly, among those rescued from the wreck was the president of the company that owned the Titanic; he leapt into one of the vessel’s too-few lifeboats, along with women and children—and was later vilified for having lived through the disaster. In last year’s How to Survive the Titanic, or The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay, Frances Wilson employs Ismay’s story as a window into the troubled soul of a privileged industrialist who, as he was rowed to safety, wouldn’t even look back at his ruined White Star liner and the hundreds of people struggling to flee its ruination.
Analyzing Ismay’s last-minute instinct to save his own hide, even if it cost him his honor, Wilson sees “an ordinary man caught in extraordinary circumstances, who behaved in a way which only confirmed his ordinariness. Ismay is the figure we all fear we might be.” He eventually quit public life and settled in Ireland, but not before having to submit to government inquiries in both the United States and Britain. Wilson uses his testimony to re-examine numerous contradictions surrounding the Titanic’s final days, but goes beyond that to plumb parallels between Ismay’s experiences and those of Joseph Conrad’s protagonist in Lord Jim (1900), another gent who abandoned a ship in distress.
Anybody familiar with Titanic history knows about the two groups of onboard musicians who, as the grand ocean liner dove beneath the frigid waters, gathered together to serenade an audience less captivated than chaotic. However, it took Steve Turner’s The Band That Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the 8 Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic (2011) to finally give those men—five of them English, one French, one Belgian and one Scottish—strong individual identities. Turner, a music journalist, tracked down descendents of the eight instrumentalists and collected photographs that fit his middle-class subjects into their time and give them heroic dimension. Unfortunately, he cannot answer the burning questions: Why did those men decide to perform on the Titanic’s deck that night? And were they still playing as the ship vanished?
If you’re looking for more eyewitness recollections of the steamer’s destruction, turn to Titanic: First Accounts. Edited by Tim Maltin, and released earlier this year, it features excerpts from books and newspaper articles penned by the survivors. It also contains the full text of The Truth About the Titanic, composed by first-class passenger Col. Archibald Gracie IV following his return to civilization, but not published until after his passing in December 1912.
Gracie was washed overboard during the ship’s plunge; however, he subsequently found salvation on an upturned lifeboat. His memories of the scene following the Titanic’s disappearance will send a chill up your spine: “[T]here arose to the sky the most horrible sounds ever heard by mortal man…The agonizing cries of death from over a thousand throats, the wails and groans of the suffering, the shrieks of the terror-stricken and the awful gaspings of breath of those in the last throes of drowning, none of us will ever forget to our dying day.”
Similarly arresting is Wreck and Sinking of the Titanic: The Ocean’s Greatest Disaster, edited by Marshall Everett. Originally rushed to press in 1912, but rereleased this year in a handsome edition with new artwork and an antique quality, this book includes survivor remembrances, tributes to the better-known figures who went down with the ship, dramatic re-creations of the sinking’s key moments, stories about relief funds raised for the poor immigrants who managed to live through that maritime horror and even a statement of remorse (“My heart overflows with grief for you all…”) from the widow of Capt. Edward J. Smith, who’s thought to have remained on his bridge till the end.
Words alone, though, can’t convey the complete story of this once-mighty craft. Photographs of the luxurious liner under sail are hard to come by; most of them having been shot by a 32-year-old Jesuit priest named Francis Browne, who boarded the Titanic in Southampton but got off with his camera in Ireland, before the fatal ocean transit. Titanic in Photographs (2011), by Daniel Klistorner and Steve Hall with Bruce Beveridge, Scott Andrews and Art Braunschweiger, contains Browne’s images, as well as shots of the steamer’s construction in Belfast and newspaper photos taken during its sea trials and stops along the way to New York. On top of those there’s a set of color illustrations from the interior of the Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic, that shows in what extravagance White Star passengers traveled.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the quantity of books currently available on this maritime misadventure. Not yet mentioned is John Maxtone-Graham’s Titanic Tragedy: A New Look at the Lost Liner, which addresses a few of the less-covered topics associated with the tale, such as the role of wireless communications in the steamship’s destiny, the shipyards where the Titanic and Olympic were assembled, and the rescue vessel Carpathia, diverted from a Mediterranean cruise to the site of the Titanic’s collision, 375 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. Meanwhile, Steven Biel’s 1996 work, Down with the Old Canoe (an updated version of which was recently released), focuses on how the Titanic calamity was turned into a cultural symbol, used by feminists, anti-capitalists and others to advance their own ideologies, and how its story has been preserved in films, books and music.
And of course, it wouldn’t do to forget Walter Lord’s short but classic 1955 work, A Night to Remember (the basis for the 1958 film of the same name), which endeavors to provide a “true minute-by-minute” account of the liner’s abbreviated maiden journey—though many details of its doom weren’t understood until oceanographer Dr. Robert Ballard finally located the Titanic’s remains in the mid-1980s. Which brings up one more book that deserves a place on your bookshelf: Ballard’s well-illustrated work, The Discovery of the Titanic (1987).
So many books. Yet these still represent only the tip of the iceberg.