I was eight or nine years old when Titanic barreled its way into theaters, so I wasn’t at the epicenter of the hysteria over the movie (my best friend in elementary school saw the movie in theaters and immediately became obsessed with Leonardo DiCaprio – meanwhile, I was still spending recess pretending to be a horse, because I was super cool). I don’t think I actually saw the movie in its entirety until I was a teenager, so I was never as fascinated by the story as everyone else was, but I still understood the appeal. Even if you remove the hysterical star-crossed lovers plotline (You jump I jump, Jack!), the story of the sinking of the Titanic is almost too classically Hollywood to be believable. A ship that was billed as “unsinkable”, one of the most luxurious ocean liners of its time, strikes an iceberg and sinks, resulting in the highest casualties of its time (prior to the sinking of the Titanic, the grand total of deaths on an ocean liner in the past forty years was six people). Poor people trapped below as the ship sinks, families saying tearful goodbyes at the lifeboats, and musicians playing even as the ship goes under? You can’t make this shit up.
I’ve always wanted to read a good nonfiction account of the sinking, and when I saw this at the library, I decided to give it a try. Having never read any other accounts of the sinking of the Titanic, I obviously can’t compare Butler’s book to anything or evaluate its accuracy. That being said, it’s definitely thorough and well-researched. Butler gives us some background into the building of the Titanic and some general stats about the ship, but he wastes no time getting to the good stuff – the night of the sinking occurs on page 63, and Butler goes into almost exhausting detail covering almost every moment of the ship’s final two hours. Working off primary sources and secondary accounts, Butler discusses the crew’s response as well as the experiences of multiple passengers, from first class to steerage. He devotes an equal amount of time to telling us what the more famous first class passengers did, and examining several myths about the treatment of the third class passengers once the ship started to sink. It’s true that there were gates keeping the third class passengers from the rest of the ship, Butler says, but this was an immigration regulation (can’t have those dirty Europeans down in steerage getting their lice on the rich people) and most of those gates were unlocked when the ship began to sink. The real problem was that the people in third class had no idea how to get around the ship, which was specifically designed to keep them belowdecks, and they had to be led to the upper decks by crewmen:
“At half past midnight the word came down to Third Class to send the women and children up to the Boat Deck. Steward Hart, who had realized early on that the Third Class passengers had almost no chance of negotiating the passageways and corridors that were usually inaccessible to steerage if left to themselves, began to organize his charges into little groups. Around 12:50 he set off for the Boat Deck, leading a score of women, some with children in tow. …It wasn’t an easy trip: the design of the ship, because of those outdated American immigration laws that required Third Class physically separated from the other classes of passengers, allowed no direct route from the Third Class berthing areas to the Boat Deck, and access to what routes there were was very limited. That was why Hart had to lead his group up the stairs to the Third Class Lounge on C Deck, across the after well deck, past the Second Class Library, into First Class, along a stretch of corridor that led past the surgeon’s office and the private dining saloon for the First Class’ servants, and finally out to the Grand Staircase, which carried them up to the Boat Deck.”
The only good thing to come out of the Titanic sinking was that it illustrated how dangerously out of date the safety regulations on ships were. After he finishes covering the sinking and the rescue of the passengers, Butler spends several chapters discussing the numerous investigations and inquests that followed the sinking. The sinking was the direct cause of massive reforms on ocean liners, improving everything from the radio technicians shifts to the number of required lifeboats. The Titanic was a horrifying tragedy, Butler argues, but it was a tragedy that could have been avoided numerous different ways, and because of the sinking, ocean travel became safer for future passengers.
This is important to discuss, but then Butler takes his “effects of the Titanic sinking” several steps further, arguing that the sinking was responsible for the breaking down of social barriers and class systems (I kinda think that World War I was the big reason for that, but whatever Butler, it’s your book), and even argues that the sinking of the Titanic set the suffrage movement back several years.
No, for real:
“…the sad truth for the women’s suffrage movement was that, as Mrs. John Martin of the League for the Civic Education of Women put it, ‘We are willing to let men die for us, but we aren’t willing to let them vote for us.’ She was merely underscoring the basic hypocrisy of the suffrage movement of the early 20th century, a hypocrisy that the Titanic exposed and that the suffragettes had not considered: equality of rights also entailed equality of risk. The suffragettes lost much of their credibility as a result, as too many of their number, unlike the women of sixty years later, were eager to secure rights without accepting responsibility.”
This is me right now.
Butler also loses me when he tries to rationalize why the majority of the people who made it to the lifeboats were the First Class passengers, while the Third Class and the crew had the most casualties. Butler spends a lot of time discussing the social constraints on the ship, and wants us to believe that the reason most of the third class passengers didn’t survive was because they were waiting for someone in charge to tell them where to go, but no one ever did. Butler argues that at the time, lower-class people were so conditioned to do as they were told that none of the steerage passengers would even consider taking drastic steps to save themselves, and instead waited patiently to be led out of the lower levels of the ship and directed to a lifeboat. It never would have crossed their minds, Butler insists, to upset the social order and act above their station.
Bull. Fucking. Shit. I don’t care what time period you’re in – if you’re on a sinking ship, all bets are off. Personally, I choose to believe that at least one Third Class woman punched out a lady in an evening gown to beat her to a lifeboat. I can’t prove that this happened, but Butler can’t prove that it didn’t, either, so NYEH.
Butler even discusses film versions of the sinking, but does not mention James Cameron’s juggernaut – Butler’s book was published in 1998, although Titanic came out in 1997. Maybe Butler never got a chance to see it, since the theater was always sold out thanks to teenage girls going to the movie for the tenth time? Or maybe his book had already gone to print by then and there was no time to stick in a paragraph about the movie. Either way, I was a little disappointed that I wouldn’t get to find out what Butler thought of the movie, since it came out too close to his book’s publication. Talk about two ships passing in the night, right? (SEE WHAT I DID THERE)
Overall, this is a really good, really thorough examination of the sinking of the Titanic and it’s immediate and long-lasting results. The research seems sound, and Butler is a good historian most of the time. A good source for anyone wanting to know how accurate James Cameron’s version of the sinking really was. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment with a bottle of wine and 1997-era Leo. It’s been a long time.
OH! I almost forgot to quote my favorite line in the entire book. Presented without context:
“[Astor] had even written a science fiction novel, A Journey Into Other Worlds, whose hero, Colonel Bearwarden, was contracted by the Terrestrial Axis Straightening Company to make the Earth’s axis perfectly vertical, creating perpetual springtime.”
That’s adorable, and I want to read that book.
Verdict: four out of five stars