Daniel Mendelsohn: Why We Can’t Let Go of the Titanic

Roundup: Talking About History

Daniel Mendelsohn's work frequently appears in the New Yorker.

In the early nineteen-seventies, my Uncle Walter, who wasn’t a “real” uncle but had a better intuition about my hobbies and interests than some of my blood relatives did, gave me a thrilling gift: membership in the Titanic Enthusiasts of America. I was only twelve, but already hooked. The magnificence, the pathos, the enthralling chivalry—Benjamin Guggenheim putting on white tie and tails so he could drown “like a gentleman”—and the shaming cowardice, the awful mistakes, the tantalizing “what if”s: for me, there was no better story. I had read whatever books the local public library offered, and had spent some of my allowance on a copy of Walter Lord’s indispensable “A Night to Remember.” To this incipient collection Uncle Walter added the precious gift of a biography of the man who designed the ship. It has always been among the first books I pack when I move. A little later, when I was in my midteens, I toiled for a while on a novel about two fourteen-year-old boys, one a Long Islander like myself, the other a British aristocrat, who meet during the doomed maiden voyage. Needless to say, their budding friendship was sundered by the disaster.

I wasn’t the only one who was obsessed—or writing. It may not be true that “the three most written-about subjects of all time are Jesus, the Civil War, and the Titanic,” as one historian has put it, but it’s not much of an exaggeration. Since the early morning of April 15, 1912, when the great liner went to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, taking with it five grand pianos, eight thousand dinner forks, an automobile, a fifty-line telephone switchboard, twenty-nine boilers, a jewelled copy of “The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam,” and more than fifteen hundred lives, the writing hasn’t stopped. First, there were the headlines, which even today can produce an awful thrill. “ALL SAVED FROM TITANIC AFTER COLLISION,” the New York Evening Sun crowed less than twenty-four hours after the sinking. A day later, brute fact had replaced wishful conjecture: “TITANIC SINKS, 1500 DIE.” Then there were the early survivor narratives—a genre that has by now grown to include a book by the descendants of a Lebanese passenger whose trek to America had begun on a camel caravan. There were the poems. For a while, there was such a glut that the Times was moved to print a warning: “To write about the Titanic a poem worth printing requires that the author should have something more than paper, pencil, and a strong feeling that the disaster was a terrible one.” Since then, there have been histories, academic studies, polemics by enthusiasts, and novels, numbering in the hundreds. There’s even a “Titanic for Dummies.” This centennial month alone will see the publication of nearly three dozen titles.

The books are, so to speak, just the tip of the iceberg. Between 1912 and 1913 more than a hundred songs about the Titanic were published. A scant month after the sinking, a one-reel movie called “Saved from the Titanic” was released, featuring Dorothy Gibson, an actress who had been a passenger in first class. It established a formula—a love story wrapped around the real-life catastrophe—that has resurfaced again and again, notably in a 1953 tearjerker starring Barbara Stanwyck and in James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster, which, when it was released, was both the most expensive and the highest-grossing film of all time. (The film was rereleased last week, after an eighteen-million-dollar conversion to 3-D.) There have been a host of television treatments. The most recent is a four-part miniseries, to première this weekend, by Julian Fellowes, the creator of “Downton Abbey.” And that’s just the English-language output: German dramatizations include a Nazi propaganda film set aboard the ship. A French entry, “The Chambermaid on the Titanic” (1997), based on a novel, fleshes out the story with erotic reveries....

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