Saturday, August 25, 2012

One Month of the Titanic

On this, the last day of my month of blogging about the Titanic every day, I want to share with you the story of these shoes.
These tiny shoes (the scale is centimeters) are believed to belong to The Unknown Child, a very young boy whose body was recovered by the Mackay-Bennett crew in 1912.

This is what the records say about the Unknown Child:

NO. 4. - MALE. - ESTIMATED AGE, 2. - HAIR, FAIR. CLOTHING - Grey coat with fur on collar and cuffs; brown serge frock; Brown Petticoat; flannel garment; pink woollen singlet; brown shoes and stockings. 

No relatives came to claim the shoes--or identify the body.  Possibly, close relatives had all perished in the wreck.

Most of the clothing and other items recovered by the Mackay-Bennett crew were burned to stop souvenir hunters. But the Halifax police sergeant who helped guard over the belongings could not bring himself to burn the tiny shoes.  He put them in his desk drawer.  Eventually, they were given to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

 The child's remains were eventually mis-identified, and then re-identified . . . a touching ceremony was held at the graveside:

 A cousin read the names of about 50 children who had also perished when the Titanic went down and a bell was rung for each, she said. 
A soft, drizzling rain began to fall as the first name was read, and stopped when the list was finished, she recalled. Ultimately, the family left the headstone and the grave as it was.  
"The tombstone of the unknown child represents all of the children who perished on the Titanic, and we left it that way," she said. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

More Titanic numbers . . and weird Titanic fun

Click here to see this cool infographic up close

And about this, I don't know what to say . . .

Thursday, August 23, 2012

My good friends GBS and ACD argue about the Titanic

George Bernard Shaw
Arthur Conan Doyle
You didn't know they were my friends, did you?

I am an English major, with Higher Degrees in English, too.  And I studied 19th c. British Lit. So of course they are my dear friends.

Anyway, they were arguing about the Titanic through a series of letters to the editor in the Daily News and Leader in May 1912. I'm guessing it was a London Newspaper, because that's where these two gentlemen lived at the time.

I'm not sure who put up the lovely webpage with the full text of both men's letters and some good background information, but you can find it here.

Basically, they were arguing about the way the Titanic disaster was being portrayed and "read" by the public.  This was right after the American investigation was over and the British one was just about over. People were hearing stories of not enough lifeboats, "women and children first" except for the many children in 3rd class, and the captain's death.

Mr. Shaw started it, with his letter that scolds the English public about their "romantic" read on the Titanic.
Why is it that the effect of a sensational catastrophe on a modern nation is to cast it into transports, not of weeping, not of prayer, not of sympathy with the bereaved nor congratulation of the rescued, not of poetic expression of the soul purified by pity and terror, but of a wild defiance of inexorable Fate and undeniable Fact by an explosion of outrageous romantic lying?  
The romanticism Shaw deplores is the idea that men should be heroes, officers should be calm, and everyone should "face death without a tremor."

What's wrong with all this romanticism?  Well, this is what Shaw says:
I ask, what is the use of all this ghastly, blasphemous, inhuman, braggartly lying?  Here is a calamity which might well make the proudest man humble, and the wildest joker serious.  It makes us vainglorious, insolent and mendacious.  
Arthur Conan Doyle disagreed with Shaw, and he wrote a letter to the editor in answer.  Here's the main gist of his letter:

As to the general accusation that the occasion has been used for the glorification of British qualities, we should indeed be a lost people if we did not honor courage and discipline when we see it in its highest form. 
In other words: romanticize away!  This event deserves to be glorified!  Why?
That our sympathies extend beyond ourselves is shown by the fact that the conduct of the American male millionaires has been warmly eulogized as any single feature in the whole wonderful epic.   

Um . . . "whole wonderful epic"?

Doyle seemed to already be planning the movie!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Heart of the Ocean or Heart of Darkness?

It is with a certain bitterness that one must admit to oneself that the late S.S. Titanic had a "good press." 
So says Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, and former sailor in the British Merchant Marine.  He wrote an essay called "Some Reflections on the Loss of the Titanic," published in the English Review in June 1912.

OK, he got the name of the ship wrong--it's actually (as you probably know) the RMS Titanic (Royal Mail Ship).  But he had much to criticize in the way the Titanic disaster was reported and understood by people of his generation.  This is indeed a very bitter essay.

The "good press" about the Titanic was the mass of stories and praise for the way people acted when the ship sank, putting "women and children first," being "British," and showing a stiff upper lip.

But that's not the heart of his criticism. The essay is rather dense, full of long, thick sentences and thundering accusations. Conrad's main argument, is that no one--no one--should have believed the ship unsinkable.
I ask myself whether the Marine Department of the Board of Trade did really believe, when they decided to shelve the report on equipment for a time, that a ship of 45,000 tons, that any ship, could be made practically indestructible by means of watertight bulkheads? It seems incredible to anybody who had ever reflected upon the properties of material, such as wood or steel. 
He also is dead-set against "floating hotels" like Titanic, where waiters outnumbered true seamen (like himself.)  He compares the Titanic's sinking with the sinking of a smaller ship where there were no passengers lost.  But that ship was different:
She was a ship commanded, manned, equipped--not a sort of marine Ritz, proclaimed unsinkable and sent adrift with its casual population upon the sea, without enough boats, without enough seamen (but with a Parisian café and four hundred of poor devils of waiters) to meet dangers which, let the engineers say what they like, lurk always amongst the waves; sent with a blind trust in mere material, light-heartedly, to a most miserable, most fatuous disaster.
(Wow, that's all one sentence!)

Because of the hubris involved in creating and sailing these big ships, the deaths from the disaster should not be considered "heroic" in any way, Conrad writes.  They should be considered victims.
I, who am not a sentimentalist, think it would have been finer if the band of the Titanic had been quietly saved, instead of being drowned while playing–whatever tune they were playing, the poor devils. I would rather they had been saved to support their families than to see their families supported by the magnificent generosity of the subscribers. There is nothing more heroic in being drowned very much against your will, than in dying of colic caused by the imperfect salmon in the tin you bought from your grocer.
And that’s the truth. The unsentimental truth stripped of the romantic garment the Press has wrapped around this most unnecessary disaster.  
Strong words.

For Conrad, the Titanic's sinking was just one more bit of evidence of a Heart of Darkness--not the one in Africa, but the one in the hearts of the people that created, sold tickets for, and managed the Titanic.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Inaccurate Reporting--on the Titanic circa 1912

I first saw a reproduction of this now-famous headline back when I saw the Titanic exhibit at Brucemore here in Cedar Rapids.

Ah, if only it had been true.

But it wasn't.  This was only one of the erroneous news stories from April of 1912.  There are more, aggregated by the Library of Virginia's webpage, such as this headline from London:
and, much later:

Hard to read this bad image, but it states that, among other things, Captain Smith committed suicide, a claim that was never substantiated.

The news gets it wrong?  Oh tell me it's not true!

Funny how while I'm researching this post, the little headlines at the edges of the websites ("Most Read Stories") try to get me to click on links to stories about Jonah Lehrer and Fareed Zakaria, writers who did not get it right.  They, like the 1912 story writers, above, left behind the "Values of Journalism" that I teach in my feature-writing classes--Truth, Context, Fairness, and Accuracy--in order to write the damn story.


I can relate to the pressure to get the damn story written.  And I've had to cut corners that I didn't want to cut at times because of pushy editors or a looming deadline.  Inserting misleading information or plagiarized stuff into stories wasn't the problem, thank goodness.  My problem was not re-checking and triangulating and observing and researching as much as I wanted to.

I guess it happens.  But it doesn't have to.

Instead of wringing hands and beating brows over the erroneous stories, we writers should instead be inspired by the story of how the New York Times covered this event.  Roy Peter Clark at the the Poynter Institute's website has an article that tells the story of how NYTimes editor Carr Vattel Van Anda handled the reporting on the Titanic disaster.  In a word (OK, a phrase), it was all about shoeleather reporting, talking to strangers, checking and rechecking facts, and a quiet, subdued writing style that avoided purple prose.

That Poynter story of the Times's coverage is one of the best Titanic stories out there.  And you can read the original articles and see lots of other Times Titanic stuff at the NYT Titanic page.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Titanic editorial cartoons from 1912

Cartoons and humor aren't always funny, like those jokes I shared before.  

I found a trove of editorial cartoons about the Titanic's sinking that were published in 1912, and I'll share a few here.

These two below, from the webpages from a Library of Virginia exhibit this year, are memorials, expressing a country's sadness over the tragedy and loss.

Other cartoons from the days and weeks after the wreck were more pointedly critical.  These are from a collection on the Super I.T.C.H. Archive. (That's International Team of Comics Historians.)  If you go to the site, you can enlarge the cartoons and read them.  

Instead of blaming the ship's company for providing too few lifeboats or speeding through ice fields, this British cartoon below skewers Senator Alden Smith for his less-than-competent investigation of the wreck in the U.S.

This one, from the Cincinnati Post, and posted (with other 1912 cartoons) by the Hemlington Nautical Society, is an illustration of what the Titanic's wreck brought to the ship industry.  

My question:  if there had been enough boats, would there have been enough time to fill them?  The last boats were launched near 2 a.m., and the ship sank at 2:20 a.m.  "More Life Saving Boats" was just one of many problems that caused tragic loss of life.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Why AM I writing about the Titanic every day?

According to Blogger, I've written 25 posts for this blog.

When I started it, I pledged to write about the Titanic every day for a month.  So that's 6 more posts, including this one.

I started this blog and made that pledge as a kind of writing discipline--to see if I could write every day for an audience (albeit a small one--several of my posts, um, more than several, have had exactly 0 views).  I wanted to see how that would go, how it would affect my writing.

I also like studying something in this way--to hold it up and look at it from this way and that.  What kinds of movies were made, what do people collect, what can I learn about the event itself.

As 19th century novelist Anthony Trollope said:

“A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.” 


This is the man who wrote The Warden and Barchester Towers and The Small House at Allington. He knows about what comes of small daily tasks.

He wrote those lovely Barchester books (six of them, well worth reading and rereading!) while being employed by the Post Office.  Probably he just had a little time each day to write, and that's how he wrote the novels.
A plaque on the building where Trollope worked for the Post office. His "day job" didn't keep him from writing.

Blogs seem to be a great way to encourage the small daily task of writing--whether it's about TaeKwonDo, or about the Titanic, knowing you just need to spend a half-hour a day writing is liberating.  Then when you're doing your postal work--whether it's actual postal work, or being with little children, or working in an office, or writing mercenary stories for the local newspaper--one part of your brain can be coming up with some sentences for the next post.

What shall I say about those interesting Titanic editorial cartoons from 1912?

P.S.  I did miss one day.  I will still do 31 days of writing. :-)