Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster

Paperback (Print)
Buy Used
Buy Used from
(Save 28%)
Item is in good condition but packaging may have signs of shelf wear/aging or torn packaging.
Condition: Used – Good details
Used and New from Other Sellers
Used and New from Other Sellers
from $1.99
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
(Save 85%)
Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (80) from $1.99   
  • New (10) from $3.73   
  • Used (70) from $1.99   


Everyone found moral and cultural lessons in the sinking of the Titanic -- suffragists and their opponents; radicals, reformers, and capitalists; critics of technology and modern life; racists and xenophobes and champions of racial and ethnic equality; editorial writers and folk singers, preachers and poets. Like today's sensational news stories, symbolizing very different things to different people, the Titanic has become an emblematic tale -- one that continues its grip on the public imagination to this day.
Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Dwight Garner

Steven Biel isn't a Titanic buff—one of those obsessive types who, like the Civil War enthusiasts who scramble over hillsides each summer in authentically itchy uniforms, needs to know every detail about the disaster that killed 1,503 of its 2,208 passengers in April of 1912. In fact, he confesses that "My experience and love of ships are minimal. No matter how many books I read, I can't keep track of who was where when, stateroom and lifeboat numbers, menus and china patterns, speed and displacement." Further, this Harvard writing teacher doesn't buy the popular myth the that Titanic's sinking single-handedly began the modern Age of Anxiety. "In my opinion," Biel notes bluntly, "the disaster changed nothing except shipping regulations."

Biel's skepticism and detachment make him a perfect guide, in his refreshing new book Down With the Old Canoe, through the Titanic's overlapping cultural meanings. Biel rummages through not only previous accounts of the disaster, but also through decades of folk songs, popular novels, Broadway plays and television drama to compile a book that's as subversive as it is fascinating.

Why subversive? Because Biel pays close attention to the ways in which the "lessons" of the Titanic's sinking were used to thwart social progress. For example, when early accounts of the disaster focused largely—and without much evidence—on the heroism of well-to-do First Cabin passengers like John Jacob Astor, who put "women and children first" in the lifeboats, anti-suffragist agitators used this as evidence that women were too weak to be allowed the vote. What Biel calls "the myth of First Cabin heroism" was also used to trumpet a good deal of racist cant about heroic Anglo-Saxon manhood, at the expense of foreigners, blacks, and lower-class Titanic passengers, who were often depicted in early accounts as cowards.

Nearly everyone had his or her own spin on the tragedy. Priests, who saw the sinking as divine retribution, wrote sermons attacking luxury and greed. Socialist newspapers noted that if the Titanic had been "a mudscow with the same number of useful workingmen on board," nobody would have cared much. While you watch Biel marshal his evidence, you'll often wish he was a sharper writer, one more alert to the scholarly jargon that occasionally creeps in here. But this is nonetheless fascinating social history, a book that, amidst the current revival of interest in the Titanic disaster, moves deftly through crowded water. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This look at the great ship's role as a cultural icon is "provocative social history," said PW. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Biel (Independent Intellectuals in the United States, New York Univ., 1992) proves here that there is always a need for another book on the Titanic. What is so refreshing about Biel's work is that it doesn't focus on the sinking of the vessel but on how the tragedy affected the social and cultural life of America. Biel provides some fascinating insights into what was happening in America at that time (April 15, 1917) and how people used the ship's sinking to prove their own theories. For example, the suffrage movement used it to drum up support for the 19th Amendment, while ministers often pointed to the sinking of the ship as a sign of God's wrath. The strength of this well-written and -researched book is the inclusion of poetry, songs, and cartoons illustrating different facets of American life in the early 20th century. Biel has provided a humorous and poignant look at a disaster that still fascinates us. Recommended for both general readers and scholars.Richard P. Hedlund, Ashland Community Coll., Ky.
Kirkus Reviews
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.

Biel's skepticism and detachment make him a perfect guide . . . through the Titanic's overlapping cultural meanings.— Dwight Garner
The New York Times
[An] invaluable cultural history of the disaster.— Frank Rich
Evening Standard [London]
An important book. The 'old canoe' may have gone down, but she refuses to remain submerged; Steven Biel has added greatly to her buoyancy.— Beryl Bainbridge
Dwight Garner - Salon
“Biel's skepticism and detachment make him a perfect guide . . . through the Titanic's overlapping cultural meanings.”
Frank Rich - The New York Times
“[An] invaluable cultural history of the disaster.”
Beryl Bainbridge - Evening Standard [London]
“An important book. The 'old canoe' may have gone down, but she refuses to remain submerged; Steven Biel has added greatly to her buoyancy.”
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393316766
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/1/1997
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 234
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Steven Biel is the executive director of the Mahindra Humanities Center and a senior lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

Part I Meanings

Foreword: Nature Jeers At Our Folly 3

Chapter 1 April 1912 9

Chapter 2 The Rule of the Sea and Land 23

Chapter 3 Mammon 59

Interword: A Noble Structure of Enduring Stone 85

Chapter 4 Unknown and Unsung 97

Part II Memories

Chapter 5 A Night To Remember 135

Chapter 6 Enthusiasts 167

Chapter 7 Mission To Destiny 197

Afterword: Titanic Mania 221

List of Abbreviations 235

Notes 239

Acknowledgments 281

Index 285

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously
Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews

If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
Why is this product inappropriate?
Comments (optional)