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.)
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.
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 thusas expressed in folk songs from Huddie Ledbetter (a.k.a. Leadbelly) and othersa 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.
The New York Times
[An] invaluable cultural history of the disaster.” Frank Rich
Biel's skepticism and detachment make him a perfect guide . . . through the Titanic's overlapping cultural meanings.” Dwight Garner
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