Thursday, 12 April 2012

Titanic Literature, 1912

Amongst many, the Information Age is considered a product of the digital revolution. Instantaneous news can be disseminated across a series of satellites and fibre optic cables to nearly anywhere in the world, allowing people to follow tragedies, disturbances and discoveries second-by-second. Yet the Information Age began a long time ago, with the invention of the telegraph. Never before had so many people been connected so immediately, and in the case of the Titanic, it was the first major news event to be transmitted via the medium. The Internet is merely an innovation on the type. Arguably, though, it began some time before even the telegraph. With the great invention of the Gutenbergs, text could be rapidly printed, copied and spread. News could travel fast, from religious theses to sensationalist books about maritime disasters.

Presses sprang into life with survivors accounts of the Titanic sinking, as well as "true stories" by people who were no closer to the iceberg than the engraving on a newspaper frontpage. Quality varied, and it was consistent integrity that pushed the New York Times from one of a dozen local papers into a national media outlet. Lawrence Beesley, a schoolteacher and survivor, prefaced his 1912 book The Loss of the SS. Titanic: Its Story and Its Lessons with this very issue of accuracy:
Some five weeks after the survivors from the Titanic landed in New York, I was the guest at luncheon of Hon. Samuel J. Elder and Hon. Charles T. Gallagher, both well-known lawyers in Boston. After luncheon I was asked to relate to those present the experiences of the survivors in leaving the Titanic and reaching the Carpathia... When I had done so, Mr. Robert Lincoln O'Brien, the editor of the Boston Herald, urged me as a matter of public interest to write a correct history of the Titanic disaster, his reason being that he knew several publications were in preparation by people who had not been present at the disaster, but from newspaper accounts were piecing together a description of it. He said that these publications would probably be erroneous, full of highly coloured details, and generally calculated to disturb public thought on the matter.

Published in June 1912, Beesley's account was released only nine weeks after the disaster. Yet it was in response to even earlier released and contemporaneously planned books. The Loss of the S.S. Titanic can be read by clicking on the frontispiece below, courtesy of the Internet Archive.

Amongst the most interesting and lurid of 1912's Titanic publications is the following. Sinking of the Titanic advertised itself as a memorial edition with the byline of "Thrilling Stories Told by Survivors". The frontispiece, reproduced below and far more resplendent than the tastefully understated Beesley book, describes it in considerably greater detail. As a whole, it is rich with hymns, poems, survivors accounts, moralizing, photographs, drawings, memorials, news articles, urban legends and ample blame, organized in a fashion nearly devoid of reason. The following excerpt from the preface exemplifies the violent hue of the prose:
Sorrow that is too deep and strong for words clutches the heart-strings of humanity and the Nation mourns for the heroic dead, who were carried down into the sea with the crushed "Titanic." They faced death with high hearts, making the Supreme Sacrifice so that the women and the helpless little ones might live.

It is a heart-rending story, redeemed and ennobled by the heroism of the victims. Its details are appalling. The world is full of mournings for the dead. Nature has conquered again destroying with ruthless hand the most marvelous ship that ever floated on the bosom of the deep.

It is the worst disaster that ever befell any vessel. It is the wrecking of a whole armada within one hull of steel, vaunted as unsinkable.

The sinking of the "Titanic" is an appalling catastrophe, in the contemplation of which any words that can be uttered are as futile as in the presence of the awful majesty of the Angel of Death.

Click on the frontspiece below to read a copy of Sinking of the Titanic.

In much the same vein is Marsahll Everett's Wreck and Sinking of the Titanic, also claiming to be replete with thrilling survivor's tales, religious admonitions and reprinted editorial cartoons. It can also be read by clicking on the frontispiece.


Paul of the Man Cave said...

I have my own personal link to the tragedy

grouchomarxist said...

It is the worst disaster that ever befell any vessel.

According to the official tally -- which may have undercounted by several hundred -- more people died in the SS Sultana disaster, in late April of 1865. For all sorts of reasons, perhaps because a war which had cost hundreds of thousands of lives had just ended, and the assassination of Lincoln happening just a couple of weeks previous, this event didn't have anywhere near the impact of the sinking of the Titanic.

Paul of the Man Cave said...

There have been many other sinkings with far worse loss of life - an incident involving a Filipino cruise liner in the late 80s comes immediately to mind where nearly 5000 people died

Cory Gross said...

Just to be clear, the quote in question was excerpted from one of the sensationalist books linked to in the article, not from me ^_^

grouchomarxist said...

Understood, Cory: I merely didn't wish to insult the intelligence and good breeding of your readers, by implying they could not be relied upon to recall the source of that quote. ;-)

Seriously, though, I knew it wasn't you, and apologize for the unintentional ambiguity.