A century has rolled by since the great ship Titanic went down

Posted: April 05, 2012

A century has rolled by since the great ship went down, and for the last 100 years, the story of its sinking has fascinated like no other maritime disaster in history.

At 11:40 p.m. on Sunday, April 14, 1912, the Royal Mail Steamer Titanic sideswiped an iceberg while sweeping across the North Atlantic at a speed of around 22 knots, more than 25 m.p.h., on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York.

Within three hours, the supposedly unsinkable liner, a marvel of opulence and technology, was headed to the bottom of the sea, 13,000 feet below.

More than 1,500 of the 2,200-plus passengers and crew died.

The story quickly seized the public's attention and has never let go. Accounts of the disaster filled the newspapers. Within four weeks, there was even a Titanic movie, starring Dorothy Gibson, an actress who had survived the sinking.

Now, the approach of the 100th anniversary has launched a small flotilla of books looking for new ways to tell the old story. Here are a few of the more notable:

Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic's First-Class Passengers and Their World, by Hugh Brewster (Crown, $26). The Titanic passenger list glittered with the rich and the famous, who enjoyed all the considerable luxury the ship offered. Through figures such as artist and writer Frank Millet and White House military aide Archie Butt, Brewster tells the story of a society in flux, covering issues from homosexuality to ladies' corsets. Within the lives of the Titanic's passengers "can be found a remarkable convergence the events, issues and personalities of the age," Brewster writes.

How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay, by Frances Wilson (Harper Perennial, $15.99 paperback). Literary scholar Wilson tells the story of the Titanic through the eyes of the most unpopular man to survive the sinking, J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, the ship's owner. The press didn't didn't take long to castigate Ismay as a coward for not going down with this ship and a rogue for supposedly ordering the Titanic's captain to speed through the ice field. A fascinating portrait of a life lived in disgrace.

Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived, by Andrew Wilson (Atria Books, $25). Wilson, a British journalist and biographer, tracks the lives of Titanic survivors, some of whom were able to put the horror of the sinking behind and some who could not and were ultimately destroyed by it. Ten of the survivors committed suicide, among them Jack Thayer, a 17-year-old from Haverford at the time of sinking. Thayer survived by jumping off the ship and swimming to an overturned lifeboat. After his son was killed in action in the South Pacific during World War II, a depressed Thayer, already weighed down by the Titanic experience, took his own life.

Titanic: First Accounts, edited with an introduction by Tim Maltin (Penguin Classics Original, $15.95 paperback). Maltin, a British businessman spellbound by the Titanic, has been researching the wreck for 25 years. In this volume, he has collected eyewitness accounts of the sinking, plus records of the American and British inquiries.

Titanic: The Last Night of a Small Town, by John Welshman (Oxford University Press, $25.95). Welshman, a historian who grew up in Northern Ireland, where the Titanic was built, focuses on 12 actors in the ship's sinking, including the captain of the Carpathia, the liner that rescued Titanic's survivors. Welshman's book emphasizes the experience of second- and third-class passengers, women, and children.

Titanic Tragedy: A New Look at the Lost Liner, by John Maxtone-Graham (W.W. Norton, $24.95). Maxtone-Graham, who has made a career of writing ocean liner histories, focuses on what he calls "historical stepping-stones" to the Titanic disaster, including the invention of Morse code and the Marconi wireless - without which, probably nobody would have survived the Titanic.

This is a nuts-and-bolts history that includes detailed information on other ships in the North Atlantic on the night of the tragedy; conditions in the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, where Titanic was built; even the dock in Southampton where Titanic was berthed - and nearly collided with another liner while setting off on its fateful voyage.

Voyagers of the Titanic: Passengers, Sailors, Shipbuilders, Aristocrats, and the Worlds They Came From, by Richard Davenport-Hines (William Morrow, $26.99). Davenport-Hines, who has written books on W.H. Auden, Marcel Proust, and narcotics, ranges across the passenger list, from first class to third, to set Titanic in the context of its time. Among his observations: the luxurious, swift ship was built to satisfy a developing need for speed among the wealthy. Great liners like Titanic sailed in a world dominated by Europe and America. "The White Star Line, which operated the liner, promoted its leviathans as expressions of racial supremacy, for this was an epoch when Africans and Asians were customarily described as 'subject races.' " White Star declared that Titanic and its sister ship, the Olympic, "stand for the pre-eminence of the Anglo-Saxon race on the Ocean."

101 Things You Thought You Knew about the Titanic . . . but Didn't, by Tim Maltin, with Eloise Alston (Penguin Original, $15 paperback). If you thought the Titanic's lookouts would have spotted the iceberg earlier with binoculars, think again, advises Maltin. On this and 99 other points, Maltin imparts the wisdom of his quarter of a century researching the Titanic.

Wreck and Sinking of the Titanic: The Ocean's Greatest Disaster, edited by Marshall Everett (Harper Design, $24.99). The publisher of this reproduction of the 1912 memorial edition has done everything but add a musty smell to make it seem like something you just found in the attic. The cover is worn cloth, the maps are hand-tinted, and the pages are stamped with gold foil.


Contact Michael D. Schaffer at 215-854-2537 or mschaffer@phillynews.com.

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