Torpedoing Titanic-mania

Does anyone else find the obsession with the sinking of the Titanic disturbing and distasteful? 

I find it completely necrotic.  The Titanic was an engineering disaster and is a tomb.  (That said, the article I linked to above by Andrew Wilson is a well-written rundown of some survivors’ stories as well as a chronicle of Titanic-mania from 1912 to 2012.)

Nevertheless:  my heart will go on.

29 thoughts on “Torpedoing Titanic-mania

  1. Yes, I find it annoying. I think it goes to show that we (or at least the larger society) are a bunch of Victorians at heart. If I put on my Critical Marxism/Frankfurt School hat (a propeller beanie) the Titanic hoopla is another evidence piece of how we are living through the second Gilded Age. I blame the usual suspects (adjusts propeller beanie): False Consciousness, the Enlightenment, the Culture Industry, Ideological State Apparatus, etc (removes beanie)

    That said, I obsessed over the Titanic, windmills, and railroads as an adolescent history nerd. I know my twelve year old self would find the whole thing really enjoyable.


  2. I was just discussing this with friends. Some years ago, natural history museums in the US were hosting a traveling exhibition on the Titanic, including a segment in which visitors could place their hands in a hole and touch an iceberg to feel how cold the North Atlantic waters were on that night.

    It’s one thing to contemplate the peril of hubris in the disaster, quite another to invite visitors (mostly children) to mimic dying and make money by doing so.

    And the Smithsonian Mag’s headline is “Full Steam Ahead”?


  3. David Letterman mentioned it yesterday, that is, he made fun of it. It’s our attachment to the gruesome. The Grimm fairy tales, etc.


  4. Thanks, History Maven and Matt. I’m with Matt on the New Gilded Age and our Social Darwinist/Victorian values. All of the dresser-uppers and reenactors of the Titantic disaster are somehow first class passengers, rather than second-class or steerage.

    But then, there are so many more *survivors’* stories from first class, aren’t there?


  5. Like Matt L, the _Titanic_ was one the earliest stories about the past that interested me as a child (even before its final resting place was found). In some ways, it might have started me on the path of ultimately becoming a historian.

    On the other hand, I have always been creeped out by the salvage operations. The fact that it was a place of death that should be as respected as a cemetery never gained traction.


  6. I’m not paying too much attention to the actual stories, so knowledge of the fact that they’re happening I guess isn’t hitting my creep-meter too hard yet. There’s a lot of time until Saturday, though. Like others above, I was mesmerized as a child by the technical awfulness of the fact that it could happen (I came on board with the Walter Lord, _Night to Remember_ generation). My first semester here, I actually taught Stephen Biel’s _Down With the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster_ to over a hundred terrified freshmen who were riding on a curricular version of the Titanic, with mixed results. Biel ferreted out a lot of interesting trivia from the library named after one of the prominent casualties, but it didn’t much resonate with the students, or so I thought at the time. In my pre-adolescent recollection of the book/movie, I’m not much interested in the Victoriana, or any of the human interest stuff. It’s all technica: about ice crushes steel, radio messages don’t reach, help doesn’t arrive.

    I can’t believe that streetcar magnate didn’t put the library in Philadelphia!


  7. I just find it tedious. My 11 yr old niece is obsessed though. She has made a ‘project’, such as they make at school, including research from the internet and photographs, all beautifully cut out and pasted into a booklet form – and this is all on her own whim (not encouraged by anyone). It’s fascinating that she is so inspired.

    And, just think, following this, over the next decade we will get to relive all the battles of the First World War as they hit their hundred year anniversaries too (although you might be spared longer than us Brits)!


  8. I’ve never understood the Titanic fascination. Even as a child, when I went to P.S. 198, the Isidore and Ida Strauss School. I’ve seen about 10 references to them in the last week. Weird.
    (That was before I went to the Robert F. Wagner Sr. Junior High School. Gotta love NYC school names.)

    Now, WW I battles you can do something with, as long as its not just regimental histories.


  9. While some of the fascination has to do with the wealth of the survivors, I think a greater fascination has to do with the sense of tragic hubris. The notion that the ship was unsinkable, and then went down on its maiden voyage, is at the core of this.

    A famous early 20C- medievalist, Henry Adams, compared the Virgin to a Steam Engine, as evidence for the respective spirits of their ages. He saw the Middle Ages as mystical, placing faith in things unseen and in the mysterious, whereas the Industrial Age was rooted in boundless faith in the possibilities of controllable machines crafted by human ingenuity. I think the Titanic disaster speaks to some sort of similar core, a fascination with a collision (literally) of the Natural World and human attempts to subdue and control that world, to mold it all to human uses. And I must say, while I am not a Titanic buff, I do see that appeal.

    Perhaps its because I actually have a bona fide Titanic buff in my family. My sister has been interested in this story for ages, since long before the Cameron movie or even the findig of the wreck. And here’s an interesting nugget: she’s been making tons of money on ebay selling memorabilia related to the disaster. Indeed, she recently listed a lot of about 30 books, most from 1912, dealing with the wreck and the investigation of it (there was a congressional hearing). Within 6 hours that lot sold for $30,000 + shipping. She paid a fraction of that price to build the collection.


  10. I meant to finish that last thought: Perhaps I find the story more interesting than some others do because I have been exposed to it for so long. I remember when Ballard found the wreck, and my sister immediately bought a Nat’l Geographic video of the footage. I found it incredibly compelling — still do, actually.


  11. I was never much into the Titanic stuff, but I was totally fascinated by the Donner Party as a kid, totally and morbidly fascinated, which is probably even harsher than the Titanic.

    I think they should have left it (the Titanic, not Donner Pass) as a mass grave, but no one asked me.


  12. Dr. Indyanna, dare I guess: Widener? Of the infamous ‘freshmen-required swimming lessons’ legacy?

    And as Downton Abbey captured, that class expected to escape the brutality they backed, through industry or social practice; the sinking and the Great War disabused them of that, damn quick.


  13. Wow, the Donner Pass story is cool. I’d never heard about it before, but cannibalism!! Now that’s interesting…

    More seriously, I think I find the sentimentality of the Titanic commemerations tedious. The wailing over the deaths, the romanticising of the tragedy and the shaking of heads at the horrors of classism, but with no attempt to acknowledge that the only thing stopping such a horror today is more lifeboats and not a more equitable society (so a commemeration that fails to learn the lessons of the story and so is using emotion to drive the status quo). In some ways, I like the Belfast commemorations more, as they are concentrating on the building of the Titanic – on riveteers and technology, and industry and middle-class investments and working-class labour, and the way that shipbuilding also built a city. And then, as squadratomagico says, the Titanic becomes a microcosm of more wide-ranging social processes that are more interesting. And as they say in that part of the world, the boat was fine when it left Belfast!


  14. When I saw coverage on the TV this morning of the Titanic memorial cruise, complete with many passengers in replica costumes, I was a bit taken aback. Not my idea of a memorial. . . .


  15. I like squadratomagico’s rif take. I do think the Titanic is an emblem of the Nature/Technology dialectic. Its compelling because we are still playing by the same rules as the nineteenth century. Which brings me to Susan’s point, maybe WWI was not the big ‘break’ that we have made it out to be? Maybe we are still living in the long nineteenth century? [If so then it might be worth constructing an alternate periodization of the modern era based on social memory.]

    Yeah, and the Donner Party is pretty crazy. I heard that the guys who made South Park did a Donner Party musical as their senior project in college.


  16. @ squadratomagico: Stephen Biel begins his book on the Titanic disaster with a bizarre anecdote about Henry Adams. Early in 1912, he booked passage on the Titanic’s return trip to Europe, the second half of its “maiden voyage.” He agonized all winter over a coal miners’ strike in Europe that threatened to delay its sailing. He was in a deep moment of political despair and when he heard about the sinking he almost hallucinated over its convergence with the wreckage of the Republican Party, with the Roosevelt/Taft battle. Then he “booked passage on the Olympic, the Titanic’s sister ship, and announced to his friends that he hoped that it too would sink” [p.4]. Biel goes on: “Nine days after the Titanic sank, Adams suffered a stroke. In his delirium, he thought his mother had gone down with the ship, and he tried to communicate with her. Fearing that he was losing his mind, he attempted suicide…” [pp. 4-5] So I would say your analysis hits it right out of the park.

    @ cgeye: Widener was indeed the library I had in mind.


  17. I’ve never been particularly interested in the Titanic story but Connie Willis used it beautifully in her book Passage. If you haven’t read it, it’s a current-day novel about research into possible neurological causes of near-death experiences and has elements of madcap comedy, which doesn’t sound possible, but is true. It’s very difficult to describe without giving away too much plot, but much of the book explores our relationship to the Titanic story.


  18. I suppose I don’t find it any more disturbing, distasteful, or tedious than I do the fascination with any other mass tragedy or disaster. Is it worse than the legions of Civil War reenactments, interest in the Manson family murders, or focus on Jack the Ripper? Not to my mind. Humanity has always had a strong interest in death and tragedy, Titanic mania (at the anniversary of the event) is just one example.

    And, unlike History Maven, I didn’t interpret the museums’ iceberg demonstrations to be inviting people to mimic dying and capitalizing on that mimicry. I saw those exhibits as an attempt to make the magnitude of human suffering more salient to a public that often has a hard time fathoming the scope of such events. Isn’t that part of the goal of public history work?


  19. Grad Student: I’m on the record here as being creeped out by reenacting in general, but I think the Titanic’s brief and not-supposed-to-be-lifewasting journey (as opposed to volunteer soldiers in the Civil War, for example) does make fascination with it creepier in my view.


    Older Than Dirt: Connie Willis is apparently a neighbor of mine. I used to see her working in a coffee shop I used to frequent here. (But I’ve never read her books–I’m just not a sci-fi person, which is what she seems to be most famous for. I know that lots of folks are crazy for her books.)


  20. A dissenting voice. I have been interested in the Titanic since I saw that preposterous Barbara Stanwyck/Clifton Webb tear jerker of a movie as a teenager. There is just so much there– the engineering of the ship, the iceberg! –for heaven’s sake, the issue of class, and most of all, the situation itself. The story invites people to wonder what they would do in the situation in the most stark way. It’s a ship in the middle of the ocean and it’s going down– how you would act? You can’t say, “I’d get in my car and drive off” or I’d hop a train.” There is no place to go. If you are in a couple, would you go down together if there was room in lifeboat for only one? What if you had kids back home? If you are man, would you give put women and children in the lifeboat and stay behind? Old people versus young people. If you are an adult would you get in a lifeboat knowing that kids were still on board? Not many single events in history involve so many different types of people at once in such a compressed point of time when decisions have to be made quickly– rich people, poor people, males, females, children. Who got out, why and how? There are other things, as well. It just seems a rich story to me.


  21. I would agree with Grad Student if the Titanic exhibition I mentioned had been produced with those goals in mind. And I certainly agree that curiosity is the first step to knowledge about the world and wisdom about our roles in it. One would hope that all historians–and all scholars, for that matter–share that purpose.

    Yet, yet, yet. What is the line between sensationalism and historical inquiry into the human condition? It’s very interesting that the Titanic exhibitions featuring the vicarious interactives I find troubling are not housed in history museums.

    And the sorts of interactives are primarily based on “discovery” rather than assume visitors have any previous knowledge about the Titanic, its builders, its passengers and crew, its sinking, and the passengers’ rescuers.

    Take a look at Ballard et al.’s press release ( about the current enterprise celebrating Ballard (who wanted to make money by being able to charter tours of the Titanic site), and the exhibition’s designers. One has to look hard to find the history here, but that’s expected. This is a new iteration of previous exhibitions, but with sponsorship by United Technologies it isn’t surprising that it has a new focus on tech and engineering (and imagineering, since a former Disney designer created the exhibition). In my reading it appears that the take-away is remembering the exhibition experience. And there’s nary a historian–public or otherwise–in sight.

    The press release:

    Beckoning visitors to “journey to new depths of discovery,” Sea Research Foundation, operator of Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn., today previewed its major new exhibit — Titanic – 12,450 Feet Below — located at Mystic Aquarium’s newly renamed Ocean Exploration Center exhibit hall.

    The new exhibit, opening to the public on April 12, marks the 100th anniversary of the maiden voyage and loss of the celebrated ocean liner. It is the product of a very special collaboration between famed oceanographic explorer Dr. Robert Ballard, president of Sea Research Foundation’s Institute for Exploration, who led the 1985 expedition that first located and mapped the sunken Titanic, and Tim Delaney, the former top Walt Disney Imagineering designer. Now head of Tim J. Delaney Design, he has collaborated with Dr. Ballard on several projects over the past 30 years. The Ocean Exploration Center renovation and its inaugural Titanic – 12,450 Feet Below exhibit are sponsored by United Technologies Corporation.

    Sea Research Foundation President & CEO Dr. Stephen M. Coan has called the renamed Ocean Exploration Center and centenary Titanic exhibit “A unique and important collaboration that will give people a chance to experience Titanic through the eyes of the person who found her, someone recognized as one of the world’s greatest explorers, and through the imagination of a world-renowned exhibit designer. We believe that the Ballard and Delaney team, with the support of one of America’s greatest companies, under the aegis of an organization dedicated to protecting our oceans through research, education and exploration, is an unbeatable formula for public enrichment and inspiration.”

    Tim Delaney described the exhibit that he and his team are building as “a very different approach to the Titanic experience, one that taps directly into the excitement of exploration and discovery. Our Titanic exhibit is awe-inspiring and emotional. It is designed to capture the moment of discovery that only access to the actual discoverer’s insight and vision can deliver. Working hand-in-glove with Bob Ballard and Sea Research has enabled us to create something that both adults and children will find thrilling, immersive, interactive, experiential and memorable. Titanic – 12,450 Feet Below takes you there.”

    Bringing the legendary vessel’s timeless history to life, Titanic – 12,450 Feet Below captivates minds with a glowing iceberg that is cold to the touch, a bi-level adventure area inspired by Titanic’s engine room, hands-on experiences that unfold Titanic’s lingering mysteries, and modern deep-sea technology that led to Titanic’s eventual discovery.


  22. That’s an interesting distinction that History Maven notes between history museums and natural history/science museums and their different approaches to the Titantic. I noticed that when the exhibition came to Denver, it was at the Museum of Science and Nature, which I thought was a strange choice, but wevs.

    I think the Titanic is full of terrific stories, as AGR and Squadratomagico have suggested–there’s the inherent drama of the sinking ship, plus the Virgin and the Dynamo moment of 1912. I just am not comfortable with a great deal of the commemorative activities this year.

    The Titanic reminds me of a more recent horror, one with many fewer survivors’ stories, and that is the attacks on the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, and the decision that many of the stranded made to leap from the windows of the burning building rather than wait for a firey death. I was mezmerized by the photos of the dying who chose the manner of their own deaths. Their gestures seemed at once futile and noble, and I have long wondered about how and why they came to their decisions. Isn’t it interesting that these people’s experiences have largely disappeared from our commemorations and our histories of 9/11/2001? But I think they’re among the most fascinating.

    Fiction, rather than history, might be the most appropriate venue for exploring these deaths, for the obvious reason that there were no survivors left to tell their own stories. Maybe this is why they’ve been left out of journalistic narratives, commemorations, and the accompanying photographic records. Perhaps my discomfort with Titanic-mania is related to this recent event to which so many of us were witness.

    This also makes me think about the role of technology in documentation, and how that makes us remember and commemorate things differently. I wonder: if we had video and photographic documentation of the Titanic’s sinking and so many people’s last living moments, would we be so eager to recreate or relive the experience with our commemorations? How will this shape the public memory and commemorations of 9/11?


  23. I’ve wondered about the future of 9/11, too, although I’m not totally expecting to be around to see the centennial. Global culture around catastrophe is in constant flux, as is all culture. Yesterday I discovered, in a completely different context, that there’s a YouTube site at which people post doctored videos which purport to show horrific things like the view from the inside of the plane as that Air France flight from Brazil to Paris disintegrated during those wild equinoctial storms a couple of summers ago. Sick by my account, but what won’t the human animal fixate on? In some ways, I think, the re-creation of visual imagery–in whatever medium–of what could not have been captured contemporaneously with its happening fosters an even more bi-valent fascination.

    Does anyone remember that macabre photographic book set in the nineteenth century small-town Midwest, _Wisconsin Death Trip_ (c. 1970s), that originated as a history dissertation at Rutgers?

    I also hope the “future” decides to stop calling it 9/11. I mean, really. If some feckless Quaker kid died in the front yard at the Battle of Brandywine (9/11/1777) that’s supposed to be chopped-liver now?


  24. I was a part of all of that on 9/11. After making the decision to leave the South Tower after the first strike– despite what they were telling us to do because flaming debris was flying every where– I watched, only briefly because I could not take it, people jumping from the buildings. I am fairly certain that there will be stories about what happened that day coming down the pike in the coming decades. We can never know now whether it will be anything like what has happened with the Titanic, but the stories will be compelling.


  25. Wow. Maybe you should write the novel imagining the reasons for why people decided to take the plunge.

    I think it’s part of that day that even those of us who watched from hundreds of miles away have difficulty thinking about.


  26. The thing I recall most from 9/11 is the sound that went up from the crowd when the first tower fell. I was watching a live feed, and the unearthly collective moan-shriek was unlike anything I’ve ever heard before or since. All later broadcasts I’ve seen since that first one have had the sound turned down a great deal, or have a narrative track instead of the original sound.


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