AS A GIRL, I was a Titanic ghoul. Our family frequented secondhand bookshops, and I remember buying (for about 25 cents each) a couple of accounts of the disaster, published in 1913 or 1914, with embossed covers showing the ship going down. They’d probably be priceless now.
I was caught up in the drama of it all: The couples who chose to drown together; the orchestra playing until the last moment (not “Nearer My God to Thee,” which turns out to be a myth); the man who dressed as a woman and snuck into a lifeboat. If I had been there, what would I have done? What would have happened to me? Who knows? Depending on how fast I got up on deck and, most important, which class I was in, I might have survived or perished in the icy Atlantic.
On the hundredth anniversary of the sinking, new books are appearing (Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage, based on the discovery of the wrecked vessel and its contents; Shadow of the Titanic, about the survivors’ often dark, guilt-ridden later lives) and commemorative documentaries and dramas are flooding in (Julian Fellowes’s TV miniseries might as well have been called Downton Abbey Goes to Sea, with its upper-deck/lower-deck hierarchy and pervasive snobbery; plus, James Cameron’s Titanic joins the 3-D re-release bandwagon). More interestingly, fresh scientific evidence suggests alternative explanations for the tragedy.
Usually the emphasis has been on human error (the captain wanting to break speed records, the company cutting corners on lifeboats) rather than meteorological conditions. But a report in the New York Times (“The Iceberg Was Only Part of It,” April 9, 2012) discusses fresh research revealing that record tides in the months preceding the disaster sent unprecedented quantities of floating ice into the northern Atlantic shipping lanes. Moreover, the icy waters might have produced a phenomenon known as “cold mirages,” visual distortions that not only hid the iceberg from the Titanic’s lookouts but prevented the captain of the Californian—far closer than the Carpathia, four hours away—from identifying the silhouetted boat he saw as the huge passenger liner and thus coming to her rescue. At the inquiry following the sinking, the Californian’s captain testified, “I am positive it was not the Titanic.” Now it seems that it was nature, not negligence, that accounted for his behavior.
It’s nice to know that it wasn’t only greed, ego, and incompetence that led to the disaster. On the other hand, one can’t help thinking that the keys to the lingering fascination of the Titanic are sentiments that could be needlepointed onto pillows: (1) PRIDE GOETH BEFORE A FALL (the hubris of claiming to have built an “unsinkable” ship); and (2) DEATH IS THE GREAT LEVELER (wealth failing to save rich and powerful people like John Jacob Astor IV, Benjamin Guggenheim, and Macy’s owner Isidor Straus from their shared fate). There is something about the disruption of apparently charmed and invincible lives—like the universe playing a trick on its golden children—that still mesmerizes the public and dominates the news cycle, while the Trayvon Martins of the world drown in obscurity.