In case you missed it, (which would be very difficult given the multitude of special commemorative events, articles, news stories, blogposts, etc.), one hundred years ago today the opulent ocean liner Titanic sank beneath the cold waters of the Atlantic taking more than 1500 passengers and crew to their watery graves. I don’t consider myself a Titanic expert by any means, but I worked briefly at the Titanic Museum in Branson a few years ago and I’ve read a few books and articles on the disaster that has managed to capture the public imagination for so many decades now.
I doubt that the interest in Titanic is going to subside any time soon, but it seems to me that when the story is told it usually ends with the Carpathia rescuing the survivors. The best book I’ve read on the Titanic however, focuses on the aftermath; the United States’ investigation into the sinking. The investigation was spearheaded by Senator William Alden Smith. Many new maritime laws were passed as a result of Smith’s work. The Titanic: End of a Dream, by Wyn Craig Wade is a fascinating read that includes portions of the actual testimony given by passengers and crew who survived. Senator Smith and his Senate Subcommittee explored several questions. Did the ship break apart while sinking? Why weren’t the life boats filled? How did J. Bruce Ismay end up in a lifeboat? Some of these questions are only now being definitively answered, and at the time various people and entities, including the British government, had their own agendas and their own backsides to cover, making the inquiry that much more interesting.
Senator Smith is the primary hero of Wade’s narrative, and in fact, the book serves partly as a biography of him. In yesterday’s post I wrote that it is always delightful to find information about a person in history where you least expect it. That is what happened to me while reading this book. William Alden Smith was a Republican Senator from Michigan. He was a successful lawyer who, in 1886, “became a member of the Michigan State Central Committee for the Republican Party. The following year, Governor Cyrus Luce appointed him Michigan’s first paid game warden.” (Wade, pg. 80) Governor Luce! My ggg-grandfather started William Alden Smith’s public career. I have a personal, though admittedly very tenuous, tie to the saga of the Titanic.
Wade’s book was first published in 1979. I have the 1986 edition. I want to share a paragraph in Wade’s concluding chapter:
The pleasures of the Gilded Age existed for the very few. They rested top heavy on a social structure ready to crumble. Luxury and excess were justified on assumptions of limitlessness, both in fuel and in human suffering. This wasn’t fulfillment, but the illusion of fulfillment wrought by the oppression of the lower echelons of society whose labor materialized it. Nostalgic glorifications of this Age of Splendor and Security automatically condone its grave social injustices; and responsibility for these conditions has yet to be owned completely by Anglo-Americans in the late twentieth century. Although the organization of society is beginning to look more equitable, what we have truly managed to redress is only the tip of the iceberg.
Have we progressed or regressed since this was written? Have we learned anything?