You couldn’t make it up: Benjamin Guggenheim, staying on the ship, changes into formal evening attire because he wants to go to his death dressed liked a gentleman.
Incredible: The band played on.
“It’s a delimited area and time, there are a lot of human stories, and they involve choice,” said Stephen Cox, a literature professor at the University of California at San Diego, and author of “The Titanic Story: Hard Choices, Dangerous Decisions.” He compares the two hours and 40 minutes between impact with the iceberg and the sinking at 2:20 a.m. April 15 to the length of a play.
“I don’t think a myth can develop unless you have a choice that could be very unfortunate or tragic,” he said.
For another survey of the mythologizing of the Titanic, one turns to Steven Biel’s “Down With the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster.”Biel is not interested in what happened so much as how people reacted to what happened, then and now. The disaster “produced a contest over meaning,” Biel writes.
Early accounts of the disaster emphasized the supposed heroism of the first-class men who followed a “women and children first” protocol. For some commentators of the era, this offered a rebuke to the women’s suffrage movement. As Biel documents, the Titanic infiltrated all manner of political and cultural issues, including imperialism, modernity, labor unions, class privilege, immigration and alleged Anglo-Saxon superiority.
Biel laments that today’s discussion about the Titanic has become rather more one-dimensional: Everyone says it’s a tale of technological hubris. Cameron in a recent National Geographic Channel special drew a connection between the “unsinkable” Titanic and our modern fossil-fuel-burning civilization (cue images of drilling) entering an era of climate change.
The mythologizing began almost as soon as the news broke that the great ship had hit an iceberg and gone to the bottom. The New York City newspapers threw armies of reporters into the disaster coverage, and soon readers were told who had been heroic and who had been villainous.
In the decades thereafter, the occasional memoir or magazine article boosted interest in the story, but it wasn’t until the 1950s — when Ed Kamuda was a lad — that the Titanic disaster began overpowering the usual currents of forgetfulness. First came the Stanwyck/Webb movie, then the Lord book, which also inspired a live TV drama, replete with flooded stage.