A TITANIC WEEKEND
• In New York City, events will be held at various memorials throughout the city dedicated to Titanic passengers.
• In Chatham, Mass., the family of Matt Tierney will commemorate his role as one of the "Marconi boys," the wireless radio operators who served as critical communication links during and after the disaster.
• Venues in Las Vegas, San Diego, Houston and even Singapore are hosting Titanic exhibitions that include artifacts recovered from the site.
• The University of Denver is holding a Titanic concert featuring the premiere of Lifeboat No. 6, in homage to hometown resident the "unsinkable" Margaret "Molly" Brown.
• Addergoole, Ireland, is marking the death of its 14 young emigrants with a memorial park and a costumed Titanic ball.
The Titanic has never been bigger. The story has defied history, brightening rather than fading with time.
Most historical events turn into textbook subjects about which the main question is whether this will be on the test. Not the Titanic. A century after the ship hit an iceberg late on the night of April 14, 1912, and three years after the death of the last Titanic survivor, the disaster feels as familiar as if it happened yesterday.
Sunday's centennial has seen an eruption of books, articles, films, museum exhibits, memorial services, ocean cruises and, of course, the 3-D version of the 1997 James Cameron movie that won an armload of Oscars. And there's another layer of commemoration, the meta layer -- the discussion of why we're discussing this at all. The Titanic has become a case study in what the folks in the faculty lounge would call mythogenesis.
To say that it is a mythic disaster does not mean that it was somehow imaginary. This was the world's largest ship taking its maiden voyage. The passengers -- of which at least 1,500 would die, although the exact number is unclear -- represented a stratified society in miniature. At top were the first-class passengers, many of them famous millionaires or aristocrats with such names as Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon. Below were the second-class passengers, and then lower still the third class -- distinctions that would have profound consequences in survival rates. (First-class men, though collectively glorified for letting steerage women and children go first in the lifeboats, actually survived at a higher rate than the third-class children).
A lookout spotted the iceberg a little before 11:40 p.m. At the last moment, the ship swung to port, and the iceberg, looming 100 feet above the water, ripped a gash along the starboard side below the water line, rupturing five compartments.
The elite passengers felt something on impact -- "a faint grinding jar," as Walter Lord put it in his seminal book "A Night to Remember." "It was not much, but enough to break the conversation and rattle the silver that was set for breakfast the next morning."
The nature of the injury to the vessel not only ensured that she would sink within hours but also that the people aboard would have time to respond in ways that have inspired countless retellings. There was a period of blithe reassurance. The ship, passengers could tell themselves, was unsinkable. Some played with the ice that had sprayed onto a deck from the passing berg.
Benjamin Guggenheim, staying on the ship, changed into formal evening attire because he wanted to go to his death dressed liked a gentleman. And the band played on.
'A contest over meaning'
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 said that the current discussion has become 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 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 that the 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.
Another powerful surge in interest came in 1985, when Robert Ballard and colleagues found the ship on the sea floor more than 12,000 feet below the surface. That incited a controversy over salvaging operations, with Ballard, for one, arguing that the wreck should be left alone.
The Titanic then reached a new level of cultural resonance with the Cameron movie, a love story and feminist parable in which Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) liberates Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) from a suffocating future in the patriarchal aristocracy.
A famous headline in the Onion's 1999 book reviewing the 20th century -- "World's Largest Metaphor Runs into Iceberg" -- captured in a phrase the way the Titanic has ceased to be merely a maritime accident. It has replicated itself to the point that the real event seems increasingly swamped by the accounts of the event -- and accounts of the accounts of the event.