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When She Was Lost

Every Man For Himself

by Beryl Bainbridge
Europa Editions, 2012

The Company of the Dead

by David J. Kowalski
Titan Books, 2012

Titanic: The Last Night of a Small Town

by John Welshman
Oxford University Press, 2012

One hundred years ago, on Monday, April 15, 1912, President William Howard Taft was handed a telegram: the White Star liner RMS Titanic, on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, had struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and foundered, most likely with a huge loss of life. In addition to all the anonymous innocents, there had been famous magnates and millionaires among the Titanic‘s passengers on that fatal voyage, men like John Jacob Astor, Isidor Straus, Benjamin Guggenheim, and George Dunton Widener, whose son Harry, age 27, perished with him. His grieving mother caused Harvard University’s enormous Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library to be built in his memory; each year it fills with thousands of students not much younger than Harry was, who study under its magnificent vaulted ceiling in utter ignorance of the frigid, terrifying death that consecrates the place.

But that telegram stopped President Taft for a more personal reason. Another passenger had been was Major Archie Butt, who had been an invaluable military and protocol aide to President Theodore Roosevelt and had continued in that role for Taft. White House functions, complicated meeting schedules, the smooth running of the staff – Archie Butt had done it all, and more importantly, he had been a friend and confidential advisor to Taft at a time when such figures were depressingly rare (as the 1912 presidential race was heating up, the man who had once been the foremost of such figures – Roosevelt – was not only publicly excoriating his former friend but was trouncing him in the primaries). The strain of maintaining loyal friendships with both Roosevelt and Taft at a time when they were becoming more and more outspoken public enemies had told on Butt, and at Taft’s genial but ironclad insistence, he had taken a European vacation. Yielding to the taste for pomp that had always been his besetting vice, he booked return passage on the Titanic.

The brittle chivalry of the era dictated “women and children first” in times of such emergencies, and as Taft later confessed, on some level he knew instantly that Butt had not survived – would not have survived if there were people to help, lives to save.

Nevertheless, he had a telegram sent to the New York White Star office on Tuesday, April 16 asking, “Have you any information concerning Major Butt? If you would communicate with me at once, would greatly appreciate.” He sent the Navy vessels Chester and the Salem to contact the Cunard ship Carpathia, which had responded to Titanic‘s distress calls and plucked the doomed ship’s 711 survivors from their lifeboats, but chaos and silence met his inquiries, and eventually, like so many hundreds of others in the United States and England and Ireland, he was forced to accept that he would never see the lost one again. “I cannot turn around in my room,” he wrote in anguish to a friend. “I can’t go anywhere without expecting to see his smiling face or hear his cheerful voice in greeting.” Years later, when the heartbreak of it all had softened a bit, Taft would comment that the heroism of the death was a fitting end for his friend, however much he missed him.

Taft wasn’t the only person to appreciate – almost involuntarily – the epic punctuation of the disaster. The mythic resonance of the Titanic was felt immediately. Ships were sent from Halifax on their mission to retrieve as many bodies as possible. Crowds gathered in public squares to hear the latest updates as they came in, and tens of thousands of people crowded New York’s Pier 54 on the 18th of April when Carpathia brought her sad cargo to port. Survivors’ tales began circulating at once, and a great many people connected with the event lost no time in capitalizing on it. On board the Carpathia, Boston Brahmin James Russell Lowell and his wife had offered their cabin to silent film star Dorothy Gibson, who had survived the sinking. She was no sooner back on dry land than she and her lover Jules Brulatour were expanding his initial newsreel about the disaster into a movie, Saved from the Titanic, which had its premiere on the astonishingly early date of April 22. Brulatour sent a copy of the movie to President Taft.

From those earliest moments, the life cycle of Titanic-mania has featured long fallow periods interspersed with bursts of energy. In 1955, Walter Lord published his seminal account, A Night to Remember, a slim, intensely readable book featuring interviews with virtually all of Titanic‘s remaining survivors. In 1985, Robert Ballard used a remote-controlled probe and found the actual wreck of the Titanic two and a half miles down off the Grand Banks coast. In 1997, James Cameron’s film Titanic became one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. The centenary in 2012 has unleashed a new flood of commemoration: TV documentaries, Titanic back in theaters, stage plays and musicals, special magazine issues, and books of every description, from children’s volumes to conspiracy theories (including, inevitably, that the Titanic didn’t really sink at all) to gussied-up reprints of almost all of those original survivor tales. Bookstore display tables will be piled high with these things all summer long, and the great bulk of those products will fall into three categories: history, fiction, and speculation.

Of these new histories, the best is John Welshman’s Titanic: The Last Night of a Small Town (the title comes from Lord), as thorough and yet compassionate an account as the disaster is ever likely to have, surpassing even Daniel Allen Butler’s superb 2002 volume Unsinkable (which featured an unforgettable photo a nearby ship had taken in the bright daylight of the 15th: an iceberg with a clearly-visible smudge of paint along one whole length). Welshman’s book derives its power from its specifics – human and otherwise:

Life aboard the Titanic started off smoothly. Even Jenny, the ship’s cat, immediately picked herself a comfortable corner; she varied her usual routine on previous ships by presenting the ship with a litter of kittens in April rather than at Christmas. Jenny had her kittens near Jim, the scullion whose approval she always sought on these occasions and who was devoted to her. This big, patient, overworked man, whose good humour was contagious, always seemed to need something to be kind to. But Jim was quieter than usual and somewhat distracted on this trip. He had left his wife behind, generally as cheerful as himself but on this occasion anxious that he should not join the new ship’s crew because their baby was due. Jim wanted to give in to his wife’s wish for she demanded so little of him, but there was the one-roomed home to keep going, so Jim had sailed, with a promise to bring beautiful clothes for the baby from New York.

Welshman’s narrative unfolds with steady deliberation, every detail grounded on as much eyewitness testimony as possible:

Lifeboat after lifeboat was safely lowered into the water, with its cargo of women and children, each with an ever-increasing load as it became more and more evident that the Titanic was sinking, and that the ship to which they had looked for help was a false hope. Time and again [Titanic second officer Charles] Lightoller had used the lights of the other ship as a means to buoy up the hopes of the many that he now knew were soon to find themselves struggling in the water. Just before launching the last two lifeboats, Lightoller made his final hurried visit to the stairway. It was clear that not only was the ship sinking, but that she was going to sink very soon, and if they were to avoid the disgrace of going down with lifeboats still hanging in the davits, there was not a moment to lose.

The other ship in Welshman’s account is the British passenger ship SS Californian, one of the most dramatic twists in the tale of the Titanic. Bound for Boston, the Californian had encountered a thick ice field on the night of April 14 and cut her engines to wait until daylight. During the night, her captain and officers noticed the lights of a ship less than ten miles away. The Californian signaled the Titanic with a warning about ice, but the Titanic‘s wireless operator was busy with the private messages of the ship’s passengers and ignored the warning. As near as can be determined, the Californian sat and watched the Titanic‘s demise, seeing bright lights, distress rockets, even listing, without offering any further assistance. When Carpathia arrived at full speed around dawn, this other ship had been sitting minutes away from the catastrophe for several hours.

It wasn’t the only false hint of relief the Titanic‘s survivors had, as Welshman relates:

Towards 3 a. m., they saw a faint glow in the sky ahead on the starboard side, the first gleams, they thought, of the coming dawn. They were not certain of the time and were eager perhaps to accept too readily any relief from the darkness – only too glad to be able to look each other in the face and see who their fortunate companions were, and to be free from the hazard, invisible in the darkness, of lying in the path of a steamer. But they were doomed to disappointment – the soft light increased for a time, and died away a little, glowed again, and then remained stationary for some minutes. [They] suddenly realized that it was the Northern Lights – soon the light arched fanwise across the sky, with faint streamers reaching towards the Pole Star … a sigh of disappointment went through the boat as they realized that it was not yet daylight.

Welshman’s account follows all those survivors from the moment the ship goes down to the ends of their lives, a remarkable multi-voiced narrative that grows into something genuinely moving. This book is a perfect, if grim, counterpart to A Night to Remember, since by the time it came to press, even the oldest of Titanic‘s survivors was dead.

Those survivors can live again, in some measure at least, through the ghoulish artifices of fiction – and the Titanic disaster has never lacked for novels, ranging from Clive Cussler’s exuberantly stupid 1976 Raise the Titanic! (exclamation point most certainly in the original) to Eric Fosnes Hansen’s weepy, overwrought 1997 novel Psalm at Journey’s End to Robert Serling’s surprisingly effective 1998 thriller Something’s Alive on the Titanic (no exclamation point, more’s the pity).

In a shrewd and wonderful decision, Europa Editions has decided to add to this list a stylish reprint of the late Beryl Bainbridge’s best novel, 1996’s Every Man for Himself, which follows a feckless young nephew of J. Pierpont Morgan (who in reality begged off at the last minute from joining the passenger list of the doomed liner) from his rush to board Titanic to his various misadventures on the ship to his sobering rescue (“Now that I knew I was going to live, there was something dishonourable in survival”). In best historical novel form, this young Morgan is constantly overhearing and dismissing things the reader knows to worry about:

I heard [ship’s architect Thomas] Andrews say, ‘You yourself showed me a wireless message from the Greek steamer Athenai reporting large quantities of field ice in latitude 41 degrees 51 north and longitude 52 degrees west.’

‘There’s always ice at this time of year,’ [White Star chairman J. Bruce] Ismay said. ‘Damn it all, this is a maiden voyage,’ and then both voices grew heated. I gathered they were arguing about the importance of arriving Tuesday rather than Wednesday.

Bainbridge knows the parlor-thrill of such a device, so she plays it as often as decency allows:

As I walked to the smoke-room, Hopper and Melchett at either elbow and Ida faffing along behind in case I took another turn, I distinctly heard voices utter sentences that didn’t finish. An hour and a half. Possibly … Hadn’t we better cancel that … As we have lived, so will we … If you’ll get the hell out of the …I shook my head to get rid of them and they trailed off like mist pushed by the wind.

But Bainbridge knows what she’s doing: the narrator’s very idleness keys up the reader’s tension and makes the pages fly by, until the climactic moment, which Bainbridge expertly sets off against the triviality of its surroundings:

Butt [Archie, that is, also enjoying a kind of afterlife] and he [Astor] left at half-past eleven. I know that because Butt took out his watch and expressed surprise at the lateness of the hour. I guess he was desperate to get to his bed. They had been gone no more than ten minutes – Ginsberg had ordered a whiskey and Charlie and I had just won three tricks in succession – when suddenly the room juddered; the lights flickered and Ginsberg’s cigarette case, which sat at his elbow, jolted to the floor. It was the sound accompanying the juddering that startled us, a long drawn-out tearing, like a vast length of calico being ripped apart. Melchett said, ‘We’re in collision with another ship,’ and with that we threw down our cards, ran to the doors, sprinted through the Palm Court and out on to the deck. A voice called, ‘We’ve bumped an iceberg – there it goes,’ but though I peered into the darkness I could see nothing.

Every Man for Himself gives us almost no foregrounding and no aftermath – just the disaster itself, through which young Morgan survives to a bitter sunrise, in a passage of Bainbridge’s best work:

Dawn came and as far as the eye could see the ocean was dotted with islands and fields of ice. Some floated with tapering mast-heads, some sailed with monstrous bows rising sheer to the pink-flushed sky, some glided the water in the shapes of ancient vessels. Between this pale fleet the life-boats rocked. There were other things caught upon the water – chairs and tables, crates, an empty gin bottle, a set of bagpipes, a cup without a handle, a creased square of canvas with a girl’s face painted on it; and two bodies, she in a gown of ice with a mermaid’s tail, he in shirt sleeves, the curls stiff as wood shavings on his head, his two hands frozen to the curve of a metal rail. Beyond, where the sun was beginning to show its burning rim, smoke blew from a funnel.

Of course, literature that creates survivors and gently inserts them into the dark story is not far removed from science fiction, and the science fiction of the Titanic almost universally turns on the ‘what if’s of the tragedy – none more comprehensively or effectively than in David Kowalski’s hugely detailed and amazingly assured debut novel The Company of the Dead, in which a man called Stanley Wells (if Kowalski knows the irony of that name in his context, he gets a gold star – or perhaps a white one – for cleverness) travels back in time to save the Titanic and thereby sets off a chain of events that causes a dystopian alternate history to be born. In the 2012 of the novel’s present, Captain John Jacob Lightholler (a descendant of the Titanic officer) and Major Joseph Kennedy (great grand-nephew of John F. Kennedy) live in a world where a declining United States is occupied on the West Coast by the Japanese and on the East Coast by the Germans, a world in which America and Great Britain are mortal enemies and nuclear annihilation waits eagerly behind every diplomatic negotiation. “More and more,” we’re told, “Kennedy was becoming convinced that control of events was illusory, self-mastery an exertion, and free will just a poor and dirty joke” – and certainly he lives in a reality that encourages such thoughts. “This is the Titanic,” Wells is angrily told, when his mission comes to light.

“With a length of eight-hundred-and-eighty-two feet and a displacement of sixty-six thousand tons, she is the grandest creation of mankind to date. Her captain is renowned world-wide. She is described as virtually unsinkable, yet she strikes an iceberg on her maiden voyage with a loss of two thousand lives. Thing is, she’s been visited by a time traveller. A time traveller with an agenda that includes the date of the assassination of the archduke of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Tell me, Doctor, what are we supposed to think? That you came here for a joyride?”

Wells stared at him, aghast.

“As a consequence of your actions,” he’s told, “a bitter falling-out between America and England circumvents an alliance which might have won the Great War. The rest is a nightmare.”

Naturally, an unlikely band of heroes must try to set things right, which eventually (through many a detour in New Mexico, of all places – Roswell, which might make it easier to take) lands them right on board the Titanic, the last place most sane people would want to be. And unlike the ship’s other passengers, they know everything about what’s happening, including those ship’s lights so tauntingly close:

There was a light glow on the horizon. It seemed to flicker.

“It’s a masthead light,” Wells explained to Kennedy. “Captain Smith has ordered a few of the lifeboats to row out to her. Some will try. It’s a safer bet than hanging around here, waiting to be swamped after we hit the water. All the accounts will say that she seemed to recede from their approach. Some will argue that she’s a whaler, trespassing and unwilling to reveal her presence. Most will decide she’s the Californian. Personally, I could give a damn.” He turned away from the view. “She never comes to our aid.”

And like Bainbridge (and Welshman, for that matter, and Walter Lord before them all), Kowalski is moved beyond his usual rhetorical register by the dead, empty calm after the great ship has departed:

A body passed them, face down, drifting slowly. It made a languid turn, as if performing some elaborate routine. The rictus of Astor’s smile was interrupted by a shattered corolla of split skin and bone. Some last kiss, imparted in the ship’s departure. His face returned to the water.

The Company of the Dead is a virtuoso performance, a near-perfect blend of speculative fiction and adventure story, but it shares one thing even with far more pedestrian efforts: it invests Titanic with some greater meaning. This has been the common instinct from the first few days – when an excessively dyspeptic Henry Adams linked the sinking of the great ship with the sinking of the Taft presidency – to the present, when the starter-signal that the ordered world of TV’s Downton Abbey is about to change forever is the loss of the earl’s two young heirs on board the Titanic. The ship and its fate have been pressed into parable by generations eager to find some note of order in the bashing cacophony of the 20th Century. The unwitting social drama of the whole thing – well-dressed millionaires opting for heroic deaths on the promenade while hundreds of steerage passengers clambered over each other below, trampled in narrow corridors and screaming for salvation on blocked staircases – has proved irresistible to writers of every kind, even in the 21st century, when none of those writers can experience anything resembling a 1912-style transatlantic ship-voyage.

Any more than they can experience the siege of Troy, or the Great Fire of London, or the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in Pennsylvania. And that’s almost certainly the point of all the imagining, a hundred years ago, now, and a hundred years hence.

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Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.