Book Review: 'Down With the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster'
”Titanic buffs, unlike Civil War buffs, don’t do reenactments,” notes this intriguing if somewhat overearnest account of our ongoing obsession with the 1912 shipwreck. Titanic buffs do make pilgrimages to the Belfast shipyard where it was built. They commune, much like Trekkies, at national conventions. They produce Titanic movies (among the earliest, Leni Riefenstahl’s 1933 opus S.O.S. Eisberg), novels, folk songs (source of the Down With the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster‘s catchy title), miniseries, Broadway shows, and videogames. What does it all mean? Historian Biel deconstructs the Titanic cult decade by decade. He’s at his best on the early years: 1912, he reports, was a year of generalized disaster — lynchings down South, labor violence out West. Contentious capitalists, socialists, preachers, and suffragettes found arguments for their cause in the sudden sinking of the ”floating palace.” These days the Titanic is commodity as well as cult. You can buy a piece of engine coal for $25. This book, for the same price, dredges the national psyche and comes up with some authentic treasures. B+