Down with the Old Canoe

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Dave Gittins

Mar 16, 2000
This book has the distinction

This book has the distinction of being on of the few Titanic books written by a genuine professional historian. Its subject is the reaction to the disaster as seen in the US. Steven Biel's field is American social history.

It's full of perceptive comments on the state of the US at the time and discusses the various ways in which different parts of US society (blacks, feminists, churches etc) interpreted the event.

He looks at more recent books which have interpreted the tale in the light of more modern concerns. It also takes a look at the phenomenon of the Titanic buffs and their approach to the story.

This is a valuable book and a badly needed counterweight to some of the familiar material which is so often without a sense of historical perspective.

There is another book called "The Myth of the Titanic" by Richard Howells. This covers some of the same ground from a British angle.
Dec 12, 1999
Dave -
There's been some discussion of "Down With The Old Canoe" in another (now archived) conversation, "Titanic, phantasy, addition, or what?" Obviously, author Biel is very perceptive. But, obviously, he has a perspective, and utilizes very negative characterizations of facts to get that across. Further, I didn't like the way that Biel seems to set himself above it all. For example, his chapter about Titanic "buffs" in "buffdome" comes down pretty hard on ordinary people doing what they enjoy doing. Biel likens THS to a church, whose members "spread the word." This chapter is an interesting essay. Nonetheless, when one has the advantage of perspective it's easy to tear other people apart, and to get quite extreme about it. Does Biel think that somehow, he's better than these people? What license does he have to make them appear so foolish? On the other hand, as Philip Gowan expressed in the aforementioned conversation, people's interest in the Titanic and Titanic memorabilia really has gotten out of hand. Gowan describes several instances which occurred at at recent convention. Another thing to consider is that, I think, Biel's book was written before the internet came into being. The internet probably has had a tremendous impact on issues Biel raised. With the internet one may indulge in "Titanica" at any time, whereas in the past, one had to go to the library, write a letter, attend a convention, or organize something. If Biel's message is for "buffs" to get a life, then the internet could make the situation it worse - - with more people sitting at computers, sending messages around the world, arguing minutae with someone thousands of miles away. In sum, this is a good book to read, with a message that, while extreme in some respects, reinforces a level of common sense.
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