Myth of the Titanic by Richard Howells

Steve Dunham

May 28, 2015
The Myth of the Titanic by Richard Howells (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 160 pp: The book’s content is much narrower than the title suggests: it covers the Titanic myth in popular British culture from 1912 till the outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914.

“Myths are about beliefs and not facts,” emphasizes the author (p. 38). He quotes Bronislaw Malinowski: “The function of myth, briefly, is to strengthen tradition and endow it with a greater value and prestige” (p. 40).

“The myth of the Titanic … is a late Edwardian reading of the late Edwardian experience, a story they told themselves about themselves.… it served to find meaning in a random event” (p. 53, 54). Again he stated, “The sinking of the Titanic was a random event,” (p. 57) “an arbitrary event” (p. 152). But the story “of the Titanic is a modern myth, communicated, encoded and preserved in popular culture.… a complex blend of fact and fiction … the wishful rewriting of history,” containing “societal as opposed to historical truths.… the unconscious results of ‘untamed thinking’ in which societal needs are expressed and fulfilled.… collective representations of cultures and societies … the result of social need … to construct order and meaning from an arbitrary world” (pp. 58-59).

The book addresses five myths: that “Women and children first” was the uniformly followed practice when the Titanic sank; that British gentlemen were more civilized than other people; that Captain Smith told the crew, “Be British!”; that the band played “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” and that the Titanic was widely regarded as unsinkable until the disaster. Howell’s purpose is not to demolish these myths but to show what they say about late Edwardian British culture.

Howells writes as though he has uncovered and examined all the popular texts about the Titanic from 1912 through 1914: “All the popular texts agree that the celebrated edict ‘Women and children first!’ was universally obeyed” (p. 60) and the story of the band playing “Nearer, My God, to Thee” “was never challenged” in popular texts (p. 127). The author lists approximately 15 source from the period he studied, and he repeats some statements and quotations twice or even three times. Without the repetition, the book would have been much shorter than its 160 pages.
Furthermore, his handling of quotations makes me wonder how carefully they were transcribed. He sets off a quotation that “the ‘Titanic’ sunk” with “[sic]” (p. 122) but other doubtful quotations such as “a single women” (p. 69) or “smilingly n the face” (p. 131) are presented without any assurance that those are quotations are correct.

A disappointing aspect of the book is the way Howells’ own apparent belief–that life is meaningless–is repeatedly stated as fact: he refers to “our need to fashion meaning from a meaningless world” (p. 160). The Titanic myth “manufactured meaning out of meaninglessness,” he asserts (p. 158). Only once did I notice a reference to it as anything else: “a wholly avoidable tragedy” (p. 115), which I think comes closer to explaining the public’s fascination with the Titanic even more than a hundred years later.

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