The Titanic End Of A Dream by Wyn Craig Wade


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I acquired this book today at the local bookstore for half price. Although purported to be the "complete, definitive" story of the disaster, it mostly concentrates on the Senate hearings. Wade may be one of the first Illiad-Titanica bards out there . . . after, of course, Walter Lord. The book shows its age with all the dripping Greek Tragedian anaologies, and heavy Romanticism about Titanic.

Oddly enough, Wade seems to think Bruce Ismay was not treated fairly, and in fact, refers to him as a "scapegoat."

Indeed, his view of Ismay is somehow tied in with the "End Of A Dream" posture throughout the book. He says:

"In reducing the mistakes of the calamity to the evil of a few, society absolves itself of all culpability."

That's not true. The maliciousness of just a few highly placed persons can do a lot of damage. And the problem is not that society "absolves itself" but that society lets the few evil ones get away with it.

Wade sees the fault for the disaster as an "Anglo American" failure. "This Age of Security and Splendor automatically condones its grave social injustices; and responsibility for these conditions has yet to be owned completely by Anglo-americans in the late twentieth century."

Notably, Wade's book focuses significantly on African Americans, the women's sufferage movement, and other social injustice issues - - to bring them into the Titanic's realm by way of linking Titanic and social injustice to "the Guilded Age." He concluded, about Titanic, that "she is Hubris."

There's nothing wrong with focusing on social injustice. But in this context it's contrived. I could be wrong but it seems to me that Wade should have dispensed with the platitudes and just sat down, and imagined the night of April 14-15, 1912 from the vantagepoint of being in a lifeboat. Listening to those screams, the disappearance of the ship, and experiencing the inability to do anything about it, in effect, letting people (men, women and children) die - - Wade probably wouldn't see it as a "dream" or "splendor" at all. In all likelihood, as many survivors subsequently expressed about the disaster, he wouldn't have wanted to hear anything about it ever again.

Do I recommend the book? No, because there are books out there with a much less sublime, much more critical - - perspective on the Titanic disaster. Certain people are to blame, and I believe Ismay has always been one deserving candidate.
 

Inger Sheil

Member
Sorry, Jan - I have to flatly disagree with you on your assessment of Wade's work. I believe it's one of the finest pieces of research and most original (and influential) works ever written in the field.

Anyone who - as Wade did - has spent any time perusing the newspapers in the wake of the disaster would be aware of the vicious slandering of Ismay. While his exact role in the disaster is still a subject of considerable debate amongst historians, the media in the wake of the disaster was not interested in waiting to learn any of the facts - the simple fact he had survived saw him pilloried in the press, and the subject of the most outrageously exagerated reports.

Have you had a chance to read some of Paul Louden-Brown's work recently published in The Commutator? I'm not suggesting that Ismay was a little white lamb who was unjustly crucified, but there is - as Louden-Brown's work suggests - a good deal more to be understood about his character and actions.

Wade is by no means an Ismay apologist - his portrait of the man, while it moves away from the old Snidely-whiplash, moustache curling villain that so many Titanic 'buffs' would like him to be, is hardly flattering.

You quote Wade:

"In reducing the mistakes of the calamity to the evil of a few, society absolves itself of all culpability."

Then respond:

That's not true. The maliciousness of just a few highly placed persons can do a lot of damage. And the problem is not that society "absolves itself" but that society lets the few evil ones get away with it.

Wade is not saying that there are no culpable individuals in the world (see his treatment of Lord), or that it is not possible for the 'maliciousness' of individuals to do damage. However, he is arguing - very effectively, in my opinion - that society needs the hero/villain polarity. When a tragedy on the scale of the Titanic disaster happens, we need to believe that we can see the traces of the malign individual at work, rather than the far less traceable societal forces.

What Wade seeks to do - and accomplishes brilliantly - is place the disaster in the context of its age. Why were these vessels and their crews pushed as they were? Because the public demanded it. While the role of the individual in the disaster can and should be examined - and Wade does examine them - the social and historical mileau that shapes individuals and their actions is just as important, if not more so. Wade - like Marcus -has moved out of the box of popular history, with its stress on the hero/villain duality, and provides us with a much more profound understanding of the causes of the disaster as a result.

There's nothing wrong with focusing on social injustice. But in this context it's contrived

I see nothing contrived in Wade's interpretation whatsoever (if you want contrived, look to Gardiner's absurd switcheroo theory). Wade does what so many writers have failed to do - he presents us with the tools to understand the era and the individuals that moved in it and the forces that shaped them. He also provides us with valuable insight into the impact that the disaster had on American society and the dominant social issues of the day.

I could be wrong but it seems to me that Wade should have dispensed with the platitudes and just sat down, and imagined the night of April 14-15, 1912 from the vantagepoint of being in a lifeboat. Listening to those screams, the disappearance of the ship, and experiencing the inability to do anything about it, in effect, letting people (men, women and children) die - - Wade probably wouldn't see it as a "dream" or "splendor" at all. In all likelihood, as many survivors subsequently expressed about the disaster, he wouldn't have wanted to hear anything about it ever again.

Wade does not indulge in 'platitudes' - indeed, you've missed the point of the title and one of the main points of the book, which is an attack on romanticism. He is highly critical of what he calls a 'barrier of romanticism'. He also does just what you suggest - takes us to the brutal reality of people freezing to death in the mid-Atlantic, and does so in a very powerful way.

In attacking the romanticisation of the Titanic disaster, he writes:

Fibers of the rose-colored veil that fell over the catastrophe had been spun in the American newspapers as soon as the survivors had disembarked from the Carpathia. But these individual fibers seem to have been woven into an enduring fabric by the British press in response to nationally embarrassing bits of testimony wired over from the Senate hearings. George Bernard Shaw, an eyewitness to the romantic transformation, began questioning his own sanity

Wade goes on to quote a lengthy passage from Shaw, one of the most eloquent and emphatic of the 1912 deriders of the myths that had grown up around the disaster.

The book is not a comprehensive text dealing with all aspects of the disaster - much of it is told almost in cinematic 'flashbacks' to the words of survivors, framed around the American inquiry. Although it contains references to the British media and a brief piece on the British Inquiry, it is almost entirely concerned with American society and the impact of the disaster. And it is here that the books strenght lies - it pioneered a reappraisal of the American inquiry. I don't agree with all Wade's conclusions or interpretations of individuals (particularly some of those pertaining to Senator Smith - and I don't think it was necessary to have a whole biographical chapter devoted to him!), but I think it's a valid interpretation woven into a comprehensive whole. What's more, much of the work is original and valuable research - not a regurgitation of other people's work.

Do I recommend the book? Absolutely. Indeed, I would go so far as to say it is one of the top ten best titles in the field. Wade is one of the writers who has moved away from simplistic, reductive interpretations and apportionment of blame, and one of the few in a field dominated by writers of popular history who achieves a depth of sophistication in his approach and understanding of the disaster and its context. Even if you don't agree with his conclusions - and I don't agree with him in all respects - it's a remarkable and valuable contribution to the Titanic field.
 

Tracy Smith

Member
"he is arguing - very effectively, in my opinion - that society needs the hero/villain polarity. When a tragedy on the scale of the Titanic disaster happens, we need to believe that we can see the traces of the malign individual at work, rather than the far less traceable societal forces."

Very good point, Inger.

It reminds me of what Frank Strachan (US rep for Leyland Line) said to Stanley Lord, "They wanted a bloody goat, Lord, and they got you!"
 
Wade makes my top three- it was an inspiration to see an approach other than nuts and bolts, diagrams and blueprints and to consider Titanic- IDEA and not just thing. The prose is nearly poetic in some cases and a joy to devour. He brilliantly lifts the 1912 veils of illusion and complacency, one by one, and rings the curtain down on the end of the era and the dream.
Maiden Voyage by Geoffrey Marcus would probably come a close second.
 
Wade is certainly among the great contributors to Titanic writing. I don't begrudge him his chapter on Smith, especially as there is no available biography of this intriguing character. I can't say that I agree with all his conclusions about him. I think the US enquiry was far more of a Smith ego trip than Wyn would admit. Overall though, definitely among the best books.
 

Pat Cook

Member
I would have to agree with Dave here. To me the book seemed so much of a validation of Senator Smith and his techniques that it literally detracted from it's content for me. Also, he would bring up a point and leave it hanging - such as early on mentioning that it was due to American Immigration Laws that Steerage passengers be locked away from the rest...and that was it. I kept waiting for him to mention this later during the hearings, make some valid point about how the British running the ship were blamed even though they were obeying U S laws, but he never did. Just my opinion here, of course.

Best regards,
Cook
 
A

Allison Lane

Guest
This is just my opinion for what it's worth, but I really enjoyed this book. I checked it out from the library last year and it's on my wish list of books to get if I had the money. I rather liked that it concentrated on the hearings, and overall I thought it was a fascinating read. Just my two cents.

Also, while I'm here, would anyone recommend The Only Way To Cross by John Maxtone-Graham? I'm sure I've seen it mentioned before. I ran across it at the library this weekend and at the moment am mildly regretting not checking it out.


-Allison L.
 
Allison- RUN, do not walk to the library and check out ONLY WAY TO CROSS- with the Wade book and Maiden Voyage , it is my top three choice. I stayed up most of one night with a little booklight reading it. He has captured the romance of the transatlantic era as well as providing a fount of details beautifully wrapped in first-class prose and entertaining style.
 
Here's my opinion...I think Wade characterises the Senate Inquiry better than anyone else out there. It is commonplace to characterise Senator Smith as a buffoon without understanding his motives, but while that may have sufficed for the press (especially the British press) in 1912, modern-day historians should strive to provide a deeper analysis. As far as hanging threads were concerned, well...those very threads were left hanging in 1912. Maybe Wade should have picked up those threads and given his own conclusions, but since he didn't, the door is left open for someone in our generation to pick up where he left off. One cannot answer all the questions, or there won't be any left for those researchers who follow. :)

Parks
 
The Only Way To Cross is a magnificent book...

I recently re-read Wade and enjoyed it all over again. It is a fine contribution, concentrating obviously on the US Senate Inquiry, but I have to agree with Jan, he should have stopped there.

To my mind, the tack-on bits about later
African-American views of the Titanic, and coverage of the Titanical skirmish between both sides on the Votes-for-Women controversy, have really no place in his overall premise. These sections at the end of the book really jar badly in my view.

The book was written by a Michigan professor about a home-state hero, William Alden Smith.
He provides some great insights, especially via Smith's private papers. So hats off there.

But it occasionally veers into the wildly hagiographical. A small enough fault - but Wade would have us believe that Smith never asked a single dumb question in the whole Inquiry.

Let us be honest: Smith was a remarkably strong figure and driven man (Wade argues superbly that he created the inquisitorial nature of modern expert-witness hearings on Capitol Hill - praise him for Watergate or blame him for Kenneth Starr as you will)... but the simple truth is that Smith *did* ask a whole lot of fool questions.

Give Smith every praise for getting the show on the road and mining a vast amount of material that helps to keep ET going, but he did also interrupt witnesses with a whole lot of loony misconceptions and pet obsessions.

They're there in the transcript for anyone to see.

Mind you, there's no doubt - as Wade points out - that Smith's Inquiry was good value. It cost a fraction of the British whitewash.

As for *some* of Smith's conclusions, they're embarrassing. His final report has many many mistakes (okay, so he rushed writing it) yet some of the misrepresentations of evidence are very serious indeed.

And his final speech... seeing the Titanic "again instinct with life" etc... is in some parts simply squirmable.

So, not quite a "buffoon", Parks, as the British papers painted him for their own reasons, but not quite Solomon either - sorry, Wade.

Instead you perhaps could argue that the same indeflectable sense of purpose that allowed him set up the Inquiry in the first place would paradoxically also blinker him in the way he drove the evidence along his own particular path.

But as to the Wade book itself - very readable, thought-provoking and unusually informative.

* Some might also think the Taft/Roosevelt "Bull Moose" stuff also rather irrelevant, but I thought it was interesting. Good background as to how Smith could act while the rest of Washington was distracted or just inert.
 
I'll add my vote for Maxtone-Graham's "The Only Way To Cross" as well as his later "Liners To The Sun". Buy 'em! They're worth it.

In re Wyn Craig Wade, while one can argue that some of his little tangents get a bit tiresome, I found them fascinating. Nothing ever happens in a vacuum and in order to understand history, you HAVE to understand it's figures as well as the attitudes of the time. In popular history, it's all too easy to go off into the simplistic, and portrayals of both Bruce Ismay and Captain Lord do that all the time. Wade avoids that pitfall, and his bio of Senator Smith helps us understand the man better, to say nothing of why he ran the investigation as he did. Wade's book is one of the top in the feild of Titanic research.

Cordially,
Michael H. Standart
 

Tracy Smith

Member
I loved "The Only Way to Cross" as well. If I'm not mistaken, didn't Maxtone-Graham help put together Violet Jessop's book?
 

Inger Sheil

Member
Agreeing here with Cook and Sen re Wade's Smith hagiography - selective decisions on which portions of testimony to quote leaves a different impression to reading the evidence in its entirety. Wade firmly believes the man had a grand plan, and never asked a stupid question. I believe Smith certainly had a direction he was moving in, but that doesn't mean that every question asked was clever and cooly caluculated. Frequently I got the impression he was simply fishing (and some of his fishing was fruitful). A little more sympathy with some of the men who had been through a horrific ordeal would not have gone astray on Wade's part, either. Adversarial questioning of some of the witnesses didn't help matters either, but Wade skims fairly lightly over this.

However, it certainly gave us a fresh look at the American inquiry! I don't agree with all his conclusions, but I respect his original research.
 
Hi Inger,

That's a nice piece you wrote, and I compliment you on it. But, without disputing all the points raised, consider this one:

the social and historical mileau that shapes individuals and their actions is just as important, if not more so. Wade - like Marcus -has moved out of the box of popular history, with its stress on the hero/villain duality, and provides us with a much more profound understanding of the causes of the disaster as a result.

Isn't this just another way of arguing that Wade is telling us, "Well, society gets the ship disasters it deserves." I think it is.

In the case of race and sexism, such a statement about disasters may be a fair one - - because those problems rested upon widespread rank-and-file belief systems about a race, or about women. Society was indeed to blame for the disasterous race riots, race hatred and race crimes, and battering that women suffered for centuries - - because widespread attitudes and behavior among members of American society condoned all of that.

But Titanic is a singular event. Wade tries to make it like race and sexism by suggesting it is a watershed event for the "Guilded Age." I think it's a very tenuous connection. More likely, he's trying to make something broader and more romantic out of the ship's sinking than is actually there - - which is my main problem with the book.

Thanks, everyone for your feedback.
 
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