Reviewed by Mike Poirier
Interest in the Titanic ebbs and flows like the tide. Years ago, a new book on the subject only came out once and awhile. Ship enthusiasts and researchers would run and buy it to devour what new knowledge may be contained within its pages. The past thirty years or so, the amount of books on the subject has greatly multiplied, especially when the general public became interested due to its 1985 discovery, the artifact recovery and exhibits, and then Cameron's blockbuster film. The increase in books meant that the bulk of the new publications were rehashed material bordering on plagiarism, poorly researched, and, in some cases, the author just made things up to make it more interesting. Luckily, there are still several excellent books to be had, but one must be careful to sort out the good ones from the bad ones. The 100th anniversary may be the last big wave of interest and it will again quiet down to where people interested in ocean liners and Titanic are the only buyers.
The product description would excite anyone interested in Titanic. It claims the following,
The dean of ocean liner historians uncovers fascinating and unknown aspects of this epic disaster. This is a book unlike any other. Rather than offering simply a detailed retelling of the Titanic sinking on her maiden voyage, John Maxtone-Graham devotes his considerable knowledge and impeccable prose to a discussion of salient, provocative, and rarely investigated components of the story, including dramatic survivors’ accounts of the events of the fateful night, the role of newly invented wireless telecommunication in the disaster, the construction and its ramifications at the famous Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, and the dawn rendezvous with the rescue ship Carpathia. Richly written and vividly detailed, this is the book Titanic buffs have been waiting for.
The first chapter covers the beginning of wireless and background on Samuel Morse and Guglielmo Marconi. Maxtone-Graham humorously notes that wireless was similar to texting on a cell phone, showing messages between wireless operators that were more about personal lives and less about business. The book has some interesting anecdotes as seen in chapter 2, "Glittering lights". Captain Dow of the Carmania that had just crossed the same general area as the Titanic was sailing into. "I have never seen field ice so far south." A passenger on the same voyage said, "It was beautiful but it was mighty scary." He correctly notes that every ship near that ice field would receive some type of "notoriety" In another chapter, we learn Titanic victim Robert Wareham had several children. His widow begged them not to go to sea, but one, Cyril did anyways. The history of the Ocean Dock is explored as well.
The chapters covering the sinking have a mix of newer and well-known accounts. The problem is when looking at a new version of an old account such as the exchange between Mr. and Mrs. Smith or a some new information such as Leontine Aubart being the one who woke up Benjamin Guggenheim after the ship struck the iceberg, researchers will ask, "Where did he get that information?" The book is not foot-noted or end-noted. If this was an article that was just a sample of a larger work in progress, that would be understandable, but as this is the final version, it's hard to understand why this was not included. The bibliography reads like any other Titanic book and doesn't show anything new. Perhaps, as Maxtone-Graham writes about his friendship with the late author of A Night to Remember, Walter Lord, we can assume that perhaps he used some of Lord's research files which are now at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. For now, one can only speculate about his sources.
The book itself is pleasant enough for people who do not know much about the liner. The writing has traces of the author's self-described 'Transatlantic accent', which sometimes weighs down the book, “Shipboard's seductive fabric unraveled, rules and regimes abrogated.” Having finished reading it, I concluded it really is a book for beginners with numerous errors that could have been easily cross-checked. Much of what you read you can find in other works about the ship. The preface mentions a letter from Captain Smith's daughter who Maxtone-Graham mistakenly refers to as Melinda. Her name was Helen but went by her middle name, Melville. Major errors include his bizarre interpretation of William Slopers late-in-life account. Sloper distinctly says he was in the library when asked to join a card game. He mentions being in the library twice. The author glides over this and says Sloper, Dorothy and Pauline Gibson, and Frederic Seward were playing cards in the smoking room. Most everyone knows that women were not allowed in the smoking room. Maxtone-Graham having written extensively about life aboard the liners should have seen this as clue that he misread the account. He then takes time to explain that Sloper was mistaken and could not have seen Captain Smith, Thomas Andrews, Bruce Ismay, etc walking through the smoking room. The author goes on to say Sloper was in lifeboat number one (“farthest forward on the starboard side,” the author says) with a capacity for 65 people and only carried 19. Firstly, Sloper and his companions were in boat 7. Boat 7 had a capacity for 65 and held 28 and was the furthest aft on the first class part of the boat deck. Lastly, boat one had 12 occupants and had a capacity for 40, as it was one of two wooden emergency boats. Maxtone-Graham talks about the Duff Gordons escape in the “emergency” boat one in a later chapter. Had the author cross-checked his information in this slender volume, he would have discovered these errors.
Another flaw is the author's ability to suspend disbelief to make an interesting story. Oskar Palmquist claimed to have swum to a lifeboat and a woman held out her shawl to help pull him in and warm him. It sounds good, but the silliest tidbit is having the kind woman with shawl die of hypothermia without her shawl. That never happened as there are only a small, handful of instances of people being pulled from the water that did not include collapsibles A and B. Another account he uses is that of Edward Ryan. He claims Ryan went all the way to the stern where he and a woman climbed over the rail and shimmied down the log line into a passing lifeboat. It's a fantastic story, but again, not true. Had Maxtone-Graham did more than cursory research on the people he was writing about, he would have found that no lifeboat rescued people that way. Ryan's other accounts, which are accesible online and through other researchers, distinctly says he put a towel on his head and with his long overcoat passed himself off as a women while stepping into a lifeboat.
He also misreads the account of the Beckwiths. The author has Captain Smith of all people telling Mrs. Beckwith that everyone in her party, including the men, could enter boat 5. The accounts about this couple have always been consistent in saying it was Mr. Ismay who invited them into the boat. One gets the impression Maxtone-Graham only briefly scanned the accounts before using them in this book. There are also assumptions in the book that a serious author would not use. He claims victim Edith Evans slept through the Titanic's crash into the iceberg and, when summoned, wore her warmest coat? There's no account by her companions who survived about this, so we must assume the author was filling in the blanks. He lists a number of well-known Titanic researchers and authors for helping him with this book. Perhaps if they had seen an advance copy, they could have pointed out the numerous, and fairly obvious errors before this book was printed.
The book ends with letters from Walter Lord to researcher Leslie Reade, written as if they were passengers aboard the ship. Looking back at the product description, the book does not live up to the hype. Again, it would be a beginners book, but certainly not “rarely investigated components of the story.”
Titanic Tragedy: A New Look at the Lost Liner
By John Maxtone-Graham
Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company