Like many others, I have been fascinated by the buzz surrounding the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Some have commented that this maritime disaster was one of the most memorable events of the 20th century. Memorable, perhaps, because it symbolized a fin de siècle, the end of an era which had been characterized by an unbridled optimism that human history would know only smooth sailing ahead.
When the Titanic was launched from the Belfast ship yards, the world was just acclimating to electricity, the radio, and the automobile. The Wright brothers had demonstrated the possibility of fixed-wing flight just nine years before. And now here was one more mind-boggling innovation: a glorious ship that was speedy and unsinkable. What an appropriate name, Titanic (meaning great force or power), for a ship designed to triumph over nature. But as everyone who has seen the movie knows, the unsinkable sank one dark night on its first time out in the ocean.
One of the more recent and interesting Titanic-themed books is Andrew Wilson's Shadow of the Titanic which focuses less on the ship itself and more on the people who were aboard for that maiden voyage to New York. How did they handle themselves when the abandon-ship order was given? And what happened to them in the years that followed?
Among the many stories Wilson tells, I found myself drawn most to three men who had at least one thing in common. Each of them—at a given moment—might have been able to do something that would have averted the sinking of the Titanic.
The first of the three is Bruce Ismay, the managing director of the White Star Lines which had built the Titanic. In testimony before a congressional committee investigating ...