Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster
Lest you think, “Just another Titanic retelling,” Down with the Old Canoe is about us. Stephen Biel combs contemporary accounts to show how this “end-of-an-era” disaster has been re-interpreted over the years. In 1912 Titanic symbolized technological hubris. Anglo-Saxon men were the chivalrous breed: standing aside for their wives and fighting off multi-cultural brutes from steerage who would sink the lifeboats. Suffragettes were warned not to be uppity, because if they were equal to men, they might not have survived.
Titanic resurged in the 1950s during the Cold War, when new technology threatened the world. Once more chivalry reigned, but Walter Lord’s more even-handed account revealed a spectrum of behavior across the classes.
Old Canoe was first published in 1996, a year before Cameron’s movie. Biel updated his book to demonstrate that Titanic symbolism has reversed course. First-class men are stuffed shirts, likely to bribe their way onto the lifeboats. Steerage is where you go to have fun with ‘real folk.’ And despite 1500 deaths, Cameron strives for a happy ending.
Will Titanic rise again, with a fresh cultural interpretation? Who knows. All I know is that Old Canoe is a fascinating analysis, and highly recommended.