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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Are the Lifeboats Seated According to Class?

Saturday in Easter Week

By now you are probably sick unto death of references to the R.M.S. Titanic as we approach the centennial of her sinking.  Actress Kate Winslet reportedly cringes when she hears "My Heart Must Go On" and every time a cruise ship encounters any kind of mishap, breathless passengers insist "it was just like the Titanic!"  Of course it was... except that it was 2,800 miles away, 90 years later, within sight of land and your inconvenience was limited to warm beer for an afternoon in the Anchors Aweigh Lounge til the lights came back on.

 
Simulated Size Comparison:
Titanic
vs. Oasis of the Seas(Caution: Contains Music)

For those with no other references, the Titanic remains the "go-to" vessel, to which every new passenger ship is compared.  However, for ship geeks like me, the most interesting thing about her is that she almost immediately failed at her job: that is, to get her human cargo safely from one side of the Atlantic to the other.  Her speed and size statistics were almost immediately eclipsed by other vessels, and few can name her two sisters, both of which also met with disaster in varying degrees.  Since then, hundreds of liners -- ever larger, ever faster -- came and went, most of them long forgotten except by a nostalgic handful.  Today's plodding cruise behemoths bear little resemblance to the ships of that time, yet passengers who -- when asked what ship they spent their vacation -- answer, "Um, Carnival?" know Titanic.  People who have never seen the ocean know her name and remember her story.

To me the human dynamic of what happened that night, and what it says about the time in which it occurred, is far more interesting than the ship itself, or even the human errors and vices that made it happen.  We recently started watching the British "costume drama" Downton Abbey, which is set in England in the same time period, and seeing the characters interact with those in their own and in different social strata is helping to understand a little more about the way events unfolded. Just as scullery maid Daisy knows that she is never to set foot in the family dining room, some in third class seemed to accept as normal that their station in life meant that it was more important that a wealthier person should live while they would die.  Just as the Dowager Countess has no problem with the idea that the townspeople let her win the village rose competition every year regardless of merit, the mother of Winslet's fictitious character Rose is more concerned that nobody of lesser pedigree be seated next to her in the lifeboat than the fact that -- for the vast majority of souls on board -- there will be no seat at all.  While that remark was fictitious, it was probably not especially unlikely.

Fast-forward a century, the lines of class -- while not erased -- are certainly blurrier than they once were.  While it is taking an embarrassingly long time to get past the concept of race or ethnicity as a marker of your human worth, at least we've evolved to the point where making such crass remarks is considered bad manners in most circles.  And if someone on the Costa Concordia tried to assert that a balcony suite meant he was entitled to evacuate the tilting cruise ship first, he would have likely been thrown overboard.

Butt-Millet Memorial by Daniel Chester French (1913) (SOS! Control # IAS 77002684)

The Butt-Millet Memorial Fountain
Washington DC
My friend Julio mentioned in his new pop culture blog recently that a novelist used simple statistics and known cultural facts to surmise that "the love that dare not speak its name" was most certainly in bloom aboard the ill-fated ship, and that -- unlike the preposterous inter-class romance in The Movie -- males from from various passage grades and even the crew were free to roam past barriers and interact.  While his assertions are mostly speculation, I learned recently that at least one pair of men on board were widely assumed to be a couple.  Major Archibald Butt, who served as chief military aide and close friend to Presidents Roosevelt and Taft, shared a home in Washington DC with a painter named Francis Davis Millet, and the two were traveling together aboard Titanic after Millet got Taft to convince Butt he needed a recuperative vacation.  Both died, and the fact that a fountain bearing both their names was constructed the following year near the White House signals that their relationship was both recognized and respected by the President is telling considering that -- 100 years later -- the Current Occupant is "still evolving" on the issue.

2 comments:

  1. I love eye-openers like this, THANK YOU!!!
    --you continue to enlighten me...
    --you know I am esp. curious w/ the history of the LGBT community. At one point during my teaching tenure I was going to get a minor in queer studies in Georgia ( the only place I found an accredited degree on the subject, this was before other institutions saw the value in it). YAY to Roosevelt & Taft!
    I think our present leader would do the same; however, he is not ahead of his time, he's merely catching up.
    Julio?? hmmm, I do know a Cage which sounds a lot like him...

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  2. Thank you for referencing my novel "Titanic The Untold Tale of Gay Passengers and Crew" (Centennial edition 2012) Paperback and Kindle. After a year of research, I made sure that all my spatial and social facts about Titanic were correct. From there, I laid in the inevitability of, even at that time, sex tourists, such as Von Gloeden in Taormina, as well as the proportion of gays working in the travel industry. The projected stats alone, which your friend referenced above, indicate that Titanic is one of the greatest overlooked gay disasters in history. BTW, I wrote my Titanic in 1986 as a parable of AIDS and the gay need for survival. Enjoy. Jack www.JackFritscher.com

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