Monday, April 06, 2015

What we're reading...maritime disaster

Dead Wake:
The Last Crossing of the Lusitania,
by Erik Larson

May 7th is the 100th anniversary of one of the most tragic maritime disasters of modern history, the sinking of the British luxury liner Lusitania by a German U-boat during World War I. Erik Larson is a master of a genre that might be described as “novelistic history.” Two of his previous books have been New York Times bestsellers: The Devil in the White City, and In the Garden of Beasts. In Larson’s books, matters of pace and narrative integrity are important, as they would be in a novel, but the art here, unlike historical fiction, involves selection and arrangement rather than invention. In writing his books he engages in a long period of meticulous and focused primary research, and then artfully chooses and pieces together evocative details and carefully selected passages from memoirs and letters into an account that, compared to more traditional historical narratives, gives the reader a heightened sense of intimacy and presence as events unfold. It results in the reader getting a decidedly more visceral and fully realized understanding of an historical event.

The Lusitania docks in New York harbor on September 13th, 1907.

The effectiveness of this form of narration depends, however, on more than just the judicious selection of material and clever construction of how the story is told. One envies the experience of surprise and discovery that Larson has in researching one of his books. In the acknowledgements that follow the text, Larson describes his technique as one of immersion in a narrowly defined subject. He tells us that in the course of doing this work, “Along the way came quiet moments of revelation where past and present for an instant join and history became a tactile thing. I live for these moments.” Those came for him when he touched some artifact from the Lusitania or the U-boat that sunk her. He wants the reader to have that same experience, but to give that experience in writing requires stirring the imagination. While there is not invention or fictional writing here, there is "creative" writing, and it is frequently moving and sometimes simply beautiful, for it is the words alone that must lead the reader to the “tactile” moment Larson wants to share.

A travel poster advertising Cunard's
"Monarchs of the Sea," the Lusitania
and her sister ship the Mauretania, 1907.
Perhaps this understanding, that the intimate sense of being there for the reader must depend on the words and what they evoke, explains what seems to be an obvious omission in the book. With the exception of a frontispiece of the Lusitania leaving its berth in New York, there are no photos that accompany the text. And yet we know from Larson’s descriptions and notes that there are pictures of individuals who made the voyage, his featured characters. There exist artifacts that have been photographed (Larson himself took photos of the conning tower of the U-boat that sunk the Lusitania that is on display in Denmark), a motion picture of the Lusitania leaving the dock in New York from which stills could have been extracted, and a carefully numbered archive of photos of the dead that Cunard officials took and that Larson reviewed in Liverpool, an experience that he said produced moments like “sticking a finger in a mildly charged electric socket.” These things are described, but they are not reproduced. The choice is deliberate. Like a novelist, what Larson wants is for us to imagine them, knowing that this creates something for the reader more powerful and intimate than mere seeing.

The sinking of the Lusitania was used in
propaganda posters and military recruiting
posters in both Britain and Ireland, 1915.
There is, of course, an inevitable trade-off that comes with Larson’s technique, one that he was aware of as he describes his project. The narrow focus and immersion in detail may bring the singular incident to life, but readers of traditional historical narrative may miss the larger contextualization of the event. They get an enhanced sense of what and how something happened, but not the ultimate reasons (however broad, complex, vague or speculative those might be) about why it happened. In his chapter called “The Lost,” Larson brings home to us the terrible human cost, and confronts us with the story of the dead. How, we must wonder, did the sinking of a passenger liner become a legitimate, a morally acceptable, target of war? It is clear that the Lusitania was targeted not because it carried some small munitions (something that might or might not have been known with any certainty by the Germans) but as part of a campaign to cut off all commercial transport to Britain. The sinking of the Lusitania was a much-celebrated event in Germany. What is important about the sinking of the ship is that it seems to presage what war in the 20th Century would become, total war in which--in addition to military targets--general civilian populations would become targets as well in any conflict. This was shocking because it was something new, but how this new thing came about is outside the scope of this book. On proximate causes, however, Larson gives an exceptional summation and analysis, in the course of which he shows how just a matter of minutes, a few degrees on the compass point, or a matter of several meters in the point of the torpedo’s impact could have made a difference. It is a picture, in a way, of how fate works--all the small things that came together against the odds in just the exact sequence to create a terrible disaster.

The wealthy were sent home in a lead casket for burial.
For others, it was an elm coffin placed in a mass grave
in the Irish countryside near Queenstown, Ireland.

Then there are the more nefarious speculations about the disaster. Why didn’t the British Admiralty do more to protect the Lusitania on its approach to Liverpool, in view of what it knew about the recent activity of German U-boats in the area? It appears to be more than a matter of negligence. The Admiralty took care to protect warships in the area and gave their protection priority over that of the Lusitania, but on an even darker note, there seems to have been the political calculation that if the Lusitania were to be sunk, there would be useful propaganda value in such an event and that the act might draw the United States into the war against Germany.

Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of all in the account of the tragedy of the Lusitania is the glancing portraits Larson gives us of world leaders. We get a rather whimsical Woodrow Wilson, harmless enough, but when it comes to some of these figures Larson has the knack for dispatching any uncertainty we might have had about their sanity or moral rectitude with a few choice words from their own pen. We are astonished by things said by Winston Churchill, British Admiral Jacky Fisher, Wilson’s Secretary of State Robert Lansing, and Germany’s foreign secretary Arthur Zimmermann, a coterie, it appears, of rather cold-hearted mad men at the helm of world affairs. The Lusitania was but one unwitting pawn in the game. No wonder, we think, that this is how the world goes.

The "extra" edition of the New York Times, May 8, 1915 in which the death toll is

revised upwards, and the survival of the captain is confirmed. Charles Frohman,
the famous Broadway impresario, is noted as still missing, as is Alfred Gwynne
Vanderbilt. Neither of them survived, and Vanderbilt's body was never recovered.
The headline is incorrect. It was later established that only one torpedo sank the Lusitania.

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