Not long after the release of James Cameron's blockbuster movie Titanic a few years ago, I saw a bumper sticker that made a waggish point. At the time, half the U.S. population seemed to be obsessed with worry over whether actor Leonardo DiCaprio would thaw out sufficiently to go on making movies and whether the film would break the box office record held by Star Wars. (He would, and it did.) But the bumper sticker in question expressed a very American cynicism: "Titanic: It Sank, Get Over It."
And yet, even though the great ship went down 92 years ago this month, at 2:20 on a calm morning of April 15, 1912—just five days into its maiden voyage—while the doomed musicians of Wallace Hartley's dance band switched from ragtime to "Nearer My God to Thee," we have yet to get over it. A dispatch sent by the Carpathia, the ship that picked up the 705 survivors in the Titanic's lifeboats, summed up the tragedy with terse, English reserve: "Deeply regret advise you Titanic sank this morning, after collision with iceberg, resulting in serious loss of life. Full particulars later."
For almost a century, those particulars have kept coming, and the desire for them seems unabated. When, in 1985, a French and American undersea research team discovered the sunken ship, lying as solemn and haunting as the ruins of Pompeii, 13,000 feet beneath the North Atlantic, this desire was rekindled. I would venture to guess that the Cameron movie became a commercial phenomenon not just because of the power of its storytelling, but because the true story behind its "Romeo and Juliet get wet" plot remains endlessly gripping.
Anything that connects us to that terrible night, no less shaking to the modern world than the fall of Troy was to the ancients, seems to possess a numinous power far beyond its actual physicality. So a life vest worn by a passenger that fateful night and donated to the Smithsonian in 1982 by the Chicago Historical Society seems to speak to us from the tilting deck of the stricken ship. According to Paul Johnston, a curator at the National Museum of American History, the vest was given to the society by Dr. Frank Blackmarr, a Chicago physician who was a passenger on the Carpathia, which had picked up distress signals from 58 miles away and steamed to the rescue, arriving two hours after the Titanic had gone down.
The rescuers took aboard those who had escaped in the 16 lifeboats and 4 collapsible boats—705 men, women and children out of the 2,227 passengers and crew aboard the Titanic. (Totals of both survivors and passengers vary slightly in different accounts.) Dr. Blackmarr, with a kind of diagnostic reflex, interviewed survivors as he provided medical aid for exposure. Several of his fellow passengers from the Carpathia helped in this effort as well, taking dictation and recording for history accounts like that of an English magistrate whose hands were frozen after a night clinging to an overturned lifeboat. (In 1998, Blackmarr's collection of documents and photographs was sold off at the Dunnings Auction House in Elgin, Illinois, for $50,000.)
It's not hard to imagine the survivors, many having seen their loved ones go into the water as the ship sank, bewildered by what they had witnessed, overwhelmed to find themselves alive and standing on another ship's dry, level deck, stripping off their life vests and dropping them where they stood. But Dr. Blackmarr, who later lectured about the tragedy, knew that some physical relic should be taken away that might tell the story, in addition to the firsthand accounts he had transcribed. The Smithsonian's vest may not have actually saved a life, since most of those who went into the icy water died quickly of exposure, vest or no vest. (Possibly, it belonged to one of the people whose stories he compiled.) But it has certainly helped preserve the life and death of a ship that captured the imagination of the world.
How can such an ordinary object retain such a powerful hold on our collective memory? It is, after all, nothing more or less than what it is, 12 rectangular panels of cork, 6 on the front and 6 on the back, sewn into pockets of rough canvas. It reminds us, however, of one of those signal tragedies in human history that dramatically demonstrate the perils of what the ancient Greeks called hubris. The Titanic was called "the unsinkable ship" by its builders—a boast that any Homeric hero would have recognized as dangerous. The ship was a technical marvel, with three steam turbines that generated 51,000 horsepower capable of 22.5 knots, and 15 huge "watertight" bulkheads designed to prevent the flooding of the hull in any conceivable accident. Except, that is, in the precise set of circumstances of what actually happened. So confident was the White Star Line in the Titanic's invulnerability that the ship's lifeboat capacity was only about half the passengers and crew onboard. So the ship was not just a technological marvel, but a chest-thumping declaration that we had usurped the power of nature. And its sinking was a stark reminder that we are, in the end, still human, not yet gods. It is a lesson we have ignored many times since that awful night, but one that we have never forgotten.