Washington: Katherine Howe is a Cornell University lecturer in American Studies and author of “The House of Velvet and Glass,” a novel set during the aftermath of the Titanic sinking. An interview with her after the 101-year anniversary of the Titanic, which departed on its maiden voyage on April 10, 1912.
What does the Titanic have to do with the Occupy movement?
“One of the reasons we're still so obsessed with the Titanic is because of the ridiculous concentration of wealth that it carried. Details would include Eleanor Widener's million dollar pearls, John Jacob Astor IV, the richest man in the world in 1912 who died on Titanic, and the fact that a first class cabin ticket cost the equivalent of $90,000 in contemporary dollars - more akin to a ticket on Virgin Galactic than on Air France. There is a lot to be said about the relatively low mortality for first class passengers, versus the high mortality for third class, and the very, very high mortality for the crew. The Titanic was a potent symbol even before it went down.
How is the Titanic like 9/11?
“The magnitude of loss of life was shocking, as was the delay in figuring out what really was happening. The New York Times was the first to report that the boat was sunk with enormous loss of life, and that was because they were reporting a guess. The role of wireless technology, both in summoning, or failing to summon, help and in reporting the news is a very interesting part of the story. When only three years later the Lusitania - an equally grand ship run by Cunard, the rival shipping company to White Star, which had run Titanic - is torpedoed by the Germans, with a similar loss of life, it's too much for public opinion to bear. The loss of Lusitania and its attendant public outcry help finally propel the US into World War I. The parallels with 9/11 are startling - the massive fatalities in a mode of transport thought to be incredibly safe, the public outcry pushing a nation into war, and the sense that the times, whatever they are, will never be the same again.”
The lasting effects of the Titanic
“For years after the Titanic went down it haunted the US - especially the US elite - much the way it did in Britain. To wit: Harvard's library is named for a Titanic victim, and was funded by his mother. The aftermath changed high society, and changed shipping laws. Soon enough liners would all be required to carry enough lifeboats to save everyone on board, which was not the case in 1912. It also shook everyone's belief in technology. Titanic was in fact the first time that the distress call ‘SOS’ was used - up until that point the distress call on wireless, which was still not standard on ocean liners - was ‘CQD’ After Titanic the laws would be changed about lifeboats on ocean liners, but also about wireless operation. Further, the standard path for ocean liners crossing the Atlantic shifted south.”