The Loss of the S.S. Titanic, by Lawrence Beesley. Published by Houghton Mifflin. 800-225-3362. 204 pages. $13 paperback.
Books about the tragic events surrounding Titanic’s maiden voyage cram the shelves of bookshops, but Beesley’s account stands out for two reasons. First, the author was not just an interested bystander or historian; he was a passenger on the doomed liner and spent several hours as a passenger in the ship’s lifeboat 13 as well. Second, Beesley’s account of the disaster first appeared in print just two months following the sinking, when the whole world was still captivated by the many troubling questions surrounding that fateful night: Was Captain Smith guilty of maintaining a reckless speed through the iceberg-infested waters? Did the ship’s crew behave properly during the final moments before the ship went under? Did nearby ships ignore Titanic’s distress signals? Beesley provides an eyewitness perspective on many of these questions.
Given his closeness to the event and his narrow escape, you might expect Beesley to excoriate White Star Line, his fellow passengers, or a cruel fate for the horrendous loss of life. Because he doesn’t, but rather provides a completely thoughtful and even-handed narrative, his story is among the most poignant and interesting of Titanic accounts.
Beesley recalls many of the people he met on board in the days before the collision and draws intimate portraits of ordinary people; he’s sometimes forced to admit he has no idea what happened to them. Contrary to several film versions of the story (as well as most contemporary newspaper accounts of the sinking, whose writers seemed to feel a need to add drama to the tragedy), he takes special note of the imperturbable calmness of both the crew and passengers throughout the ship’s final hours, while adrift in lifeboats upon an eerily peaceful sea, and even afterward as the few survivors came to grips with the loss of loved ones.
Naturally Beesley also offers his views on what could have been done and what should be done in the future to prevent such tragedies. Interestingly, after almost 90 years of debate, analysis, and soul-searching, nearly all of his observations remain completely valid, and few have been improved upon.