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Down With the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster Hardcover – September, 1996

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 300 pages
  • Publisher: W W Norton & Co Inc (September 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 039303965X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393039658
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,674,870 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

The largest movable object ever constructed by man when it was launched, the supposedly unsinkable Titanic has inspired novels, songs, poetry, movies, and even a mysterious black stoker named Shine who never existed on the actual ship. Steven Biel traces all these avatars and explores the social and cultural myths that the disaster gave rise to--and destroyed. The recent attempts to raise the Titanic's wreckage have demonstrated that the myths have not lost their power.

From Publishers Weekly

Another book on the Titanic, but this one deals not with how the great ship went down but rather with the disaster as a cultural icon and how, from the very beginning, in 1912, it has been used to promote all manner of ideological positions. Biel's tone is sometimes stiffly academic, sometimes almost playful, but his curiosity, fortified by a good deal of inspired research, has produced a new look at an old story that is both entertaining and instructive. The first half deals with the immediate reaction to the sinking. Feminists and anti-feminists fought over the meaning of the traditional naval call of "women and children first": Did it reflect chivalry? Or the infantilization of women? Socialists used the sinking to attack the excesses of capitalism. The vessel surfaced in folk music, especially in the black community, where an entire genre of sometimes ribald verses about a black crew member named Shine flourished. The second half of the book deals with how the Titanic's story has been preserved. Biel (Independent Intellectuals in the United States, 1910-1945) examines films (including a Nazi propaganda movie), novels (Danielle Steel, Clive Cussler) and music (even Bob Dylan) and spends a good deal of time on Walter Lord's A Night to Remember, as a book (1955), TV show (1956) and film (1958). Biel concludes his provocative social history with a look at various clubs formed by Titanic enthusiasts and at efforts to exploit the wreckage of the ship. Photos.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Customer Reviews

3.6 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By A reader on March 28, 2005
Format: Paperback
Plenty of books recount what happened the night the Titanic sank, but this one does something different. It traces how people have understood that night, mostly in the United States, in the decades since. For example, the Titanic figured into the arguments of both opponents and supporters of women's suffrage in 1912. It entered into African American culture in the form of folk songs and spoken-word poetry (the precursor to rap). It's been the subject of poems, novels, songs, musicals, and (of course) movies. James Cameron's 1997 film--the highest grossing movie of all time--is just one attempt to make the disaster speak to contemporary concerns.

With intelligence and wit, Biel shows that many meanings can come from an event. If you want to read a narrative account of the Titanic disaster, try "A Night To Remember." But for the hows and whys of remembrance, read this wonderfully researched book, which is gracefully written and often funny.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 9, 1998
Format: Paperback
This is one of the few Titanic books currently in print which does more than rehash the same old sinking story. Instead, it looks at the reaction of society to the greatest marine tragedy of all time.
The success of Biel's book hinges on his meticulous research and thorough reporting of his findings. One chapter examines how the New York press reported the tragedy in the days following the sinking. Many authors are content to re-state what the New York Times said (accurately reporting that the ship had sunk), and what the New York Sun said (inaccurately reporting "All Saved From Titanic After Collision"). Biel digs deeper, and presents a range of reactions that vary from honest, dedicated journalism to wild speculation.
Biel's also examines how the Titanic affects us to this day. His analysis of Titanic movies such as "A Night to Remember", "Titanic" (1953), and "Raise the Titanic" give the reader a new perspective on these often-overlooked films. More than cinematic re-tellings of the sinking, they reveal the feelings and values of the people who made them.
Although it is not the most exciting of novels, it is a brave work that, like prospectors looking for gold, successfully finds new material in a world of tired, re-hashed, and looked-over facts.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 21, 1996
Format: Hardcover
"Down With the Old Canoe," is a detailed rendering of the
sociological impact of the Titanic disaster, from the time
of her sinking to modern day "enthusiasts."

Harvard educated Biel seems to want to include every tidbit
and piece of trivia he can find on the impact the sinking had
on the day-to-day lives of the worlds populace.

He accurately chronicles the delay in America of women being
given the right to vote; tying that decision into the chivalry
shown by the male victims of the sinking.

No sermon given on the evils of wealth for wealth's sake is
left unmentioned as it pertained to the millionaires who lost
their lives.

Moden day "enthusiasts" and their reasons for being so enamored
of the lost vessel are explored in depth, and make for fascinating

But Biel, himself, remains aloof from the subject; he never
even attempts to connect, personally, with his subject. In the
final chapters, he reveals that had been his intention: to not
cast his person in the book itself.

That aloofness; that lack of "first-person" gives "Down With
the Old Canoe," a strange dichotomy. At times (especially in
those areas dealing with the modern enthusiasts), is is as
fast and entertaining a read as a current issue of Time, Newsweek
or People magazines. At others, the story Biel attempts to relate
is as dry and dull as attempting to read a term paper.

Titanic afficinados will enjoy this book; others may want the
more thrilling "A Night To Remember."
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Format: Paperback
"Arrogant" does not being to describe Steven Biel's style of argument, but it is a start. Starting off in his introduction and continuing until his afterword, Biel adopts a holier than thous attitude towards "popular" historians such as Walter Lord, Wynn Craig Wade, and others -- ignoring how these Titanic historians, and others, took their scholarship very seriously despite their status as avocational historians.

The first part of Biel's book does contain some interesting information regarding public reaction to the Titanic disaster, but the book, already hobbled by his arrogant slamming of "popular" historians in its introduction, takes a steep nose dive when Biel tries to put Walter Lords' classic book "A Night To Remember" into the cultural context of the 1950s. Biel adopts a highly "academic" tone from here on until the end of the book, making up connections between Lord's book and the 1950s that do not exist -- as all authors who write academic works do. Worse, Biel claims Lord embraced myths about the disaster spawned in 1912 in his book, an outright libelous claim given Lord's serious study of the disaster. Walter was nobody's fool and simply sought to retell the Titanic disaster in a compelling away (apparently a sin according to holier than thou professionals like Biel, who seem to think historical events need to be confined to dry, boring textbook-style retelling). Biel then proceeds to claim Titanic students blindly embraced the same myths about the disaster that Lord and dismisses their efforts at seeking historical truth as trivial at best. Biel really begins to rant by the time he gets to Clive Cussler and Robert Ballard. Biel bends and twists the plot and meaning of Clive's novel "Raise The Titanic!
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