"The Titanic disaster is an interesting phenomenon, said Lynn Cullivan of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. "There have been other major disasters, maritime and otherwise, more loss of life. But people really connect with this."
Cullivan suggests the intense interest involves the supposed unsinkability factor. "And there were famous people aboard," he said. "It's always a big deal when celebrities die."
But there's something more, he added. "Many family histories are directly related to ships, whether ancestors crossed the Atlantic or family members worked on boats, and our maritime heritage is deeply coded into American culture, whether we realize it or not."
Indeed, the great floating city had it all. The ultimate in opulence. The latest technological advances. Pride and prejudice, swallowed up by the sea. Famous passengers, such as American millionaires John Jacob Astor IV and Benjamin Guggenheim, and poor immigrants down in steerage. Conspiracy theories. Eternally unanswered questions. Could Captain Edward Smith have somehow saved the ship? Were there design flaws? Why so few lifeboats for such a large craft?
"It's a bad pun, but the Titanic disaster creates a "perfect storm" in popular American memory. There's something for almost everyone -- the drama, the glamour, the ego, the danger and perhaps lessons learned, and add to this the presence of a blockbuster movie, and ... " said professor Patricia Hill, head of the history department at San Jose State. "On perhaps a deeper level, the sinking of the Titanic appeals to a human tendency to caution against hubris. Wars 'to end all war,' ships that cannot be sunk and so on, serve as cultural reminders of human fallibility and are used as cautionary tales."
The disaster has been romanticized in more than 1,000 books, countless articles and documentaries, and at least 17 movies. And critics charge the continuing commercialism through popular films, sales of artifacts and pricey memorial cruises serve as mere exploitation of the tragedy. Even organizers of the Bay Area events have received complaints but point out they're not selling kitschy T-shirts. They're re-creating an era in a tasteful manner.
Parallels with today
"Organizing events around historic tragedies has been going on for many years in San Francisco, such as recognizing the great quake," said Jeanavive Janssen, of The Vintage Days. "It is important to have living history events to show where we have been and, of course, show how the past isn't so distant."
She says examining the story of Titanic even reveals parallels with today. "The class struggle, the rich people versus the poor. It echoes in the Occupy movement of today. And even with all our technology, we still have shipwrecks," she said, noting the January incident when the Costa Concordia cruise ship ran aground off the coast of Italy.
"We're commemorating one of the most romantic yet tragic things to have happened in the world's history," said Deborah Borlase, of Sunnyvale, president of the costumers guild, which is hosting the Bellevue ball. "It's a celebration of that luxury, the elegance of that era, that time gone by. And it's about the people -- the arrogance of the management, overconfidence about the ship's design. The wealthy and the poor alike who drowned. It's an astonishing story."
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