April 15th marks a century since the sinking of the Titanic into the depths of the North Atlantic Ocean. Newsweek has a piece in this month’s issue, from which I’ll excerpt:
“Women and children first” was not a Titanic myth—although the chances of it being observed depended on which class of passenger you happened to be. Shockingly, only 30 percent of steerage children survived. But the age of the colossal machine (whether financial or industrial) was, paradoxically, also a time in which the American plutocrats who dominated the first-class passenger list wanted something more than raw riches. They wanted to be respected for a code of honor they imagined had clung to the pedigree of ancient nobilities. That’s why, when quizzed a few months after the Titanic’s loss, its ultimate owner (head of the International Merchant Marine, J.P. Morgan) claimed “character” was the quality he most hoped to cultivate in business.
I remember as a child reading Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, a book my grandfather — himself once a sailer — had probably first picked up for my mother or one of my aunts. It transported me in a way fiction only very rarely ever did. It’s story was about a world that was once real, and so even with the events decided the narrative retained its import because it brought the dead alive.
They wanted to be respected for a code of honor they imagined had clung to the pedigree of ancient nobilities.
Those American plutocrats aboard the Titanic who so overwhelmingly met death with grace, of course, did embody precisely such a code of honor that we still recall them. Honorable actions across passenger class continue to be recalled.
Was this code of honor — this set of social governing principles, let’s call them — a thing that “clung to the pedigree of ancient nobilities”? That’s as may be. What’s certainly true is that the stories of honor and evil aboard the sinking Titanic retain their resonance largely because they’re played out on smaller stages and with less consequence every day of our lives.
As Christian gentlemen (or, at least, as a would-be) do we put women and children first? Do we imagine ourselves as having a patrimony? As belonging to a pedigree with ancient nobilities?