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The Disaster and How Some Escaped

scenes from the life (and death) of Archibald Butt, a man utterly unimportant in the making of history
DISCUSSED

The RMS Titanic, William Howard Taft, D.W. Winnicott, A Haunting in the White House, Time Travel, Flamboyant Dress, Freud’s Iceberg Theory, The Roman Emperor Elagabalus,
Fear of a Breakdown That Has Already Been Experienced, Survival as Embarrassment

by Will Stephenson
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

The Disaster and How Some Escaped

Will Stephenson
133 Snaps

1.

The first victim of the RMS Titanic died in 1910, two years before the ship sank. This was Samuel Scott, an Irish shipyard worker who fell off a ladder into the open hull and fractured his skull on impact. He was a teenager, earning roughly five dollars a week. The last Titanic death came a century later, in 2009: Millvina Dean, who died of pneumonia in England at the age of ninety-seven. She was a passenger on the ship as an infant; her father was coming to America to open a tobacco shop in Kansas City, Missouri. He lowered Dean into a lifeboat in a canvas mailbag, stayed behind, and drowned.

It’s possible to think of the Titanic not as a disaster that lasted a single night, then, but as a disaster spanning generations. Or, more than that, as one of our greatest cultural embodiments of the idea of disaster. This is how Walter Lord, dean of Titanic historians, came to think of it after decades of research. He wrote: “The thought occurs that the Titanic is the perfect example of something we can all relate to: the progression of almost any tragedy in our lives from initial disbelief to growing uneasiness to final, total awareness. We are all familiar with this sequence and we watch it unfold again and again on the Titanic—always in slow motion.”

Initial disbelief, growing uneasiness, and final, total awareness. This is how it feels when a ship sinks.

 

2.

When the boat first hit the iceberg, several tons of ice broke off onto the starboard well deck. Passengers were delighted, and began staging snowball fights and kicking the chunks around like soccer balls. It became a kind of scene. “Would you like a souvenir to take back to New York?” asked the prizewinning horseman James Clinch Smith, holding out pieces of the ice to a group of other first-class passengers. The seaman Walter Hurst woke up sharply when his father-in-law tossed a lump of the ice into his bunk, as a prank.

The editor W. T. Stead, who has been called “the foremost publisher of paperbacks in the Victorian Age,” and who frequently communicated with the dead through spiritualist mediums, emerged from his room to ask about the source of the commotion. “Icebergs,” replied the painter Frank Millet, not looking up from his card game. Stead shrugged and went back to bed.

 

3.

To President William Howard Taft, the most notable casualty of the Titanic was a person named Archibald Butt. “He was like a member of my family,” Taft said in his eulogy, “and I feel his loss as if he had been a younger brother.” Reading this, I feel a tinge of competitiveness with Taft, because Butt was a member of my family—he was my great-grandfather’s cousin. In the hallway bathroom of my childhood home, we had a framed Butt family crest he’d purchased and mailed home from Europe: a lion holding a broken spear. It always got a laugh, the solemnity of the image relative to the apparent stupidity of the surname: Butt. It seemed obviously ironic, like a poster you’d buy at a gas station.

My great-grandfather was Jeremiah Butt, who ran a Schlitz beer outpost in southern Georgia and died at a Lutheran conference in Nashville when my father was four. A heart attack, while he was eating breakfast. As a beer entrepreneur, he’d suffered during Prohibition. The family was poor. But then he had never been expected to live up to his cousin Archibald—personal aide to Presidents Roosevelt and Taft, lifelong bachelor, object of fascination to the national press. Major Archibald Willingham DeGraffenreid Clarendon Butt: Roosevelt’s children loved to make fun of the name, to say it with a downward lilt. It sounded, they said, like “a big load of coal falling down the stairs.”

My grandmother, Jeremiah’s daughter, grew up eating cold sweet potatoes and wringing the necks of chickens for dinner. She was a beauty queen. She once ran away to New York to be a dancer, but Jeremiah followed and coaxed her home. She married my grandfather Harry, who took over the beer business. They had two sons, fought bitterly, and divorced. My brother and I would watch Wheel of Fortune in her musty apartment—canned peas; low, spackled ceilings—while she smoked on the couch behind us. We once watched James Cameron’s Titanic there on VHS. I don’t remember what she thought of it.

 

4.

On the night of February 23, 1912, Archie, which is what everyone called him, predicted the circumstances of his own death. He wrote daily letters to his sister-in-law Clara, and this night he told her about his vacation in Europe. He’d wondered about the trip for weeks, calling it off, only to change his mind. He lay awake at night, worrying over his indecision. But Taft finally insisted, Archie said, and “I have come to the conclusion that if I am to go through this frightful summer I must have a rest now.”

On the subject of the ocean liner itself, he wrote: “Don’t forget that all my papers are in the storage warehouse, and if the old ship goes down you will find my affairs in shipshape condition.”

 

5.

On March 3, 1912, The New York Times reported on his departure for Europe aboard the SS Berlin, in an article titled Major Butt’s Suit a Wonder. He was a famously flamboyant dresser, here arriving “in a suit of clothes that won the admiration of every passenger on the deck of the liner, including a deaf and dumb Greek sponge merchant from Patras.” He wore a bright copper-colored Norfolk jacket fastened by spherical buttons made of red porcelain. He wore a lavender tie around a tall bat-wing collar. He wore a derby hat with a broad, flat brim, and patent leather shoes with white tops. A cambric handkerchief was tucked up his left sleeve; a small bunch of lilies was threaded through his buttonhole. The Times noted that “he appeared to be delighted at the prospect of going away.”

“Butt was a curious figure,” wrote the historian Mark Sullivan, “utterly unimportant in the making of history.” This in his massive multivolume work on the early twentieth century United States, Our Times: 1900–1925, which at certain points relies heavily for its chronology and anecdotes on the letters Butt wrote to his sister-in-law. Despite this debt, Sullivan’s contempt is obvious. In the six-hundred-page tome, he relegates Butt to a footnote, in which he can’t help but dwell at length on “the ornateness of the uniform he wore, his rather strutting air, his erect largeness of figure, the gallant look of him upon his horse, his naively snobbish adulation toward persons deemed to be of social importance, and the Southern ancestry of which he was rather grandiosely conscious.”

Butt himself had a different, but not uncomplicated, view of his own importance. “I sometimes feel like a human oil can,” he wrote Clara in the summer of 1911. “I certainly occupy a queer anomalous position in this household”—by which he meant the White House—“from the President down to the scullery maid. With no specific authority, I have more power than all others combined. I don’t want it, and it bores the life out of me, but here it is.”

 

6.

United States Senate Inquiry into the Sinking of the Titanic, Day Four, Testimony of Frederick Fleet

What is your full name?
Frederick Fleet.

Where do you reside?
Southampton.

How old are you?
Twenty-five next October.

What is your business?
Sailor, lookout man.

How much experience have you had in that work?
About four years. I was four years on the Oceanic, on the lookout.

You were lookout on the Titanic, were you not?
Yes.

And made this voyage from Southampton, to the time of the collision—the accident?
Yes, sir.

I want to get on the record the place where you were stationed in the performance of your duty.
I was on the lookout.

On the lookout?
At the time of the collision.

Do you know how far you were above the bridge?
I am no hand at guessing.

Was there any other officer or employee stationed at a higher point on the Titanic than you were?
No, sir.

Mr. Fleet, can you tell who was on the forward part of the Titanic Sunday night when you took your position in the crow’s nest?
There was nobody.

What time did you take your watch Sunday night?
Ten o’clock.

Whom did you relieve?
Symons and Jewell.

What, if anything, did Symons and Jewell, or either one, say to you when you relieved them of the watch?
They told us to keep a sharp lookout for small ice.

What did you say to them?
I said, “All right.”

 

7.

Before he sold beer in southern Georgia, my great-grandfather Jeremiah ran an ice company. This was in Eufaula, Alabama, before the advent of affordable, electric refrigeration. I only learned this recently. Jeremiah began his working life delivering blocks of ice from door to door in the small town, which was just across the Georgia border. “The Iceman Cometh” was the family’s joke about it later.

It seems ironic to me, this business about the ice. The synchronicity of it. But then nobody else in the family seems to think so. They’re not as invested in these sorts of blind historical echoes. (“What is the use of remembering anything?” asked Gertrude Stein. “There is none.”)

 

8.

My therapist reminds me that Freud famously used the image of an iceberg as a metaphor for the unconscious. I decide to look into the reference. Citations of Freud’s iceberg theory are ubiquitous in pop psychology. But in each case, you never see quotations from Freud himself. This isn’t an accident: it becomes clear, reading more on the subject, that the idea most likely wasn’t his after all, that he never said anything about it. In Ernest Jones’s biography of Freud, a footnote cites Gustav Fechner, the founder of psychophysics—maybe he was the iceberg theory’s true originator?

I come across a listserv on which a team of psychology professors tries to settle the mystery. The email subject line: “Issue: On the question of whether Freud ever used the analogy of the mind as an iceberg.” One David K. Hogberg, PhD, comes closest. He notes that Freud used the word ice at least fifteen times in his collected works, but never iceberg. (He once used the plural, icebergs, in the context of a patient’s dream: in “Fragments of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria,” the patient, Dora, finds herself swimming in a frozen sea, surrounded by icebergs.) Following a string of mysterious footnotes, Hogberg narrows the search to one promising candidate, an English priest named Percy Dearmer. In 1909, three years before the sinking of the Titanic, Dearmer wrote, “The mind is like an iceberg of which the greater part is hidden under the sea: so is the greater part of us submerged in unconsciousness.”

 

9.

March 23, 1909: Butt meets Theodore Roosevelt at a pier in Hoboken, New Jersey, as the ex-president prepares to leave, aboard the SS Hamburg, for his African hunting safari. Roosevelt’s nurse is anxious, warning him about “all those wild animals, cannibals, and crocodiles I’ve been reading about.” Roosevelt smiles. “I’ll take care,” he says, “and, you know, I am a good shot.” Roosevelt and his party will go on to kill approximately four thousand birds, five hundred fish, two thousand reptiles and amphibians, and over five hundred larger mammals, including lions, cheetahs, elephants, buffalo, rhinos, giraffes, monkeys, and zebras.

March 28, 1909: Butt plays golf with President Taft in the rain, gusts of wind turning gradually into an outright storm, forcing the group to run for cover.

April 24, 1909: Butt picks out the first car the Tafts have ever owned. He drives it up to the White House at noon to show it off, a “stock car” upholstered in green. The executive coat of arms is stamped on both sides.

May 25, 1909: Butt and Taft drive the new car aimlessly around the grounds of the Department of Agriculture. “Those are beautiful blossoms,” Taft tells Butt, poking him in the ribs with his thumb. “Let’s get out and pick a few.” As they work, a watchman approaches and accosts Butt, explaining that he’s breaking the law, and places him under arrest. Taft, hiding his own flowers behind his back, sides with the guard. “Your action is reprehensible, Butt,” he says. “You should be severely punished. Take him where he belongs, my good man.” The joke is eventually revealed, and Taft bursts into laughter. Butt’s reaction goes unrecorded.

 

10.

Butt was a prominent, unmarried man with no public romantic life to speak of, which inspired a great deal of suspicion and speculation in his day. A few months before he died, the Times confronted him with rumors that he had become engaged to a woman in Washington, DC. Was it true? “I wish it were,” he said. “This bachelorhood is a miserable existence. I have distress signals flying at the fore, and will refuse no reasonable offer to enter the matrimonial field. I’ll do the best I can, and if this leap year gets away before I get a wife I shall feel very much discouraged.”

The truth was, he lived happily with a man, the painter Frank Millet. Millet had been in a previous relationship with the writer Charles Warren Stoddard, who was as open about his homosexuality as a person could safely be then. Millet’s wife, Lily, who is remembered today largely as the subject of a painting by John Singer Sargent, lived in England with their children. Mark Twain was the best man at their wedding. (“Millet makes all men fall in love with him,” Twain wrote.) Butt and Millet lived in a mansion on G Street, in Washington, DC, where they were well-known for their parties.

The house was beautiful. “Bad temper I can stand,” Butt said, “but not bad taste.” In September of 1910, he wrote Clara about some recent decisions they’d made regarding interior decoration. “How nice it is to be here again!” he began. “My bathroom is not tile, but it is the nicest bathroom in the world. The whole upstairs was repapered while I was away. I left the choosing of the paper to Millet, my artist friend who lives with me. Our tastes vary somewhat in wallpaper, but I could only praise it, despite the fact that it was just the contrary to what I would have chosen to live with day in and night out.”

Butt spent his last vacation in Europe with Millet, and the two of them were playing cards together on the Titanic when the iceberg was hit. As The Washington Times reported in Butt’s obituary, “The two men had a sympathy of mind which was most unusual.”

 

11.

United States Senate Inquiry into the Sinking of the Titanic, Day Four, Testimony of Frederick Fleet

Did you keep a sharp lookout for ice?
Yes, sir.

Tell what you did?
Well, I reported an iceberg right ahead, a black mass.

When did you report that?
I could not tell you the time.

What did you report when you saw this black mass Sunday night?
I reported an iceberg right ahead.

To whom did you report that?
I struck three bells first. Then I went straight to the telephone and rang them up on the bridge.

You struck three bells and went to the telephone and rang them up on the bridge?
Yes.

Did you get anyone on the bridge?
I got an answer straight away—what did I see, or “What did you see?”

Did the person who was talking to you tell you who he was?
No. He just asked me what did I see. I told him an iceberg right ahead.

What did he say then?
He said: “Thank you.”

 

12.

Jack Finney, the sci-fi novelist whose 1955 debut was the basis for the legions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers films over the decades, wrote his best-selling book in 1970, a time-travel epic called Time and Again. It was followed by a sequel, From Time to Time. The books follow an illustrator who gets roped into a classified government project in which hypnosis is used to allow participants to travel into the past and attempt to right certain wrongs of history. In From Time to Time, the objective is to prevent the mysterious disappearance in Europe of an American agent code-named Z, who has been enlisted by President Taft on a mission that, had he returned to America as planned, would’ve prevented the outbreak of World War I. Z turns out to be none other than Archibald Butt.

The time-traveler resorts to boarding the Titanic himself. He is horrified by its appearance: “We personify ships, they seem to have human qualities,” he says. “There are good ships, stubborn resistant ships, and now I saw this giant silhouetted shape as evil, blackly malevolent.” On the deck, he takes a photograph of some first-class passengers and can’t help thinking that most of them are going to drown. He tries telling Butt the truth, hoping he can persuade him to board a lifeboat, for the sake of the future. “I know something that is impossible to know, and yet I know it,” he tells him. “On Sunday night, around eleven-thirty, this ship will strike an iceberg. Two hours later it will sink.”

Butt refuses. It’s a strangely moving moment. The time-traveler tries his best to save a life, to reverse the course of history—but he fails. Butt will die and the Great War will begin. He knows what will happen next, because it has already happened. “Watching Archie walk away and out of the lounge,” he says, “my eyes stung.”

 

13.

The psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott wrote of “the fear of a breakdown that has already been experienced.” Our various psychoses and neuroses, in other words, are not themselves the problem, but the defense mechanisms we’ve built up out of a fear of some original agony we can no longer recall. (Recasting Winnicott’s idea from the perspective of a person in love, Roland Barthes once referred to “the fear of a mourning which has already occurred.”) These agonies could take the form of a terror of “falling forever” or a “loss of a sense of the real.” As Winnicott explains it, the only way around this involves a form of time travel. “Why does the patient go on being worried by this that belongs to the past?” he writes, and here he could just as well be speaking of the historian. “The patient must go on looking for the past detail which is not yet experienced. This search takes the form of a looking for this detail in the future.” Which is to say: “The only way to ‘remember’ in this case is for the patient to experience this past thing for the first time in the present.”

I have to wonder if this idea, or something like it, occurred to the Australian billionaire Clive Palmer, who for several years has planned to build a replica of the Titanic, which he would call Titanic II. After a decade or so of legal disputes and delays, Palmer recently announced that the project was back on and that the ship could be launched as soon as 2022. “Millions have dreamt of sailing on her,” he said. “Titanic II will be the ship where those dreams come true.” But do we dream of sailing on the Titanic, or of dying on it? The distinction doesn’t seem like a minor one. If the Titanic’s defining characteristic is its failure, it seems dishonest to try recapturing the experience of the original without the opportunity to drown in the process.

 

14.

In his letters, Butt frequently complains of boredom. “It is very tiresome here at the White House,” he writes Clara in the summer of 1911. “I know what the President meant when he said, much to the amusement of the country at the time, that the White House is a lonely place. I cannot have my friends here. None of them would think of calling unless I made a special engagement for them to do so.”

Taft seems to be an especially dull person to be around on a daily basis. Dinners at the White House often wind up with the president drunk, telling lame jokes, and insisting they play record after record on the Victrola. “The President went to sleep sitting upright before the first piece was concluded and never woke up but once, and then asked for the Prize Song,” Butt writes of one of these nights. “Before we got it started he was asleep again and never heard a note of it. In fact, he greatly marred its effect by snoring noisily through it.” The attorney general gamely picks out a louder song, one that would, he says, “wake anyone but a dead man.” At the end of the record’s side, with Taft still snoring, he concedes to Butt, “He must be dead.”

The White House is, in fact, occupied by the dead. It is haunted. Butt discovers as much after questioning a housekeeper and several servants. “The ghost, it seems, is a young boy,” Butt writes, “from its descriptions, I should think about fourteen or fifteen years old.” The staff refers to the boy as “the Thing.” “They say that the first knowledge one has of the presence of the Thing is a slight pressure on the shoulder,” he says, “as if someone were leaning over your shoulder to see what you might be doing. Several of those who live upstairs say that they have felt this pressure, but when they turn around there is nothing to be seen.”

Butt tries bringing up the subject with the president, but Taft “got in such a towering rage” that he lets it drop. Anyone who repeats the story, he is warned, will be fired. Butt can’t help himself, though. He is curious and unsettled. A maid is found in a dead faint, and when she comes to she is so frightened it takes a group of them to calm her down. “She had not heard of the ghost stories,” Butt reports, “and therefore her experience is not doubted by the rest. It coincided exactly with experiences which others have been said to have had from time to time.” Another woman in the laundry room feels the hand on her shoulder and “screamed and went into hysterics.” Butt begins to sound obsessed: “It is so hazy and undefined that it is hard to get to any knowledge of the Thing at all.”

He interrogates more servants, reminding them not to let any word of it reach the president or the First Lady. “I scoffed at the whole thing just as the President did,” he says, “but I am going to delve into the history of the White House and see if such a looking youngster ever lived here or, what is more important still, ever died here.” It becomes another secret for Butt to keep, a Thing that must be repressed. “The ghost business is rather too much for me,” he writes. “I don’t dare let any of them see how interested I am in it.”

 

15.

According to Frank’s granddaughter, Lily Millet destroyed most of his letters after his death, and refused to cooperate with biographers. Of Butt’s own letters, only the correspondence with family members has survived. It’s unsurprising, then, that the personal aspects of their life together remain a mystery, something we can only wonder about.

I have wondered about it. In one letter, Butt makes an obscure reference to the Roman emperor Elagabalus. “I think it was that artistic if somewhat decadent gentleman,” he writes, “who, when he wanted to rid himself of certain enemies both male and female, let down a shower of roses from the ceiling. They played with them at first and pelted each other with them, but they continued to fall until they were smothered to death by them. Both my bedroom and dressing room are walled with red and pink roses, from buds to full-blown flowers, and even when I shut my eyes I seem to see them tumbling over each other.”

“Artistic if somewhat decadent” is a modest and, we could even say, revealing way to describe the third-century emperor famous for marrying men, worshipping the sun, and disguising himself in wigs and makeup in order to prostitute himself on the grounds of the imperial palace. “Never was a finer example of anarchy given to the world,” Antonin Artaud wrote of him. Edward Gibbon, in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, argues that he “abandoned himself to the grossest pleasures.”

Butt’s image of the suffocating rose shower is an odd and compelling one in this context: “Even when I shut my eyes I seem to see them tumbling over each other.”

 

16.

have not been able to find any reliable source on the number of dogs that died aboard the Titanic. One of them, however, was a champion French bulldog named Gamin de Pycombe, owned by the banker Robert Williams Daniel. The dog drowned, though Daniel survived. In later years, he refused to discuss the sinking altogether. As his granddaughter explained, “After all, he was a man, 28 years old, a very athletic and healthy man who survived, and the whole thing about women and children first was a stigma. So he never talked about it.”

Another dog to die—if in fact he existed at all, as has occasionally been disputed—was named Rigel, owned by First Officer William McMaster Murdoch. Murdoch was the officer in charge on the bridge the night of the sinking. There is some controversy over his response to the iceberg, whether he called for the ship to be steered in the right direction, and whether he did so quickly enough. Some theorize that his orders might have been misinterpreted. In any case, Murdoch didn’t survive. The popular rumor, affirmed by certain witnesses, was that he shot himself with a revolver near the starboard lifeboat station, just before water overtook the deck.

 

17.

united States Senate Inquiry into the Sinking of the Titanic, Day Thirteen, Testimony of Olaus Abelseth

I went to bed about 10 o’clock Sunday night, and I think it was about 15 minutes to 12 when I woke up; and there was another man in the same room, and he said to me, “What is that?” I said, “I don’t know, but we had better get up.” So we did get up and put our clothes on, and we two went up on deck in the forward part of the ship.

Then there was quite a lot of ice on the starboard part of the ship. I saw one of the officers, and I said to him: “Is there any danger?” He said, “No.” I was not satisfied with that, however, so I went down and told my brother-in-law and my cousin what was happening, and I said they had better get up. Both of them got up and dressed, and we took our overcoats and put them on. We did not take any lifebelts with us. There was no water on the deck at that time.

So we walked over to the starboard side of the ship, and just as we were standing there, one of the officers came up and said as he walked by, “Are there any sailors here?” I did not say anything. I have been a fishing man for six years. I would have gone, but my brother-in-law and my cousin said, in the Norwegian language, as we were speaking Norwegian: “Let us stay here together.”

Then we stayed there, and we were just standing still there. We did not talk very much. Just a little ways from us I saw there was an old couple there on the deck, and I heard this man say to the lady, “Go into the lifeboat and get saved.” He put his hand on her shoulder and I think he said: “Please get into the lifeboat and get saved.” She replied: “No, let me stay with you.” I could not say who it was, but I saw that he was an old man. I did not pay much attention to him, because I did not know him.

 

18.

I don’t have much biographical detail about Butt. What’s out there isn’t biography so much as chronology. More emotional truth might be gleaned—or maybe not—from a book he wrote and published before his time in the White House, Both Sides of the Shield, his portrait of a struggling writer exploring rural Georgia. He had started his career as a journalist and had written a number of novels, though only this one can be located today without the most exhaustive archival effort. Over the course of the book, the narrator falls in love with the daughter of a planter, a family he’s been surreptitiously writing about for the benefit of northern newspaper audiences. She becomes his muse, and he hardly notices he’s exploiting her. “Taking out my writing-pad and throwing myself across the bed, I wrote with an enthusiasm I had seldom experienced,” he says. “If one has not felt this feverish desire to write, he or she cannot appreciate the feelings which prompted me to hold up every detail as I saw it and to lend it color where color might be lacking.”

When she discovers his betrayal, she spurns him, and his writer’s block returns. Butt’s depiction of heartbreak is one of the only aspects of the book that really convinces: “In the silence that followed I suffered a lifetime of ordinary humiliation,” he says. His creative aspirations are once again dashed: “Several times I tried to resume my writing, but my pen seemed to drop from my fingers or else my mind refused to respond to my will.” It feels, Butt writes, “like being alone with truth.”

 

19.

I am interested in the duration of the ship’s sinking, that long period during which the sinking was in progress. When the boat was both underwater and not, the absurdity of the catastrophe just dawning on those passengers still on board.

The band famously played ragtime as the lifeboats filled up. They began in the first-class lounge, where people had assembled, and later moved outside to the forward deck. Some wore their standard blue uniforms; some wore white evening jackets. Walter Lord, in his 1955 account, A Night to Remember, noted the moment at which this music no longer seemed appropriate for the occasion. It was around two fifteen in the morning, he claims, and the water had begun to roll over the deck. Steerage passengers were rushing up from below, desperate for places on a raft. The bandmaster, Wallace Hartley, tapped his violin, and they shifted from ragtime to the Episcopal hymn “Autumn.”

The tilting of the ship caused strange light effects, as the chandeliers fell at awkward angles. The tables and chairs slid together into tangled heaps. The enormous, ornate dining rooms were deserted and silent. From the lifeboats, Lord writes, “it was hard to see what was happening, even though—incredibly—the lights still burned, casting a sort of murky glow.” I picture the insane illumination of the luxury liner turning greenish and haunted underwater, the survivors on the lifeboats finding themselves eerily able to see the ship as it continued to sink.

This is the period that the minimalist composer Gavin Bryars sought to capture in his 1975 “The Sinking of the Titanic.” He based the composition on the testimony of the wireless operator Harold Bride, who remembered hearing “Autumn” as he swam away from the wreck. It’s a piece of music that begins beautifully and remains so, even as it twists and warps and becomes muddled and distant. Bryars wrote of the work that it “presupposes that the music was played as the water engulfed the ship and, from Bride’s account, there is no reason not to think this.” We are supposed to hear a descent to the ocean floor.

 

20.

Where was Archibald Butt while the ship sank? This is a difficult question to answer. Certain survivors described him as a hero. “The whole world should rise in praise of Major Butt,” said one Mrs. Harris. A Captain Charles Crane told the Times  he discovered secondhand that Butt “was as cool as the iceberg that had doomed the ship,” as he worked tirelessly to save lives. A Marie Young was quoted as saying he had personally escorted her to a seat on a lifeboat. He wrapped blankets around her and smiled. “Goodbye, Miss Young,” he told her. “Luck is with you. Will you kindly remember me to all the folks back home?” Butt’s reputation as a hero was secured. In his eulogy, Taft said, “If Archie could have selected a time to die he would have chosen the one God gave him.” At which point the president wept.

But these accounts soon became confused and disputed. Marie Young, for instance, first learned of her conversation with Butt when she read about it in the paper. She wrote Taft, telling him it was an invention. “When I last saw Major Butt, he was walking on deck, on Sunday afternoon,” she said. In his own, meticulously researched account, Lord tried to correct the record: “Major Butt was very quiet,” he wrote, adding that during the sinking he “took no active part, despite the stories later told that he practically took charge.” One of the survivors testified before the Senate that he’d last seen Butt with Millet, in the smoking room on the A Deck. “They seemed to be absolutely intent upon what they were doing, and disregarding anything about what was going on on the decks outside,” he remembered.

This last version strikes me as the most reliable. As much as the narrative of Butt’s heroism meant to the family, to the White House, to the military, it seems all too cinematic. The reality is that the experience was probably a great annoyance to him, right up until the moment it became a nightmare. I imagine he believed in his own invulnerability, as we all do subconsciously because we couldn’t function otherwise. As it occurred to him that the ship would truly sink, I assume it still took him a considerable amount of time to accept the inevitable. But he must have known he couldn’t board a lifeboat. Given his rank, his gender, everything else, it would have been a scandal for him to survive. To survive would have been embarrassing.

 

21.

The Titanic had been built in Belfast by workers from the hills of Northern Ireland. They were Protestants; even more than that, they were anti-Catholic. They viewed the ship in nationalist terms, as an essentially Irish accomplishment. Likewise, its sinking was attributed by some to that same Irish character, understanding the disaster as, writes the historian Stephanie Barczewski, “the consequence of Protestant pride and arrogance.” One legend frequently circulated at the time was that a shipyard worker had painted “Let God sink this vessel if he can!” on the hull.

The ship’s architect, Thomas Andrews, was a passenger. Lord writes that a steward looked in on the smoking room at around 2:10 a.m., as the lifeboats were filling up. Andrews was sitting at a table by himself, his life vest tossed to the side. His arms were folded and he appeared stunned and exhausted. After a moment, the steward asked, “Aren’t you going to have a try for it, Mr. Andrews?” But Andrews just sat there.

 

22.

United States Senate Inquiry into the Sinking of the Titanic, Day Thirteen, Testimony of Olaus Abelseth

I asked my brother-in-law if he could swim and he said no. So we could see the water coming up, the bow of the ship was going down, and there was a kind of an explosion. We could hear the popping and cracking, and the deck raised up and got so steep that the people could not stand on their feet on the deck. So they fell down and slid on the deck into the water right on the ship. Then we hung onto a rope.

My brother-in-law said to me, “We had better jump off or the suction will take us down.” I said, “No. We won’t jump yet. We ain’t got much show anyhow, so we might as well stay as long as we can.” So he stated again, “We must jump off.” So, then, it was only about five feet down to the water when we jumped off. It was not much of a jump. Before that we could see the people were jumping over. There was water coming onto the deck, and they were jumping over, then, out in the water.

We went under, and I swallowed some water. I got a rope tangled around me, and I let loose of my brother-in-law’s hand to get away from the rope. I thought then, “I am a goner.” But I came on top again, and I was trying to swim, and there was a man—lots of them were floating around—and he got me on the neck and pressed me under, trying to get on top of me. I said to him, “Let go.” Of course, he did not pay any attention to that, but I got away from him. Then I swam. I could not say, but it must have been about fifteen or twenty minutes. Then I saw something dark ahead of me. I did not know what it was, but I swam toward that, and it was one of those collapsible boats.

When I got on this raft, they did not try to push me off and they did not do anything for me to get on. All they said when I got on there was, “Don’t capsize the boat.” Some of them were frozen, and there were two dead that they threw overboard. There must have been ten or twelve. There was one man from New Jersey, I do not know what his name was. It was just at the break of day, and he seemed to be kind of unconscious. I took him by the shoulder and raised him up, so that he was sitting up on this deck. I said to him, “We can see a ship now. Brace up.” And I took him by the shoulder and shook him, and he said, “Who are you?” He said, “Let me be. Who are you?” I held him up for a while, but I got tired and cold, and I took a little piece of a small board, and laid it under his head on the edge of the boat to keep his head from the water. But it was not more than about a half an hour or so when he died.

 

23.

Toward the end of last summer, I flew to my hometown in Georgia to visit my parents, whose house had been destroyed the year before by a tornado. They had been home at the time, as pine trees were dislodged from the yard and thrown onto the roof, which collapsed around them. It was a wreck. Having spent time reading about the Titanic, I couldn’t help but see my family’s experience of the tornado as an instance of, as Winnicott put it, “this past thing for the first time in the present.”

My grandmother built the house in the ’60s. She sold it to my father, who grew up there. She’s dead now, as is my grandfather, as is Jeremiah. The house, though, has been repaired. Archibald’s coat of arms has been restored to its rightful place in the hallway bathroom. It rained much of the time I was home. My mother sat out on the patio watching birds through binoculars. She used to sketch them in a notebook, but doesn’t anymore—she just watches. She told me that she sometimes daydreams about caves.

There can be perverse relief in feeling yourself involved in historical catastrophe, a kind of pleasant assurance that your days don’t have to amount to much after all. The effect, too, is to minimize or subsume our more local, everyday catastrophes. Or to give us a new lens through which to understand them. It’s in this sense that I understand the urge to paint “Let God sink this vessel if he can!” on the side of the boat.

Ted Kaczynski, having turned from bomb-making to fiction-writing in prison, used the image of a doomed ship in his fable of a society in free fall. The captain and crew have grown “so vain of their seamanship, so full of hubris and so impressed with themselves, that they went mad.” They sail straight for the ice, appeasing the passengers’ qualms each day as the larger, more insurmountable crisis looms. It’s not a very good story, maybe wasn’t intended to be, but the abrupt ending resonates. A remembering of a breakdown that has already been experienced, and which, in another way, hasn’t happened yet. “The ship kept sailing north,” he writes, “and after a while it was crushed between two icebergs and everyone drowned.”

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