There are a lot of shipwreck books out there and I have a teetering pile of them on my nightstand. I read and read but just can’t seem to make any headway–for every book I finish two or three more are published. Some are great, some are not. But all attest to the enduring lure of shipwrecks to readers, dreamers and bookophiles alike.
A few weeks ago I finished Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum by Edward T. O’Donnell, Associate Professor of American History at the College of Holy Cross. I had high hopes for this book, it being one of the few shipwreck titles written by an academic historian. In many ways O’Donnell did not disappoint. Thoroughly researched, Ship Ablaze tells the story of one of the worst maritime disasters in American history with intricate detail. O’Donnell situates the wreck, which claimed more than 1,000 lives, in the social and cultural context of turn-of-the-century New York City. We learn not only learn who the passengers on the steamboat were but also the repercussions of the disaster on the German community devastated by the fire. So too do we read about corrupt government agencies, the cutthroat news industry and the range of public, private and civic responses to a major disaster. Indeed, Ship Ablaze is a fine example of what a shipwreck monograph can be. I only wish I could still watch the History Channel documentary.
But there are limits to this kind of shipwreck book (or any “disaster”-specific book for that matter). Yes, shipwrecks are fascinating topics. Yes, they offer a unique window onto the past. Yes, they sell. But few answer the “so what” question. Why, besides bearing witness, should we care about this or that particular wreck? Most shipwreck monographs, like Ship Ablaze, are “insular” texts; or, to borrow a phrase from my advisor, they are “conversation enders” rather than “conversation starters.” The former are important for populating the past with names, dates and trends, but they tend to swerve towards chronicle rather than history. Conversation starters, however, are the stuff of history–books that suggest new ways of conceiving the past, books that raise more questions than they answer, books that make an argument that grates against others’ conceptions of the past. When defending my dissertation prospectus I told my committee I wanted to write a conversation starter. Now I’m finding out just how difficult that is. I can see the appeal of writing a traditional shipwreck monograph.