Tuesday, April 17, 2012
Over the past week people have been fascinated by the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.
What is it about this ship that has captured our attention for so long? Plenty of other disasters, on sea or land, on which we could have focused our attention.
But the Titanic stands above all for a story we are drawn to again and again.
I believe that one of the reasons the Titanic is so interesting to us in the 21st century, is that it marked the beginning of the modern era.
I talk a great deal, in public appearances and blog posts, about the Klondike Gold Rush as a time of enormous optimism. Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people set off, on foot, across the continent, over the mountains, because they believed that though hard work and a bit of luck they could make their fortune.
Most did not. Most of them found nothing but hardship and toil. By the time news of the great gold strike reached the Outside world, the best claims were taken by the miners who were already there. All the tens of thousands of late-comers could do was get a job working someone else’s claim or turn around and go back home.
The only people who really made money where those who “mined the miners”, like my protagonist, Fiona MacGillivray, the owners of dance halls and saloons and other businesses.
The dawn of the 20th century was a time of great optimism. Everyone looked forward to the wonders the future would bring. In Gold Digger, Mrs. Mann tells Angus MacGillivray, twelve years old, when he wishes they had a telephone, “many wonderful things you’ll see in your lifetime, dear.”
Yet many of the new things in the 20th century weren’t exactly wonderful. Angus is 12 years old in 1898. He’ll be twenty-seven in 1914, and we know what that means.
Same with the Titanic. It was an unsinkable ship, the marvel of the era. No need for adequate lifeboats, they wouldn’t be necessary.
Technology and ingenuity would be all one would need.
And we all know how that turned out.
The sinking of the Titanic was a turning point in the sense of optimism that had greeted the arrival of the 20th century. As those Klondike would-be prospectors had discovered fourteen years before, perhaps the new century wasn’t going to be as wonderful as everyone expected.
Both events merely set the stage for the beginning of the truly modern world in August of 1914.