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'Dead Wake’ author Erik Larson talks about history, hubris, and the Lusitania

In an interview with the Monitor, Larson says history has taught him that 'any time we find ourselves expressing smug confidence about things that will or will not happen, we need to take warning.'

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    'The Lusitania had long been rattling around in my head,' says Dead Wake' author Erik Larson. But after doing some research, he says, 'I realized that whatever I thought I knew about the Lusitania was just wrong.'
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Thanks to master storyteller Erik Larson, the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania at the hand of a German submarine will no longer linger at the edges of American memory. With the help of his spectacular new book, readers will now see it as an achingly human tale of stunning disaster spawned by technology, war and the failure of imagination.

In Dead Wake: The Final Crossing of the Lusitania, Larson reveals his mastery at what Monitor book critic Erik Spanberg calls “the art of finding overlooked and faded curiosities and converting them into page-turning popular histories.” Years after his hits “Isaac’s Storm” and “The Devil in the White City,” Larson still has the best narrative touch in all of American popular history.

I last talked to Larson about his spellbinding 2011 book “In the Garden of the Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin.” He gave me one of my favorite author Q&A quotes ever when I asked about a young woman in the book who was, um, rarely unaccompanied: “I'm the father of three daughters, and I thank God I don't have a daughter who's like Martha. On the other hand, she's obviously a smart woman and sexy in her own way. Would I have liked to have dated her? You bet.”

This time around, I contacted Larson about “Dead Wake” with a story of my own about one of the most surprising characters in his new book – the then-president of the United States, a stern man in public and a besotted puppy dog in love in private. Two of my great-aunts, a pair of twins, were born in Oklahoma 1913. Their middle names? Woodrow and Wilson. They both lived well into the 21st century.

But I digress. In our chat, Larson talks about the risky world of life on a submarine, his favorite character on the Lusitania and the dangers of hubris that threaten us still.
 
Q: How did you come across the story of the Lusitania, and what drew you to want to tell it?
 
I’d always been interested in maritime history, especially the great liners. I’d have done a book about the Titanic, if it hadn’t already been done to death by James Cameron and Celine Dion. The Lusitania had long been rattling around in my head when, about five years ago, for no particular reason, I did a little exploratory reading, and immediately realized that whatever I thought I knew about the Lusitania was just wrong.

More importantly, I realized that there was a very rich array of archival resources available that in my view had not been used to full advantage. I saw anopportunity to marshal all these sources in a way that would put readers aboard the Lusitania in a visceral way and conjure for them a rich sense of what that voyage must really have been like – the glamor, the suspense and, in the end, the tragedy and grief.

It offered me an opportunity, if you will, to put on my Alfred Hitchcock hat, but in a nonfiction realm. The book became for me an exercise in narrative suspense. True, real-life suspense. 

Q: We hear a lot about how the Titanic was the victim of old-fashioned hubris. How much of a role do you think hubris played in the Lusitania disaster? How is this story similar to (and different from) the Titanic on this level?
 
I do think hubris played a role here as well, the belief that the Lusitania was too big and too fast to ever be caught by any submarine, and that, in any case, no U-boat commander would think to attack the ship because to do so would violate the long-held rules governing naval warfare against merchant shipping. Beyond that, however, the parallels are few.
 
 Q: Why do you think so many passengers ignored or downplayed the risk that the Lusitania faced?
 
We today can look back and wonder at why so many people sailed on the Lusitania despite being warned by the German Embassy that anyone who entered the ‘War Zone’ around the British Isles did so at his or her own risk.

But the thing that characterized the age was an overweening confidence in the power of man-made objects to overcome obstacles like time and distance, and that confidence could not be deterred. Those who boarded the Lusitania on May 1, 1915, doubtless felt some anxiety, but at the same time, they took comfort in the sheer scale of the ship and its speed, and in the fact that for a century naval warfare against civilian vessels had been conducted in a chivalrous, humanitarian manner.

The Lusitania left New York at a point when the rules were changing, and when no one really understand how radically the submarine would change the rules.
 
Q: What surprised you about life (and death) in a submarine?
 
How fragile World War I submarines really were, at risk from all manner of threat, including weather, error, mechanical failure, and enemy action.

What also surprised me was that WWI submarines were able to spend only a limited time underwater, and that their speeds were so slow – a maximum of 9 knots underwater, 15 on the surface. In 1915, Germany had so few submarines available for service at any one time, typically about six, to patrol an immense territory.
 
 Q: What do you like most about the people on the Lusitania? And what drew you to the ahead-of-her-time feminist Theodote Pope, who’s probably everyone’s favorite character?
 
My favorite character was, in fact, Dwight Harris, a young New Yorker on his way to England to get engaged. What I loved about him was his unabashed delight at having survived the disaster and been part of such a big historical event.

Theodate was excellent as well, for different reasons. I loved the fact that she was an early feminist, and that she suffered from depression, because both aspects of her character have a resonance with today. Plus – very important – she left a detailed account of the voyage and the sinking, and if you’re going to do this kind of history, that detail is crucial.

Q: You write about Woodrow Wilson’s odd mixture of extreme romanticism in private and stern professorial nature in public. What do you make of this guy?
 
Prior to doing this book, I really didn’t care much for Wilson. I understood he was a great president, at a difficult time, but he always seemed to me to be something of a stiff.

The fact that in early 1915 he wrote dozens of passionate love letters to his girlfriend, Edith Bolling Galt, changed my impression utterly. Now I’m a fan.

That’s what I love about history – nuance. I don’t believe in unalloyed heroes. Everyone’s got warts, and everyone’s got a surprise side.
 
Q: We often hear about how terrible events could have been averted by the tiniest of decisions and twists of fate. But we rarely hear about the reverse: how decisions and fate also prevent many disasters from being even more horrific. Could the Lusitania disaster and its aftermath have been even worse? If so, what were some choices that prevented even greater loss of life at sea and even in the war itself?
 
The one positive thing about that May afternoon was the fact that the day was so lovely, so sunny, with a sea as still as glass. Had the seas been rough, the water and air  temperatures colder, it’s likely far fewer passengers would have survived the disaster – if any.
 
Q: What are the legacies of the Lusitania  disaster?
 
Well, the main legacy was not that it got us into World War I. I shared that misconception.

In fact, we did not enter the war for two full years, and even then Wilson did not once mention the Lusitania in his speech asking Congress for a declaration of war – or to be more precise, a declaration that a state of war already existed. Too many other affronts had occurred.

Mainly we have to go back to hubris. Any time we find ourselves expressing smug confidence about things that will or will not happen, we need to take warning.

I am thinking specifically of nuclear weapons and of our ambient confidence that no one in his right mind would ever use them to resolve a political or military conflict. To me, nuclear weapons are the secret crisis of our time. Frankly, everyone needs to reread John Hersey’s “Hiroshima.”
 
Q: What’s next for you? Just whisper it in my ear. Got a book topic in mind?
 
I may or may not be looking into a certain something. It’s got lots of romance, and has a kind of “Devil in the White City” feel, but I haven’t committed yet. And if I did … I wouldn’t tell you!
 
Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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