Comprehensive chronicle of the Titanic in text and pictures

Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy, A Chronicle in Words and Pictures, by John P. Eaton and Charles A. Haas. Foreword by John Maxtone-Graham. New York: W.W. Norton. 319 pp. $39.95. Illustrated. Seventy-five years ago, on the night of April 14, 1912, the White Star liner Titanic sank in mid-ocean on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York. The product of American capital, British engineering, and fierce maritime commercial rivalry among Great Britain, the United States, France, and Germany, R.M.S. Titanic was the grandest passenger ship of its day - opulent, spacious, speedy, and, thanks to its innovative construction, supposedly unsinkable.

Few people can wish that they had been passengers on the Titanic, but the ship and everything connected with it have continued to exercise an enduring fascination through decades filled with countless other forms of disaster, both natural and man-made, and including total warfare. But the Titanic seems to embody the height of civilized luxury and technological ingenuity suddenly engulfed in a natural force men thought they had mastered. It is the material of which myths are made.

``Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy'' is more than the chronicle in words and pictures its publishers promise. For the vicarious traveler, it is the closest thing to a ticket on the doomed ship, as well as a bird's-eye view of the consequences - legal, technological, heuristic, even artistic - of the disaster.

A wealth of detail lies within the pages of this large and heavy book, with its authoritative text and many interesting photographs: the kind of locomotive that drew the boat-trains from London to Southampton; steamer and train tickets; menus; luggage tags; china patterns; insurance claims; passenger lists; immigration forms; photographs of passengers. Many of the pictures are taken from archives and collections that have provided illustrations for previous books on this subject, but the comprehensiveness of the selection here is unmatched. And there are marvelous things not to be found anywhere else: A priest called Father Browne traveled on board the Titanic only as far as Queenstown (now called Cobh) in the south of Ireland.

During his two days on board, he took innumerable snapshots, many reproduced in this volume. One, taken by Browne's friend from the tender as it rounded the Titanic's stern, is reproduced here. It is hard to look without emotion at these, some of the last pictures ever taken of the great ship.

Indeed, the book as a whole is surprisingly affecting. Reading it is a roller-coaster ride of reactions, from the early sections in which we can share the pride taken in her construction and the exhilaration of those who embarked on the brand new ship, to the later sections in which we bear witness to the dreadful loss of life through bad planning and just plain hubris.

Sorrow at the loss, anger at the waste, rage at the vainglorious folly of blind faith in technology, astonishment at the pettiness, admiration for the bravery, pity for the anguish felt by so many - all these emotions are evoked by the low-key, documentary style text and black-and-white pictures.

The book lacks nothing that might conceivably have been included. There are even some underwater photos of the sunken hulk taken in the celebrated expedition of 1985.

But these are oddly less moving than the earlier pictures of people and objects taken before the disaster: A sunken ship is a mass of barnacle-encrusted metal plates, whereas the names, faces, rooms, furnishings, and other objects in the old pictures are part and parcel of the living ship and its legend.

John Eaton and Charles Haas have done a superb job of immersing us in the world of the Titanic, its quiddity and its myth. Given the huge and enduring interest in the subject, there will, no doubt, be other books about the Titanic, but it is hard to imagine one that will be more comprehensive or more beautifully arranged.

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