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A heart that would not go on

  • Apr 24, 2012
On the 100th anniversary of the Titanic (the ship's name a shorthand for both the event and its importance) is a poignant story that unlike so many about the ship is fresh and powerful in its impact.  Wilson's biography of J. Bruce Ismay, the managing director and chairman of the White Star Line, is powerful in its simple presentation of the events and evidence that shattered Ismay's life that April night and left him alive for the rest of his 25 years.

Wilson relies heavily on the newspaper accounts and on the proceedings of the American and British hearings that attempted to answer the what, how, and why of this first and most unfathomable modern man-made disaster.  But she takes the bare voices of legal and political proceedings and reconstitutes the humans who shaped and were shattered by them.  

Ismay, in her hands, is both pathetic and sympathetic, guilty and innocent, trapped and free, shallow and a deep pool of mystery.  He was roundly condemned for his survival, for voluntarily taking his place on one of the last (or the first, or the last, 'eyewitness" testimonies from that dark night varying so widely on this and many other points) lifeboats, while hundreds of passengers and crew, over half the lives on board, were indeed somewhere on board, but not there as that boat was being lowered.  What good would have been served, other than his own legacy, had he left that seat empty to go down with the ship?  What was his moral duty?  What would I have done?

Ismay is a "double", a concept Wilson develops throughout the book as she compares the real Ismay to the fictional Lord Jim created by Joseph Conrad.  In documenting his sometimes unhappy childhood she emphasizes his position between two favored siblings who died young, and later pairs of twins that absorbed his mother's time and caring as he struggled to please a father who disliked him intensely.  

This was an impulse window-shopping purchase that attracted me by its title and cover description, and repaid the reading manifold.  If you think you know everything about the Titanic from the books, the movies, and the documentaries, this is a silent side of that tragedy that deserves and rewards your quiet examination.

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review by . October 12, 2011
In the Congressional investigation that was conducted in New York City just days after the tragic sinking of the Titanic in April 1912 J. Bruce Ismay claimed that he was nothing more than a passenger on the ill-fated ship. To most observers this seemed to be a rather preposterous position to take. You see J. Bruce Ismay just happened to be chairman and managing director of the White Star Line, the owner of the Titanic. What made matters considerably worse for Mr. Ismay was his decision to save himself …
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Todd Stockslager ()
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I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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About this book


Award-winning historian Frances Wilson delivers a gripping new account of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, looking at the collision and its aftermath through the prism of the demolished life and lost honor of the ship’s owner, J. Bruce Ismay. In a unique work of history evocative of Joseph Conrad’s classic novel Lord Jim, Wilson raises provocative moral questions about cowardice and heroism, memory and identity, survival and guilt—questions that revolve around Ismay’s loss of honor and identity as his monolithic venture—a ship called “The Last Word in Luxury” and “The Unsinkable”—was swallowed by the sea and subsumed in infamy forever.
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ISBN-10: 0062094548
ISBN-13: 978-0062094544
Publisher: Harper
Date Published: October 11, 2011
Format: Hardcover
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