Down with the Robber Baron: Class Struggle through the Lens of a Gilded Age Disaster


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Central to the analytical discourses surrounding disaster is the question of what role human action, or the products thereof, can and should play when considering whether or not a catastrophic event will be labeled a natural disaster. This tension arises out of the view that human agency, involvement, or culpability renders a disaster unnatural. However, it is impossible to avoid the structural elements that contribute to the severity of any disaster regardless of the perceived human role played in the event. In order to examine the relationship between structural elements and our perceptions of natural disaster, a case must be considered which contains a unique blend of natural occurrences and human interaction. That case study will be the sinking of the Titanic.

It is clear that human engineering, human oversight, and other structural considerations played a key role in the sinking of the Titanic. Thus, my first area of inquiry will concern the design and engineering of the ship. Who designed the Titanic? Who oversaw its construction? To what extent were they aware of the risks involved in building a ship of such grandeur? Why were the necessary precautions not taken to prevent the magnitude of deaths? This will allow insight as to the basic facts surrounding the ship and its safety as well as safety protocol. While technical information regarding the ship’s construction is one important physical element of the structures that exacerbated the sinking of the Titanic, the sociopolitical and socioeconomic composition of the ship played a role as well. Consider the time period in which the disaster was situated. This was a time of rapid expansion, industrialization, and class stratification as well.

Thus, my second line of inquiry will concern the socioeconomic composition of the ship. How many individuals from each class (lower, middle, and upper) were present on the ship? Was the number of deaths disproportionate in terms of class? If so, how were the deaths distributed among the classes? How was class articulated in terms of advertisement and on-ship accommodations? This will allow us to examine the socioeconomic structures that played a role in the exacerbation of the disaster. And, finally, to address the element of human perception, an examination of the narrative that was constructed in the wake of the sinking of the Titanic will be conducted. Therefore, my third area of inquiry will be about how the sinking of the Titanic was conceptualized at the time. What narrative is constructed regarding the sinking of the Titanic? What language is used? Is there a discussion of culpability, and if so what does that tell us about the time period?

In order to conduct this study, some of the primary sources that would be helpful in addressing the first line of inquiry are schematics of the ship, documents describing the ship’s precautionary planning, a list of individuals involved in the ship’s design and information on their backgrounds. Primary sources helpful in addressing the second line of inquiry are documents describing who purchased a ticket and boarded the ship, a list of survivors, advertisements for the ship, and a list of the accommodations that were made along class lines such as where upper class passengers were seated versus lower class passengers. And finally the primary sources needed to answer the third line of inquiry would be journals, newspaper clippings, letters, possibly even memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies from surviving passengers.