Above, Captain Edward Smith Memorial unveiling, Lichfield, England 1914. Photo as seen in the Ben Hecht Story & News, Snickernsee Press, March, 2000.
The drama of the poem today inheres in its composition and publication as the horror of the disaster was occurring and the news breaking. Captain Edward John Smith had just gone to an icy grave with his ship and a majority of its passengers, while the ship's owner Bruce Ismay was safe on the rescue ship Carpathia. Ismay's failure to provide enough lifeboats and his imposition of an infuriating news blackout were trumped only by his failure to feel bound by the dictum, "Women and children first." In an era of Roosevelt trust-busting and La Follette insurgency and humanitarianism; in the wake of deadly mining disasters and the Triangle shirtwaist fire in New York, where girls locked in to work met their death, Ismay's White Star Line swelled the list of industries that put profits before lives.
|Master and Man|
The Captain stood where a
For the Law of the Sea is grim;
The Owner romped while the ship was swamped
And no law bothered him.
The Captain stood where the Captain should
When a Captain's ship goes down
But the Owner led when the women fled,
For an Owner must not drown.
The Captain sank as a man of Rank,
While his Owner turned away;
The Captain's grave was his bridge and brave,
He earned his seaman's pay.
To hold your place in the ghastly face of Death on the Sea at Night
Is a Seaman's job, but to flee with the mob
Is an Owner's Noble Right.
Ben Hecht, Chicago Journal
|Hecht's title "Master and Man" made Tolstoy's parable of the same name the judgmental frame for Ismay. The parable concerns an unscrupulous land dealer who hires a manservant to accompany him on a business trip across the Russian tundra. When a blizzard strands them, the businessman orders his employee to lie on the sled bottom where he covers him with his furs and his body weight. The businessman dies an oblivious and redemptive death in the act of saving his employee, unlike Bruce Ismay. Hecht's Titanic verses belie the sovereignty of the captain by defining him as an employee, but ambiguously: he is an employee with an ethos beyond the owner's reach. This appealed to Hecht's egoistic philosophy. His line about Ismay fleeing was correct but to call the other survivors "the mob" was ill informed, forced by rhyme, or his disassociation with the "women first" triage. |
The literary reference to Tolstoy reveals how early in his career Hecht, just turned 19, used levels of meaning appealing equally to newspaper readers who grasped only the title and to the literati who knew their literature. The device appears often in his 1001 Afternoons stories: another of his captain stories turns on the title of German philosopher Max Stirner's treatise, The Ego and Its Own.
At the ensuing Congressional hearings in Washington, Ismay was questioned about the lifeboat shortage, failure to provide binoculars to see icebergs, his own step into a lifeboat and rumors that Morse code operators on both the Titanic and Carpathia colluded with the Marconi company of England to corner the market on the story. British sources pointed out that quarantining of the steerage in a locked area was a policy of the US immigration authority.
In 1944 Hecht rewrote Steinbeck's story for Hitchcock's film Lifeboat, a shipwreck survivor psychodrama. See the John Paul Jones story in the Ben Hecht Story & News, Compiled for related influences and films.
Florice Whyte Kovan, copyright, Snickersnee Press 2000.
This story was published in The Ben Hecht Story & News, avaiable for purchase now.