I just got back from Roosevelt House on East 65th Street, where Erik Larson spoke about his just-released book Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. I have not yet read the book, though I intend to before the 100th anniversary of the ship’s sinking on May 7. I always found it strange that we pay so much attention to the Lusitania and yet neglect other maritime incidents from the war. This is so true that many believe the sinking of the Cunard ship was the direct cause of American involvement in the war. The Americans of course did not come in for another twenty-three months, and even then U.S. troops were slow to mobilize. As Larson pointed out, many ships went down under similar circumstances and are all but forgotten today.
Larson was quite the engaging speaker, telling funny anecdotes but never losing control of the narrative or forgetting the seriousness of the topic. He is one of those writers who has managed to achieve independence and give all his time to writing and researching. That is no mean feat. As befits the topic, he went to many places to find the story. The Hoover Institute and elsewhere here in the United States, and also an extended stay in Europe. He told the audience that he made Paris his base and took research trips to London, Cambridge, Liverpool and Denmark. In that last place he saw the remnants of U-20, the u-boat that sank the Lusitania and grounded a year later on the Danish coast. He described the remnants as looking anticlimactically like “a used refrigerator.”
Material culture seems to be a muse for Larson; he described the poignancy of an archivist bringing out a plank of wood and explaining that it had once been part of the ship. The archivist told him it had washed ashore and was found next to a victim of the sinking. This was the ah-ha moment when Larson realized he had a story to tell and that it wasn’t just about memorizing dates as he once had back in high school. There was worse, including photos taken in British morgues in the days just after the attack.
The subtitle describes the book’s contents. Larson explained that he did not cover too much of the diplomatic wrangling that went over the following months and years. I don’t know if that is good or bad–again, I have not read the book yet. But if he tells the story of this cataclysmic event as well as he described it tonight, he has added something to our understanding of this human tragedy.