When people think of massive ships sinking at the turn of the 20th century, their thoughts might first go to the RMS Titanic, forever immortalized by James Cameron’s blockbuster movie, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio’s star-making performances and the tin whistle solo from Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.”
With Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, author Erik Larson wanted to tell the tale of another sinking ship: the RMS Lusitania, which was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat in 1915. Larson said before writing the book, most of his knowledge about the Lusitania was what “everybody kind of knows when they emerge from high school, which is that the Lusitania was sunk. And the thing you’re left with in your mind is that it brought [America] into the war.”
Larson said the sinking is often taught as the World War I equivalent of the Pearl Harbor attacks, which he says isn’t quite correct.
“It was two full years before America got into World War I, which really surprised me,” Larson said.
Larson will speak about his work on Dead Wake as part of the morning lecture series for Week Six, the theme of which is “Vanishing.” His presentation will be at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater. Larson’s book is one of two Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selections for Week Six, along with Héctor Tobar’s Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free.
Sherra Babcock, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, said she received an advance copy of Dead Wake and was initially considering it as an option for 2016’s programming. When “Vanishing” became the Week Six lecture theme, it became clear to her the novel would be a great fit for the 2015 season. She said Larson’s book has two ties to the theme of the week, one obvious and one not so obvious.
“Certainly, the Lusitania — it just sank,” Babcock said. “But in reading the book, there’s such a strong theme of the vanishing rules of warfare that we thought would be a wonderful lecture for the week.”
One of those vanishing rules was the notion that civilians were generally off-limits in times of war, Larson said. The attack on the Lusitania changed that in an irrevocable way.
“The sinking of the ship also represented the passing of a certain gentlemanly way of maritime warfare,” Larson said. “This really marked the official, undeniable end of the old ways of doing maritime warfare where civilian ships were treated with care and civilian casualties were avoided at all costs.”
Another vanishing, Larson said, was the “sense of confidence in man’s creations” — one that had existed for centuries.
“There’s the fading of a certain confidence, a belief in the power of invention and energy,” Larson said. “The ship was thought to be too big and too fast for any submarine to catch.”
Larson said, besides pursuing his own interest in maritime history and warfare, the research he did for Dead Wake offered him a chance to delve into uncharted territory with his storytelling. He said the amount of high-quality historical material that existed for him to work with — such as the submarine captain’s war log — gave him the opportunity to create dual narratives set on the same fateful path.
“Right away, as soon as I knew that existed, I realized the structure of the story was going to be the convergence of the submarine and ship,” Larson said. “And that was a lot of fun to build.”
Peg Snyder, manager of the CLSC Veranda, said she liked that the dual narratives provided a more sympathetic look into the minds of those usually considered as the “enemy” in this particular piece of history.
“He just brings them together on this collision course, and it was really interesting to learn the other side and what those men in the submarine went through,” Snyder said. “You really didn’t think of them as the enemy — they were in this by circumstance, and they had to do it.”
Jeff Miller, CLSC activities coordinator, said Larson’s skill as a storyteller and as a speaker made him a great choice as a morning lecturer. Larson previously visited Chautauqua Institution in 2011 to discuss In the Garden of Beasts as part of the CLSC Roundtable.
“I’ve done this for a while, so I’ve dealt with 100, 150 authors,” Miller said. “Not every author is interested or has the ability to get in front of an audience and tell the story in that way. And Erik Larson is very good at that, too.”
Larson said he was thrilled to be invited back to speak at Chautauqua, this time taking the Amp stage rather than the lectern in the Hall of Philosophy.
“It’s like summer camp for eggheads,” Larson said. “It’s a lot of fun to be with such a literary crowd.”
Larson said he’ll talk about how a project like Dead Wake comes along, and why he decided to pursue it.
“It offered me an opportunity to do something that was brand new for me, which was to really infuse a true nonfiction account with suspense — to really, literally, put on my Alfred Hitchcock hat and tell this true story in a way that was as compelling, I hope, for readers as it was for those involved,” Larson said.
According to Babcock, it’s Larson’s masterful merging of the historical with the literary and personal that makes his works so compelling, and she’s excited to hear him speak on that topic.
“He really immerses himself — you can really tell by his books that he does,” she said. “And he brings history alive with these moments. He’s very well-researched and very well-documented in the macro picture, but he tells a micro story in the context of that larger picture. And for people who like to read, for people who like history, his writing is just wonderful.”