One hundred years ago — on May 7, 1915 — without warning a German submarine deliberately targeted and torpedoed the massive British passenger liner Lusitania en route from New York to Liverpool, which went down in minutes with a loss of nearly 1200 lives, including 121 Americans. This was a clear violation of international law and norms, but although the Great War had only been in progress for some ten months, Imperial Germany had already demonstrated that it would not be bound by such constraints: German violation of Belgian neutrality accompanied by widespread civilian atrocities was followed by an unprecedented aerial bombing of cities using both zeppelins and airplanes, and then the deployment of poison gas. The unprovoked sinking of a passenger liner full of civilians only upped the ante of total war. Many recall the sinking of the Lusitania as the reason the United States entered the war, but that is not entirely true: an outraged but stubbornly neutral America did not declare war on Germany for another two years. Millions died on both sides in the interim.
Today, most people know a great deal more about Titanic — a similar behemoth liner that met catastrophe just three years earlier and has been famously celebrated by multiple books and films — than they do about the doomed Lusitania. Just in time for the centennial, Erik Larson seeks to redress that with Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. Despite the inherent risks of cliché in drawing comparisons between a fictional movie about the Titanic tragedy and a nonfiction book about the Lusitania disaster, I could not mentally resist the similes between James Cameron’s epic film and Larson’s latest book. I can clearly recall some source or another praising Cameron for his three-part approach to his subject: in the first part, the audience is made to fall in love with the ship; in the second, the audience is made to fall in love with the characters; in the last, the audience is spellbound as the ship meets destruction. Cameron succeeds masterfully; Larson not so much, in what turns out to be a dull, drawn out narrative that surprisingly manages to fall flat despite stellar built-in elements for drama, pathos and excitement.
A celebrated author of the dramatic historical moment who was catapulted to fame with The Devil in the White City, Larson has sometimes been criticized because he is not a trained professional historian, but this seems unfair: he has an undergrad degree in history, a master’s in journalism from Columbia, and his research seems perfectly sound, as evinced by the copious end-notes in Dead Wake. The problem with this book is less about content than presentation, which is surprising because the author has long been renowned for the verve of his writing style and his skill at reanimating people and events from the distant past. One review found fault with the lack of photographs and illustrations in Dead Wake, and Larson took a sideways swipe at that in the author event I attended, where he gloried in the strength of his craft to spawn lasting visual images that made accompanying graphics superfluous. With some exceptions, in Dead Wake this turns out to be more than a bit overconfident.
I might not have read Dead Wake except for the notice that he was to appear at this author event at Mt. Holyoke College, not far from my home. And the Lusitania theme was congruent with my current focus, as I was deeply invested in reading the magisterial narrative history Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by Christopher Clark, which I coincidentally completed the day of Larson’s appearance, March 11, 2015. The event left me disappointed. Seeming to awkwardly channel Alan Alda’s Hawkeye character from M.A.S.H., Larson came off strutting and a bit arrogant in his comedic attempts on stage, eschewing readings from the book and avoiding much discussion of Lusitania or the war. Instead, his remarks were about him, Erik Larson: his journey, his writing strategy, his family, his funny stories. Now don’t get me wrong – I have attended many author events and some great writers are quite frankly terrible speakers. On the other hand, the best blend some self-deprecating comments with tales of behind-the-scenes research and writing, as well as entertaining anecdotes – but the book and its subject always form the central theme. Larson clearly did not want to talk much about the book or its historical context and he went out of his way to deflect comments and questions from the audience that sought to probe such horizons. “I don’t want to spoil the ending,” he repeated with a wry smile more than once. For me, as I stood in line to get my first edition signed, he had to some degree spoiled the beginning.
Still, I resolutely put all that behind me while I read the book, which I anticipated precisely because of Larson’s reputation as a raconteur. Not constrained by the often stultifying structure of academic prose, Larson writing for a popular audience can indeed be credited with an engaging style, and Dead Wake starts off strong enough as the stage is set to weave a multiplicity of themes into a coherent narrative: there is the war and the danger to shipping from German U-boat submarines; there is the Lusitania and its captain and crew; there are the hundreds of passengers, only some who are aware on embarkation of the posted warnings by Germany that their ship could be fair game; there is the U-20 and its captain and crew; there is the secret room where British codebreakers monitor the enemy; there is Churchill and the Admiralty, where the barely suppressed desire to see an unprovoked attack on a passenger liner and its hoped-for result of US entry into the war is evident. Curiously, there is also another odd element: the backstory of the suddenly widowed and deeply heartbroken American President, Woodrow Wilson, who is just as suddenly smitten with a new crush, seemingly derailed and distracted during these most troubled times of emerging international crises.
That’s a lot to cover in 350 pages, but as Bill Bryson has demonstrated more than once – and Larson’s tone is a bit Bryson-esque – it can be done. Unfortunately, Larson falls short in Dead Wake. The Lusitania, which should be the main character, lacks the centrality in the narrative it deserves and without photographs or graphical representation the ship fails to form a vivid image in the reader’s mind. Other components receive better treatment – I learned more about the vulnerability and complexity of World War I era U-boats from this book than anything else – but the bulk of the narrative is strangely devoted to character sketches of selected passengers and how they battled the ennui of the voyage while wondering aloud with a mix of whimsy and trepidation when the torpedoes would strike. When the “unthinkable” (although it seems more than a few “thought it”) occurs, it is nearly anti-climactic, as if the author is impatient to get through it in the mere thirty-five pages he devotes to the attack and the loss of the vessel.
The remaining portion of the book is devoted to the aftermath and its implications – and these implications remain just that: did the British Admiralty, aware through codebreaking of the direct U-boat threat, deliberately fail to protect the Lusitania in the hopes that dead Americans would bring live Americans into the allied war effort? Was Wilson indeed so stunned by his wife’s death and his new passion that he could not find focus at a singular moment of great consequence? I might add another: was Germany or America aware that munitions were in fact being smuggled on the ship and would that have made any difference to either nation? These are critical questions that are left for the reader to ponder with little assistance. Worse perhaps, for a book so devoted to individual character development, I found myself unable to really care about any of the figures that populate the narrative. Shouldn’t the reader be brought to the brink of tears by the death of at least one of the hundreds of “souls” that went down with that ship? Whether it is Larson’s fault or my own, the fact is that I was decidedly less than overcome.
This is surely not a terrible book despite my negative commentary, and if my expectations were not heightened by the author’s reputation, I might be less critical. Or not. Either way, as a history guy, I have a sense that there is much to learn about the sinking of the Lusitania that I did not learn from reading Dead Wake. I promised myself at the outset that I would resist the temptation to use bad metaphors like “lifeboats,” “shipwrecks” and “clutching the oars” when writing this review, but I must admit it was not always easy to do so. I have never before characterized something as a “well-written but boring book,” but that is perhaps the best way I can sum it up. In the author event, Larson noted that he credited his wife for editing the book and forcing him to excise portions that failed to make muster. Perhaps she cut out the best parts?