Joyce, the General Slocum and the novel as journalism…

At the heel of the V]Bloomsday celebrations, here’s a great piece from Frank McNally in the Irishman’s Diary yesterday where he ties in the recent death of a German American woman with an Irish name to an obscure pub conversation in Ulysses:

…the defining event of her extraordinarily long life was the work of a few fraught minutes on the morning of June 15th, 1904, when she was only 11.

Then, along with her mother, brother, sister, and at least 1,300 others, she was a passenger on the General Slocum : an old wooden paddle-steamer that ran pleasure cruises on New York’s East River. They were making what they hoped would be a day-trip from their native Manhattan to Long Island for a picnic. Instead, en route, the ship caught fire. And what followed would be the worst disaster in New York history until 9/11.

The official death toll was 1,021 of the 1,342 on board: most of the dead being women and children. As with 9/11, however, the exact figures are unknown. A recent book on the tragedy suggested that both passenger numbers and fatalities were grossly underestimated and that more than 2,000 may have died. Many of their bodies were washed out to sea or buried in the river mud.

The story provides a grim footnote to this week’s Bloomsday celebrations, because it occurred on the eve of June 16th, 1904, and so featured prominently in the newspapers of that morning. Immortalising the date in Ulysses , Joyce faithfully included a reference to the New York tragedy: albeit briefly, and filtered through the casual chat of Mr Kernan and the publican Crimmins.

And here’s the passage:

“Terrible affair that General Slocum explosion. Terrible, terrible. A thousand casualties. And heartrending scenes. Men trampling down women and children. Most brutal thing. What do they say was the cause? Spontaneous combustion. Most scandalous revelation. Not a single lifeboat would float and the fire hose all burst. What I can’t understand is how the inspectors ever allowed a boat like that . . . Now you’re talking straight, Mr Crimmins. You know why? Palm-oil. Is that a fact? Without a doubt. Well now, look at that. And America they say is the land of the free. I thought we were bad here.”

Tight, compact and truthful journalism presented as pub conversation: just one of the many hidden gems buried within a grand informational matrix of a book…

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