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Walter Lord: Story-teller or Social Historian?

John Welshman is the author of Churchill’s Children: The Evacuee Experience in Wartime Britain. He is currently working on a book provisionally entitled Titanic: The Last Night of a Small Town (forthcoming, 2012). Below he talks about Walter Lord, who wrote the acclaimed book A Night to Remember about the Titantic. You can read his previous OUPblog posts here.

It was Walter Lord, in A Night to Remember (1955) who described the sinking of the Titanic as ‘the last night of a small town’. Lord had been born on 8 October 1917, in Baltimore, the only son of a prominent lawyer. As a boy, he had enjoyed a transatlantic cruise on the Olympic, during which he had fantasised about what it must have been like to have been aboard the Titanic. He attended private schools in Baltimore, and then read History at Princeton, graduating in 1939. Lord was at the Yale Law School at the outbreak of the Second World War. He then went to work for the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, first as a code clerk in Washington, and later as an intelligence analyst in London. In 1945, he returned to Yale and completed his law degree. However he decided that he did not want to practise, and instead wrote business newsletters and books.

Shortly after going to work for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in New York, Lord published The Freemantle Diary. It was reasonably successful on its publication in 1954. But it was A Night to Remember for which Lord was best known. Published in November 1955, the book had sold 60,000 copies by January 1956, and it stayed on the best seller list for six months. Condensed versions appeared in the Ladies Home Journal and Reader’s Digest, and it was the first of Lord’s several ‘Book of the Month Club’ selections, in June 1956. A successful television adaptation directed by George Roy Hill and narrated by Claude Rains was broadcast on 28 March 1956; it attracted 28m viewers. The British-made film of the same name, directed by Roy Baker, and starring Kenneth More and David McCallum, came out in 1958. The book has never been out of print.

On its publication, the New York Times said that the book was ‘stunning … one of the most exciting books of this or any other year’, while the Atlantic Monthly declared ‘a magnificent job of re-creative chronicling, enthralling from the first word to the last’. The magazine USA Today said that the book was ‘the most riveting narrative of the disaster’, and Entertainment Weekly declared it ‘seamless and skilful … it’s clear why this is many a researcher’s Titanic bible’. In the New York Herald Tribune, reviewer Stanley Walker drew attention to Lord’s technique as being ‘a kind of literary pointillism, the arrangement of contrasting bits of fact and emotion in such a fashion that a vividly real impression of an event is conveyed to the reader’.

No books on the Titanic had been published between 1913 and 1955. Cultural historian Steven Biel has noted that the book was well marketed, but also explains its resonance through the highly visual and aural nature of the narrative. Lord blurred history into news and drama, collapsing ‘historical duration into intense moments of lived experience’. The book takes an imaginative approach to time and space, in which the ship seems infinitely complex, and the disaster assumes unity and order only from far away. Lord ‘constructs a modernist narrative around a modernist event’, manipulating and violating a simple chronology, juggling an enormous cast of characters. Every moment is split into multiple perspectives. Lord resists easy closure by suggesting that the multiple perspectives could be multiplied several times over, so that the narrative is fragmented, uncertain, and open-ended. He managed to move at a slow pace while dramatising the full duration of the disaster.

Peter Middleton and Tim Woods argue that Lord chose to foreground memory because he thought of his book as a collage of memories. They agree with Biel that the book is constructed from a network of incidents taking place in different but related locations. Lord shows how the ship has been constructed to keep the First, Second, and Third Class passengers apart. The social space of the ship is ‘a microcosm of an earlier, highly stratified society, suddenly evident in its failure’. Lord’s technique is a modernist one of montage and fragmentation, characterised by rapid cuts from point to point across the field of the action. Nathaniel Philbrick argues similarly that what distinguishes the book is the restraint and compression of the storytelling. With the brevity of the book, its readable style and its mundane title, Lord works against the inherent extravagance of the material. Lord builds suspense, making the reader care about the characters, and forcing them to take part in the scramble for the lifeboats.

Nevertheless as a social history of the disaster, A Night to Remember is less successful. Lord asserts that if the experiences of Third Class passengers were neglected ‘never again would First Class have it so good … One of the more trying legacies left by those on the Titanic has been a new standard of conduct for measuring the behaviour of prominent people under stress’. He argues that never again did established wealth occupy people’s minds so thoroughly, and never again was wealth so spectacular: ‘it never was the same again. First the War, then the income tax, made sure of that’. Lord asserts that ‘men would go on being brave, but never again would they be brave in quite the same way … today nobody could carry off these little gestures of chivalry, but they did that night’. The Titanic was the first step in a process of disillusionment, ‘before the Titanic, all was quiet. Afterward, all was tumult’. Lord argues that ‘the Titanic more than any other single event marks the end of the old days, and the beginning of a new, uneasy era’.

In this respect, the success of A Night to Remember revealed as much about 1950s America, alive to the threat of nuclear attack, as it did about the Titanic itself. While Lord himself has noted that the Titanic ‘entrances the social historian’, his own treatment of historical issues is much less assured than his minute-by-minute description of events. As Arthur Calder-Marshall noted in his review in the Times Literary Supplement, in June 1956, ‘Mr Lord was clearly correct in adhering closely to the facts. When he tries to generalise he grows wild’.

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