Hello, readers! This year, April 15th marks the 110th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. It is hard to believe it has been that long since the largest ship of its day struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic and sank, taking with her over 1500 lives.
The story of that tragedy lives on today, and you would probably be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t know about the Titanic. If asked, most people would say, “Oh, yeah, I saw the movie,” and could talk about “Jack and Rose”, and the “heart of the ocean.” Don’t get me wrong – I really enjoyed this movie as well; I saw it twice in the theater, and own the DVD. However, it is essential to remember that this was a real tragedy involving real people, and not just a movie. I do recommend the movie, though, and commend the director, James Cameron, for his accuracy and attention to detail. He did an excellent job weaving the fictional story of Jack and Rose in with the actual passengers on the Titanic, such as Molly Brown, Thomas Andrews, and the Astors. He also recreated meticulous details of the ship itself, right down to the china used, and many scenes of the Titanic wreck site were actually filmed there. You can read more about the making of this movie in the book James Cameron’s Titanic, and if you would like to see the movie again, you can find it here. But having been a Titanic buff for many years, I believe a little background knowledge of the Titanic and those who sailed on her can only enhance the watching of this movie. There are so many people and circumstances that are touched on just briefly in the movie, but knowing “the rest of the story” will add to your understanding and enjoyment. For me, the best way to do this is with books!
I first learned about the Titanic in the late 1970’s when my brother brought home a book from one of his high school classes. It was called A Night to Remember, by Walter Lord; I was intrigued by the cover, picked it up and started reading. I couldn’t put it down; how had I never heard of this? A true story about a huge ship hitting an iceberg, with so many people on board, and not enough lifeboats for everyone? The passenger list at the end of the book, with the names of those saved in italics, seeing the discrepancies between first, second, and third class? It was both heartbreaking and thrilling at the same time, and was the beginning of my lifelong fascination with the Titanic.
A Night to Remember has come to be the definitive work on the Titanic, written in 1955 by a man who was and still is considered the most renowned historian of all things Titanic to this day. He wrote in such a way that you get the perspective of many different passengers, combining the actual facts of the event with their reactions and emotions. The book flows like a novel, yet not strictly in chronological order. His details about that night come not from his imagination, but from actual survivors; Walter Lord interviewed 63 of the survivors, both passengers and crew, as well as researching articles and books written by survivors who had passed away by that time. If you only read one book about the Titanic, it should be this one!
Upon its publication, it became an instant bestseller, and three years later, a movie was made based upon it. The 1958 film, A Night to Remember, was considered to be an accurate depiction of the tragedy, and is still worth watching today. It is black & white, and doesn’t have the emotional soundtrack or the “pizzazz” of the modern Titanic movie, but it is still dramatic and gripping. James Cameron actually found much of his inspiration from this, and it is fascinating to note that Walter Lord was a consultant for both films! On the DVDs available, there is also a “making of” feature that is equally as enthralling as the movie itself; the producer of this 1958 film, William MacQuitty, actually remembers the building and launching of the Titanic in Belfast, Ireland, when he was a child. In this feature you can also see footage of the filming and several of the survivors who were on hand as consultants as well; these include Lawrence Beesley, Edith Russell, and Officer Joseph Boxhall. Officer Lightoller’s widow and Captain Smith’s daughter were also involved in the production. If these names are unfamiliar to you, reading A Night to Remember can introduce you to them, as well as many others. Again, it is so important to think of them as the real people they were, not just characters from a movie or a book.
A Night to Remember is by no means the only book about the Titanic. It would be impossible to list every available book on the subject, but there are many. A search for “Titanic” in our online catalog turns up 68 pages – and that only covers the Fontana system! Numerous books were written after the discovery of Titanic’s wreckage, but the ones prior to that were mainly the ones penned by survivors. They are fascinating, and remind us yet again that these people really lived. We have several of these books in our libraries; one of them is The Story of the Titanic: as Told by its Survivors. It contains the accounts of four different people: Lawrence Beesley, from second class, Colonel Archibald Gracie, a first class passenger, Commander Charles Lightoller, Titanic’s second officer, and Harold Bride, one of the wireless operators. Gracie’s story was originally published on its own as The Truth About the Titanic, and can also be found in Titanic: A Survivor’s Story; this edition includes The Sinking of the SS Titanic by John (Jack) Thayer, another first class survivor. Each of these men wrote from their own perspective, and in the style of the times, but how amazing to have these firsthand eyewitness accounts available to us today. Their stories continue, sometimes sadly; Gracie never fully recovered from his ordeal, and died less than a year later. Jack Thayer was only 17 and on board with his mother and father; his mother survived, but his father went down with the ship. Jack survived only by jumping into the water and reaching an overturned lifeboat. Officer Lightoller went on to serve in the Royal Navy during WWI, and even after retirement, continued sailing; he was one of the “little ships” – his own personal yacht – during the Dunkirk evacuation.
Another survivor, Eva Hart, also wrote about her Titanic experience, but not until 1994, two years before she passed away. Eva, who was seven years old at the time of the sinking, had very vivid memories of the voyage, partly due to her mother’s “premonition that something dreadful was going to happen.” Eva would frequently talk throughout her life about being on the Titanic, both in interviews and activities with fellow survivors. She even inspired a scene in Cameron’s Titanic movie! Her autobiography, A Girl Aboard the Titanic, is a well-written, detailed account of her life and Titanic memories. If you would like to read more about these and other survivors, there are several other books with similar names – Titanic Voices, Voices from the Titanic, and Lost Voices from the Titanic – that recount both men and women survivors’ stories. Another book, Shadow of the Titanic, does the same, albeit a bit more sensationalized.
Of course, many of the survivors did not write about their experience; in fact, a lot of them did not want to talk about it at all. When Walter Lord contacted survivors to ask about interviews, he was turned down by more than one; some of their own family members didn’t even know they had been on Titanic. Others became known by being written about by others; Mrs. J.J. Brown (Margaret), became known as “the unsinkable Molly Brown” for her actions in the lifeboat that night; Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth chronicles her life. Another survivor’s story, Polar the Titanic Bear, was written about 6 year old Douglas Spedden, a first class passenger, as “told” by his Steiff teddy bear; it was, in fact, written by Douglas’s mother, Daisy, who also survived the tragedy.
While remembering the survivors, one cannot forget the man who saved them: the captain of the Carpathia. In A Night to Remember, Captain Arthur Rostron’s actions are related as he responded to the distress call of the Titanic’s wireless operators; turning his ship around and racing to the scene, he was a true hero in every sense of the word. Unfortunately, he was too far away to make it before the Titanic sank, even though he pushed the Carpathia almost beyond her limits. Even more unfortunately, another ship, the Californian, was stopped for the night within sight of the Titanic. She was only about ten miles away, but her wireless was switched off for the night, and the distress call was never heard. This ship was close enough that, had the message been received, many of the Titanic’s passengers could have been saved. You can read more about these two ships in The Other Side of the Night: the Carpathia, the Californian, and the Night the Titanic Was Lost. This excellent book covers the details of that night as it happened on each ship, and gives not only perspective on the tragedy, but also what happened afterward; from the rescue of survivors in the lifeboats to the official inquiries on both sides of the Atlantic, the author makes you feel as if you were there.
Look at any Titanic book and you can see photographs of the ship, both interior and exterior views. While sometimes these photos are actually shots of Titanic’s sister ship, the almost identical Olympic, authentic photos do exist. Father Frank Browne, a Jesuit priest from Ireland, was given a two day, first-class ticket by his uncle; this allowed him to sail on the Titanic from Southampton, England to Cherbourg, France, where more passengers boarded, then overnight to Queenstown, Ireland for the last of the passengers. Father Browne was a photography enthusiast, and took many photographs during his part of the voyage. He disembarked in Queenstown, before the Titanic headed across the Atlantic. The Last Days of the Titanic is an amazing collection of his photographs on board the ill-fated liner, showing the ship itself as well as passengers and crew. It also shows the last photograph taken of Captain Smith, and the last view of Titanic as she steamed away from the Irish coastline. She would not be photographed again until 1985.
The discovery of Titanic’s wreckage in 1985 made headlines around the world. But well before this, finding the Titanic was uppermost in many peoples’ minds. In fact, right after the sinking, some of the families of those who died wanted to find and raise the ship, even contracting a wrecking company to do so. But the ability to locate and raise a ship, especially when an exact position was unknown, simply did not exist at the time. Over the years, a variety of schemes were proposed , including balloons, magnets, and ping-pong balls, just to name a few. (I do have to mention one fiction book, Raise the Titanic!, written by Clive Cussler in 1976; fans of his work will remember Dirk Pitt and the drama of finding and raising the Titanic in one piece, then towing it into New York harbor!) By the 1980’s, technology was well-advanced, and more serious attempts were made to find Titanic’s resting place. Robert Ballard, an oceanographer and marine geologist, had long been interested in underwater archaeology; in 1985, he and his crew located the ship by using Argo, a robotic submersible video “sled.” Ballard had decided to look for debris from the ship, and on September 1, 1985, made a positive identification of one of Titanic’s boilers. They followed the debris field, and soon found the hull of the Titanic, split in two. (This confirmed what some survivors had said, that the ship had broken in half before she sank.) While this makes the discovery sound somewhat simplistic, in reality there was much more to it. The National Geographic video, Secrets of the Titanic, is an excellent documentary of the events leading up to this historic find, as well as the story of the ship itself. The moment of finding the boiler and the realization of what it was is a pivotal moment that captures the excitement and exhilaration of Ballard and the whole team.
Robert Ballard’s book, The Discovery of the Titanic, gives an even more in-depth account of this historic find. Gorgeously illustrated by artist Ken Marschall, whose paintings look like photographs, the book also contains actual photographs of Ballard’s discovery. Walter Lord wrote the introduction to this book, as well as writing his own follow-up to A Night to Remember, called The Night Lives On. Ballard wrote a version of his book aimed at younger readers, called Exploring the Titanic: How the Greatest Ship Ever Lost was Found; this one is also a terrific resource, a quicker read and loads of illustrations. Ballard revisited the Titanic grave site in later years; the result of those trips became Return to Titanic (2004) and Titanic: the Last Great Images (2008), two more fascinating books that chronicle how the passage of time has affected the ship. While many artifacts have been recovered from Titanic’s resting place, these were not brought up by Ballard; he has always maintained a great respect for the sanctity of those who died there. If you are interested in learning more about Robert Ballard, Into the Deep is a biography of his life. The discovery of Titanic is by no means his only accomplishment; if Bismarck, Yorktown, and Lusitania are among your interests, you will want to read more about Ballard.
I have focused on non-fiction books about the Titanic, with the exception of the aforementioned Cussler book, but there are many fictional books that use the Titanic as the setting. Obviously, this tragedy still holds a fascination for both authors and readers, even after all these years. I have read quite a few of these fictional works, some are better than others, but there isn’t room here to list even a fraction of them! I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention one particular fiction book, titled Futility, or Wreck of the Titan, by Morgan Robertson. This story is about a large ocean liner named Titan, which hits an iceberg in the Atlantic during an April crossing; it sinks, and many people die because there are not enough lifeboats for everyone. Sound familiar? There are many similarities between the fictional Titan and the real Titanic, except for one important fact: Wreck of the Titan was written in 1898 – fourteen years before Titanic sank!
I hope this encourages you to read further about the Titanic and her one and only voyage. There is so much more I could write about this historical event, the people involved, and the repercussions of the tragedy, I feel as though I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. I especially hope you will take the time to become acquainted with those who sailed on this magnificent ship, both those who survived and those who did not. On April 15th, take a moment to reflect on the Titanic and her passengers; think about those survivors in the lifeboats watching the ship go down with so many people still on board. Consider their family members on both sides of the Atlantic who had to wait days for any word of their loved ones, in an age before “instant news;” imagine the tension of waiting for the Carpathia to dock to see if the survivor lists were maybe, just maybe, incomplete. Whether we read a book, watch a movie, or just think about the significance of the day, we can regard the sinking of the Titanic as one of the most influential and tragic events in history. Even after 110 years, her name and her passengers live on.