The very recent centenary of the sinking of the Titanic was for Les éditions l'Archipel the opportunity to re-publish a seminal work in the historiography of the transatlantic liner: that of the American writer Walter Lord, The night of Titanic (A Night to Remember in English). This famous, widely distributed title first appeared in 1955, and three years later inspired a self-titled film, also successful, by Roy Baker. Walter Lord did not stop there and, until his death in 2002, he was regarded as an authority on all matters relating to the Titanic.
Made partially obsolete by the discovery of the wreck in 1985, The night of Titanic was completed the following year with another work by Lord, Secrets of a shipwreck (The Night Lives On). This reissue is added to Gérard A. Jaeger's title on the same theme, Once upon a time Titanic, published by the Archipelago a few months ago.
A must for Titanic
It is precisely Gérard A. Jaeger who is called upon by the editor to preface The night of Titanic. Son of a shipowner from Baltimore, Walter Lord had a passion for maritime history at a very young age, and in particular for the Titanic after a trip aboard her sister ship, theOlympic. A graduate in history and law, he began writing in 1954. His attraction to military history was to be expressed over the next three decades through a series of books on various episodes of the Second world war secession war or the texan revolution of 1836. Walter Lord's hallmark "paw" was the heavy emphasis on testimony or the raw archival material, giving a "journalistic" style which greatly contributed to his success as an author.
We find this style in The night of Titanic. To write it down, Walter Lord interviewed around 60 survivors of the 1955 shipwreck, also drawing on those who had written down their memories in previous years. In ten chapters, Lord reviews what was the disaster of Titanic, of the last minutes of Sunday April 14, 1912, when the transatlantic encountered the iceberg that was going to send it to the bottom, on the arrival in New York of Carpathia, in charge of the survivors of the shipwrecks, four days later. In this short opus - the body of the text as such is scarcely more than 170 pages - spells out both the strengths and weaknesses of Walter Lord's style.
The strengths, because the evocative power of the story he draws from these testimonies is unmistakable. Whether it was the passengers who vaguely felt the snoring of the iceberg rubbing against the steel hull in their cabin, or the desperate struggle of Second Officer Lightholler and his companions to stay upright, balanced unsteadily. , on the inverted keel of raft B, the stories plunge the reader into the heart of tragedy. The memories follow one another, poignant. Those of the men in boiler room number five, so incredulous when told that their quarters up front were inundated, that they burst out laughing. Those of wives, sons or daughters, boarding the lifeboats saying goodbye to fathers, husbands or brothers they would never see again.
A collection of testimonials
Another force of The night of Titanic is that all categories of passengers - or more accurately survivors, not all of whom were equal in the face of death that night - are represented. Third-class passenger Jim Farrel will follow as well as oiler Fred Scott, radio operator Harold Bride and young Jack Thayer traveling in first class. Thus, the mosaic of testimonies makes it possible to form a necessarily fragmentary, but nonetheless global, image of the disaster. This is still the best way to understand how the perception of an event in which you take part can be different depending on where, when and how you are at the moment T.
Paradoxically, this is also one of its weaknesses. Because Walter Lord gives us raw testimonies, without illuminating them with a critical eye or crossing them between them. The result is a narrative that sometimes lacks the historian's hindsight. For this reason, while Lord's work was one of the main milestones in historiography, it also contributed to perpetuate certain legends surrounding the shipwreck. The best known - and perhaps the most damaging - concerns the ship Californian and his commander (his namesake Stanley Lord), overwhelmed by testimonies today considered by Gerard Jaeger to be questionable. Furthermore, it is absolutely certain that the Californian was much further than Walter Lord wrote. In his defense, the author of The night of Titanic was unaware of the actual position of the Titanic, rectified only in 1985 when the wreck was found.
Only the eleventh and final chapter contains not an analysis, but a brief reminder of facts, mainly in figures. Lord answers a few questions, but the whole thing only fits over five pages. The author takes up more space - almost eight pages - to thank the witnesses who were kind enough to answer his questions. As a result, the reader will be greatly helped by Jaeger's preface, which rightly points out the qualities and defects of The night of Titanic. L'Archipel also had the rich idea of keeping the appendices of a previous edition, in 1998: a preface by Alain Bombard detailing the evolution of safety at sea after the shipwreck, and an afterword by Jean-Luc Majouret enlightening Walter Lord's work in light of the knowledge gained since exploring the wreck.
The night of Titanic is therefore a fairly old work, not exempt from flaws… but not without its qualities. Short, easy to read, fascinating, it retains great documentary value which makes it a must-have on the subject, despite its fifty-seven springs.