This extraordinary book is still the pre-emminent account of the demise of the Titanic, even over a century after the event occurred. It was really the first attempt to piece together the fractured mosaic fragments of survivor testimony, both as recorded in the wake of the Congressional hearings, and from the recollections of people, some decades after the tragedy, to provide a running narrative of what happened that night. It creates a story that readers can follow, in excruciating detail, concerning the events of that tragic night. It is indeed the story of a single night, long ago, but not so far in the distant past that it is incomprehensible to modern-day readers.
Walter Lord's personal history is also a fascinating one. He reported that his interest in all things Titanic was initially sparked when traveling on the great liner's sister ship, the Olympic, as a boy. He was evidently aware of the sinking of the Titanic on that voyage, as he stated that even at age ten, he tried to imagine "such a huge thing" sinking. Having a penchant for history from childhood, he attended Princeton University where he majored in history, and later graduated from Yale Law School, but ultimately joined a New York-based advertising agency. "A Night to Remember" was only his second book. He wrote another Titanic-related account, after re-discovery of the wreck by Bob Ballard, in 1985, but none of his subsequent works reached the fame of this one. Walter Lord died in 2002, bequeathing his large Titanic collection, which was comprised of manuscripts, original letters, research materials, and memorabilia, to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England.
People's fascination with the Titanic disaster seems timeless. This short but comprehensive book, the culmination of a lifetime spent researching the Titanic, and even collecting memorabilia, was released in November, 1955, to critical acclaim. Only two months later, the book had already sold an astonishing 60,000 copies, and remained a best-seller for six months. Since its initial publication, the book has never been out of print, and has been translated into a dozen languages. Perhaps due to the enormous swell of renewed interest following the release of the immensely popular James Cameron movie, the book reached its fiftieth printing in 1998.
Lord's storytelling is remarkable: his detailed descriptions are highly visual, putting the reader in the midst of the terrifying events on that bitterly cold night when more than 1,500 men, women and children lost their lives in the frigid and unforgiving sea. Perhaps that is the book's greatest strength: its humanity, as it never loses sight of the human element juxtaposed against the immensity of the tragedy. Lord wrote in the acknowledgement section, for example: "this book is really about the last night of a small town. The Titanic was that big, and carried that many people." Two-thirds of the population of that small town did not survive that frigid night, dying in terror and agony comparable to being burned alive - such is the pain survivors report of being submerged in freezing water, in this case, even below the typical freezing temperature of water, at 29 degrees.
The novel recounts the story through the words, actions and emotions of the persons involved. Lord's account is a comprehensive narrative, effectively told by the survivors themselves, which weaves a rich tapestry, from the different perspectives and experiences of the people who lived them. The account also moves forward and backward in time, from location to location, often overlapping the narratives, but fairly seamlessly, such that the trajectory of the overall event is retained. It's a very information-rich account, replete with an astonishing amount of detail, but it's highly accessible, and, despite the minutiae, the reader doesn't get lost in the weeds. The ability to include so much detail and to still maintain a comprehensive, engaging narrative is an enviable talent, one which Lord embodies.
The book is thus exhaustively researched: the primary reason it is so detailed is that Lord was able to interview 63 survivors of the event, as the book was first published in 1955, just over forty years after the sinking of the Titanic. He also included other published material, as there was sufficient time for much to have been written by others as well, including books, memoirs, journal articles and even some drawings and plans. Lord even served as a technical consultant to James Cameron during the production of the world blockbuster "Titanic," released in 1997.
The most poignant aspect of this book is the manifest trust the survivors had in Walter Lord to tell their stories with accuracy, truthfulness, compassion and dignity, a far cry from the salacious newspaper accounts immediately following the sinking. In the acknowledgement section at the end of the book, for example, Lord recounts an all-too familiar occurrence for the survivors of traumatic events. The Countess of Rothes, an oft-portrayed character in the numerous movies which have graced the silver screen over the years (whose actual name was Noel McFie), reported to Lord that once, while dining out with a friend a year after the disaster, she was suddenly overcome by a cold, intense horror, displaying the symptoms of what we would today recognize as a panic attack. She only realized later the reason why: the orchestra had been playing "The Tales of Hoffmann," the last piece of after-dinner music that had regaled the First-Class diners that Sunday night, during the last dinner service on the Titanic. PTSD likely followed some survivors to their graves, unrecognized, unacknowledged, and untreated. Another survivor, Elizabeth Nye, provided the chilling detail that earlier in the evening on that fateful Sunday night, as the sun sank into the ink-black sea and the temperature plummeted, some passengers had gathered in the Second-Class dining room for a hymn-sing, the last song of which was "Eternal Father, Strong to Save," which ends with the lyrics, "O hear us, when we cry to thee, for those in peril on the sea." Amen.