By MARK F. HALL
It's been 86 years since the "unsinkable" Titanic struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage and sank on April 15, 1912, claiming more than 1,500 lives. Yet interest in the story refuses to abate.
James Cameron's film "Titanic," a love story set against the epic sea disaster, won a record-tying 11 Academy Awards in March and recently became the first motion picture to gross more than $1 billion at the box office. The film has heightened curiosity about the details of the shipwreck to new highs. For those wishing to learn more about the history of the Titanic rather than the fictional story of Jack and Rose, the Library contains a wealth of information covering every aspect of the tragedy.
Among dozens of historical works on the Titanic in the Library's collections, Walter Lord's A Night to Remember, Don Lynch's Titanic: An Illustrated History and Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy by John P. Eaton and Charles A. Haas are probably the best known. All are still available in bookstores -- Lord's book has been in print continuously since it was first published in 1955. Daniel Allen Butler's new book, Unsinkable, which currently heads up the bestseller lists, made extensive use of the Library's collections in researching the book. He noted that "in all my visits the staff was always a model of courtesy."
Beyond the history books, there are many primary sources for the Titanic historian to explore in the Library. From the time the first distress signal from the ship was relayed to New York, the newspapers were on full alert. The New York Times and other New York papers, such as the New York American, Herald, Evening Post and Sun, as well as The Washington Post, Evening Star, Boston Globe, London Times and more are on microfilm in the Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room. There, one can trace the story, from the first reports of the Titanic's collision and the White Star Line's insistence that the ship would stay afloat and all would be safe, to the later editions when the horrible truth finally emerged. After the survivors reached New York on the Carpathia, many sold their stories to journalists, and many of them (survivors and journalists alike) embellished their stories greatly for dramatic effect.
The pictures in these vintage newspapers are often poorly reproduced and difficult to see. However, the Prints and Photographs Division holds a collection of photographs of the Titanic, as well as other classic ocean liners, such as the Lusitania and Normandie. These include photographs of the Titanic under construction and afloat, as well as pictures of the ship's officers, the lifeboats approaching the Carpathia and the survivors on board that ship.
Perhaps the most exhaustive and useful Titanic resources in the Library are the transcripts from the government inquiries into the disaster, which can be found in the Law Library. First the U.S. Senate, then the British Board of Trade held extensive hearings interviewing surviving officers, crewmen and passengers. The Senate inquiry is particularly useful because it was the most immediate. The inquiry began at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York the day after the survivors landed and was chaired by Sen. William Alden Smith of Michigan. James Cameron used the Senate transcripts extensively in researching his Oscar-winning movie. The recent renewed interest in the disaster has even led to an abridged paperback version of the transcripts titled The Titanic Disaster Hearings: The Official Transcripts of the 1912 Senate Investigation, edited by Tom Kuntz.
"The Senate records, for example, provide the exact words spoken by the bridge officers in the moments leading up to the collision," Mr. Cameron says in the preface to the paperback edition. "Those scenes in my film are scripted and staged precisely as the event was described by witnesses."
Many of the survivors later wrote accounts of their experiences for publication. Among these are The Loss of the SS Titanic, Its Story and Lessons by Lawrence Beesley, a teacher traveling in second class; The Truth About the Titanic by first-class passenger Col. Archibald Gracie; and The Sinking of the SS Titanic by John B. "Jack" Thayer, also from first class. The Library also holds a 1976 sound recording of survivor Edwina MacKenzie recalling her experiences in connection with the voyage and sinking of the ship.
One of the largest and most diverse collections of Titanic information can be found in the William Howard Taft papers in the Manuscript Division. Viewable on microfilm, the Taft collection contains correspondence, telegrams, newspaper clippings and other items relating to the disaster. Among these is an account by Arthur H. Rostron, captain of the Carpathia, describing his ship's rescue of the Titanic survivors.
Mr. Cameron's 1997 blockbuster was certainly not the first film made about the subject. The first film, "Saved from the Titanic," was made less than a month after the disaster, and starred Dorothy Gibson. Gibson was an actress and filmmaker who survived the sinking and began a film about it as soon as she returned home. Unfortunately, like so many other films of that vintage, there are no known surviving prints. The Library does have several other films in its collections, however, including vintage footage from the George Kleine collection showing Titanic's captain, Edward J. Smith, on board the Titanic's sister ship, Olympic. The footage also contains scenes of the rescue ship Carpathia with her captain, Arthur Rostron, and crew, as well as showing a survivor meeting with the press. The Library also holds more recent films, including "Titanic" (1953) and two adaptations of Lord's A Night to Remember. While the 1958 feature film is better known, NBC-TV's Kraft TV Theatre produced a live performance of the story on April 4, 1956.
In the wake of the disaster, there were many cultural expressions of grief, representing the tragedy's impact throughout the Western world. The Music Division has two boxes full of sheet music written about the Titanic, almost all from the period 1912-14. Most of them are titled "The Loss of the Titanic," "The Sinking of the Titanic," "The Wreck of the Titanic" or similar variations. Dozens of pieces by various lyricists were set to music written by M.C. Hanford. Other items are more unusual, such as "The Sinking of the Titanic March" by Lulu Wells and "A Pleasure Ride to Death Symphony: Descriptive of the Titanic Disaster" by Carl Scheben. Similarly, the Manuscript Division holds a collection of poetry and other work inspired by the disaster as part of the Taft papers.
One of the most peculiar aspects of the legend involves a book first published 14 years before the Titanic's ill-fated maiden voyage. Morgan Robertson's novella Futility was first published in 1898. It tells the story of a grand "unsinkable" ocean liner -- the largest in the world -- that, on a cold April night on a voyage across the North Atlantic strikes an iceberg and sinks. Most of the passengers, many of them rich and famous, perished because there were not enough lifeboats. This fictional ship's description (800 feet long, 70,000 tons, top speed of 25 knots) is remarkably similar to the real Titanic (882 feet long, 66,000 tons, top speed 24 knots). The most chilling feature of Robertson's book, however, is the name he gave his fictional ship -- the Titan.
On Sept. 1, 1985, more than 70 years after Titanic was lost to the abyss, undersea explorers finally located the ship. Robert D. Ballard, who led the expedition that discovered the wreckage, chronicles the discovery and exploration in a number of works. His books and National Geographic articles about the expeditions, are filled with photographs and artists' impressions of the Titanic as it appears today more than two miles beneath the surface of the North Atlantic.
The battered wreckage stands in marked contrast to the plans in the British journal The Shipbuilder. Their midsummer 1911 special issue on The White Star Triple Screw Atlantic Liners Olympic and Titanic portrays the ocean liners as the ultimate in shipbuilding technology, the largest and most luxurious ships ever built. The article also called the ships "practically unsinkable," a phrase that, taken out of context and exaggerated by the popular press, would haunt the Titanic forever.
Mr. Hall is in the Copyright Office.