Sunday, March 7, 2010

Review Monday: The Way It Was: Walter Lord on His Life and Books

The Way it Was: Walter Lord on His Life and Books
Edited by Jenny Lawrence
294 pages
Published in 2009

Reviewed by Kyle Semmel

The Way It Was is an indispensible introduction into the mind (and work) of one of America's foremost historians of the 20th Century, Walter Lord. Without Lord, James Cameron's Titanic--one of the highest grossing films of all time--would not have been made. It was Lord, you see, who wrote the book on which that film was based. That book, A Night to Remember, is a riveting account of the night the Titanic sank, told in Lord's signature eye-witness style: through various personae on board the doomed ship. As Evan Thomas of Newsweek (whose father was one of Lord's editors) puts it in the preface: "His style of you-are-there-narrative and eye for telling detail, combined with his prodigious researching abilities, made him a model or inspiration for later popular historians, including David McCullough."

Published in 2009 and available on Amazon, The Way It Was serves as a kind of posthumous memoir--and a very personable, enjoyable one at that. Edited by his close friend Jenny Lawrence--a daughter of one of Lord's college friends. (You can read Lawrence's account of Lord in a First Person Plural "Whatever happened to" feature posted last year.) Because of her unique proximity to Lord, she had valuable access to him in the waning years of his life. Though some of the material in the book comes from writings he'd left at various archives in the U.S. and England, the bulk of the material, she writes, comes from interviews she conducted with him at his New York City apartment.

A Night to Remember was Lord's second published book, but already here the seed of his later iconic style was planted, one that humanized the study of history and made engaging narratives part of the story. In Lord's books, the people that populate history are not submerged beneath facts and dates; they are part of the very fabric of the events. Take the passengers of the Titanic as an example:

Minute by minute, the reader will live with the ship's company during her last breathtaking hours. The book will pick up several of the most interesting people and follow them straight through. The emphasis will be on those tiny details that will make the night seem to live again. And when he finishes, the reader will go on his way, knowing well that--in the words of the title--here was A Night to Remember
Those tiny details, it turns out, make for really interesting reading. As a history major in college and a would-be fiction writer, I was really absorbed by the world that Lord created. But it's important to note that Lord didn't fictionalize his facts here. While working full-time at an advertising agency--the same one that developed the ad campaign for Brommel, Beau Brommel, and Aqua Velva--he sought out and found survivors of the sinking.

Space doesn't permit for too much elaboration on Lord's process of writing A Night to Remember here, but suffice it to say that by uncovering the tiny details of that night, as remembered by those who survived, Lord created a truly new and fascinating story that resonated with his readers (the book became a bestseller and he could suddenly devote himself entirely to writing). Read the book today and you get the same reaction. The book is a deeply fascinating account--even more exciting than the film. Yes, that's possible.

Lord's career spanned the decades and The Way It Was covers the books he wrote in a fashion similar to how Bob Dylan's Chronicles covers the production of his early albums. During his career, Walter Lord published books on a wide body of historical topics, from WWII to the Alamo, and he was a master at coming up with great book titles: Day of Infamy (1957), The Good Years (1960), A Time to Stand (1961), Peary to the Pole (1963), The Past that Would Not Die (1965), Incredible Victory (1967), Dawn's Early Light (1972), Lonely Vigil (1976), The Miracle of Dunkirk (1980), and The Night Lives On (1986).

Though it's hard to know just how many of these titles will be remembered a hundred years from now, Lord's impact on the study of history is not in doubt. His use of eye-witness accounts was groundbreaking in its time, and has contributed to the narrative style of writing history that has rejuvenated that field of study. And The Way It Was is a fine contribution to his canon, a great case study for historians and novelists alike.

Kyle Semmel is the publications and communications manager of The Writer's Center and administrator of First Person Plural. In addition to his work at TWC, he is a writer and translator (under the name K.E. Semmel) whose work has appeared in Ontario Review, The Washington Post, Aufgabe, The Brooklyn Review, The Bitter Oleander, Redivider, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere. His translation of Jytte Borberg's classic Danish story "Englene" will soon appear as "Angels" in The New Renaissance. His interview with internationally acclaimed poet Pia Tafdrup is in the current issue of World Literature Today. For his translations of Simon Fruelund’s fiction, he received a translation grant from the Danish Arts Council.

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