May 20, 2002
6:34 PM   Subscribe

A sad day for lovers of good writing. In addition to Stephen Jay Gould, historian Walter Lord has died. (NYT, blah blah) Lord's 1955 book A Night to Remember arguably touched off the modern world's fascination with the Titanic, and his 1957 Day of Infamy is an exciting account of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
posted by pmurray63 (6 comments total)
A lot of people will undoubtedly have many good things to say about Gould, and rightly so. I'd like to add one more mention of a work by Lord, though: His account of the 1942 naval battle of Midway, Incredible Victory, is gripping reading even if naval history isn't your bag.
posted by alumshubby at 9:04 PM on May 20, 2002

The Louis Quinze lounge hung with its big fireplace was silent and empty. The Palm Court was equally deserted -- one passerby found it hard to believe that just four hours ago it was filled with exquisitely dressed ladies and gentlemen, sipping after-dinner coffee, listening to chamber music by the same men who now played gay songs on the Boat Deck above.

The smoking room was not completely empty. When a steward looked in at 2:10 AM, he was surprised to see Thomas Andrews standing all alone in the room. Andrews' lifebelt lay carelessly across the green cloth top of a card table. His arms were folded over his chest; his look was stunned; all his drive and energy were gone. A moment of awed silence, and the steward timidly broke in: "Aren't you going to have a try for it, Mr. Andrews?"

There was no answer, not even a trace that he heard. The builder of the Titanic merely stared aft. On the mahogany-paneled wall facing him hung a large painting called, "The Approach of the New World."

Except for Lorraine Allison, all 29 First and Second Class children were saved, but only 23 out of 76 steerage children.

Lord was writing about something larger than the Titanic in A Night to Remember. Rest in peace.
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 9:38 PM on May 20, 2002

Lord was a real writer. He virtually invented our modern narrative take on the Titanic. Gould had many exciting thoughts, but as a writer he was exasperatingly in need of editing. Sometimes it seems as if he were simply grabbing books at random off his shelves and summarizing and quoting passages having only the loosest association with the subject under consideration. He padded outrageously (not unlike the authors of most contemporary non-fiction). His lack of foucs always put him at a tremendous disadvantage to his great rival, Richard Dawkins. I can't intelligently judge the relative merit of their scientific notions, but as a writer, Dawkins wins hands down. His style is one of the clearest, most concise and pleasing of anyone writing on any subject today. Gould's faults mean that in years to come, he may be perceived more as a performer than a serious thinker.
posted by Faze at 6:51 AM on May 21, 2002

Focus, focus, focus... (see spelling error above).
posted by Faze at 6:52 AM on May 21, 2002

I always found Gould's willingness to reach into obscurity and find connections more appealing than the calm and narrow perspective of Dawkin's writing - that's just reader's preference though; I can't disagree that Gould could have used a stronger editorial hand most of the time.

However, style isn't what this should be about. Gould was one of those almost-magical personalities who made essential contributions to his highly-specialized field AND to the larger cultural lay-understanding of one of the key concepts underlying how we see the world. What a terrible, terrible loss; what great fortune that he left so much behind for us.
posted by holycola at 9:09 AM on May 21, 2002

I think I did read Incredible Victory, too, as well as some of Lord's other books. I was never disappointed. (I was trying to keep the FPP short and attention-getting, plus those are his two books that I'm most familiar with.)

I recall reading his account of the War of 1812 for a high school history class. The teacher was not familiar with the book title and seemed mildly wary of it because of that until I mentioned the author; that immediately allayed his concerns.

I can't recall how many times I read A Night to Remember. Not incidentally, the 1958 movie version blows away the James Cameron treatment, IMHO (except for the advancements in special effects).

I wish more people today were familiar with Lord's work. Maybe if they knew that David McCullough cited him as an inspiration in the obit I linked to.
posted by pmurray63 at 9:48 AM on May 21, 2002

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