Titanic, Myth, and Memory

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Students, professors and administration of UNB Saint John filled into Oland Hall for the W.C. Desmond Pacey Memorial Lecture on March 18.

William Cyril Desmond Pacey was a renowned scholar, teacher, writer and advocate of the arts. Desmond Pacey maintained various professional and administrative positions with UNB, from professor to Acting President. As an exemplary academic and a pioneer of Canadian literary criticism, he is remembered through the W.C. Desmond Pacey Memorial Lecture.
Pacey passionately studied the works of Fredericton poets Bliss Carman and Charles G.D. Roberts, he has acted as an Associate Editor and Chair of the Editorial Board of The Fiddlehead and was one of Canada’s leading historical and literary authorities.
This year’s lecturer, Dr. Leon Litvack, is a professor of Victorian Studies at Queen’s University Belfast. Litvack joins a long list of previous W.C. Desmond Pacey lecturers, which include the likes of Northrop Frye, David Bentley, Lea Stirling, and Tony Penikett.

Academics from various parts of the world have read at the lecture series and the content matter is not exclusive to English studies. Historians, sociologists and politicians have participated in the W.C. Desmond Pacey Memorial Lecture, making for a well-rounded and multi-faceted lecture series.

Dr. Leon Litvack himself is a native of Toronto, ON and studied under Northrop Frye at the University of Toronto. On Frye, Litvack say, “When I did my undergraduate dissertation for him I found that he had a lot of time for me and had a lot of interest in what I was doing.” Litvack referenced Frye during his lecture, attesting that his mentor had a lasting effect on his academia.

Litvack is an expert on Charles Dickens, Victorian art and architecture and Canadian literature, though he delves into many different subjects ranging from classical music to Middle East affairs. When Litvack is not teaching at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland, he is travelling the world or keeping exceedingly busy with both charitable and educational organizations.

Litvack’s lecture on Titanic, Myth, and Memory is an exploration of the infamous ship’s enduring myths—some of which endure in popular culture to this day. The lecture is a amalgamating of historical, literary and musical explorations. When asked about his lecture’s multi-faceted nature, Litvack states that “both literature and music are expressions of culture,” and therefore function harmoniously together.

The first Titanic myth Litvack explores in his lecture is the idea of the ship itself as “unsinkable.” The White Star Line Olympic-class ocean liners included the Olympic, the Titanic and the Britannica. These liners were considered ocean palaces and were often advertised as virtually unsinkable. Though this claim about the Titanic was thought to be a myth developed after the ship’s demise, there were expert statements that the ship was indeed unsinkable – or nearly so. Litvack explored advertisements and commentary on the ship’s status to prove that there were some grounds to this claim.

Secondly, Litvack presented one of the most romanticized stories of the Titanic, that of English violinist and bandleader Wallace Henry Hartley. Hartley, one of the musicians who continued performing while the Titanic was sinking, had strapped his violin to his chest before the ship went down. His lifeless body was recovered, with the instrument still attached, during recovery efforts.

Hartley’s fiancée, Maria Robinson had gifted him the violin and the government of Nova Scotia returned it to the grieving woman at her request. CT scans and forensic tests were executed on the instrument to prove its authenticity. The violin was recently auctioned off in 2013 for $1.6 million.

Litvack researched more than Hartley’s violin, he also extensively explored myths of what song was the final melody played by the band before the Titanic sank. It is widely believed that “Nearer, my God, to thee” was the final song performed by the musicians, though there is much disagreement on whether it was indeed the dying song of the doomed ship. Litvack played different renditions of the song for his audience, shared survivor narratives asserting or disproving “Nearer, my God, to thee” as the proper piece and presented what songs could have been alternatives.

Furthermore, the musicians from the Titanic were made out to be heroes, selflessly calming passengers while the ship was disintegrating. They were romanticized for what was believed to be bravery in the face of certain tragedy. Litvack informed his captivated listeners of the musicians’ status as second-class passengers, explaining that the families of the victims were billed for their uniforms after their deaths. Still, the eight men were honoured with a memorial concert and went down in history as heroes of the April 15, 1912 disaster.

Dr. Leon Litvack’s Titanic, Myth, and Memory presented new perspectives on the sensationalized tragedy of the White Star Liner, providing insight into the myths and memories prevalent to this day. Litvack ended his lecture with a discussion of the Titanic in terms of the tourism industry. He asserted that the site of the Titanic is a gravesite, despite its stance as a tourist attraction. Litvack’s informative lecture was ethically and historically moving and captivated the crowd through its entirety.

Emily is in her fourth year of Political Science. She loves studying and academics which follows into her research work. She's a stern black coffee drinker and is a proud Acadienne. When she's not working or doing school work, you can find Emily listening to 70s music on vinyl and watching Parks and Recreation. If you ask her about parliamentary institutions, she won't stop talking.