Christopher Tilghman is the author of two collections of stories and three novels, the most recent of which is The Right-Hand Shore. He will speak at the Library with Caroline Preston on June 26.
Last week I ran into a friend of mine in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, where I live and teach contemporary literature and creative writing. My friend had just finished my new novel, The Right-Hand Shore. He is also a writer and he said all those nice things we like to hear from people we respect, but as we were parting he said, “What’s your deal with the French Line?”
Well, yes. I might refer to it as a “motif” in my work, or a “trope,” but I do have a sort of romantic attachment to what the Americans and British called the French Line. To call it by its proper name it was the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, or, if one wants to be truly in the know, the “Transat,” as the French popularly referred to it. My first novel, Mason’s Retreat, which takes place between 1936 and 1939, opens with a long chapter aboard the most famous French Liner of them all, the Normandie. My character Edward Mason and family is returning to America after he has failed as an expatriate businessman in England. He is so broke his wife Edith’s parents have paid for the trip, but, as I write in the novel, “he loved that ship, from its whaleback bow to the elegant stepping of its afterdecks; no drowning person ever clung to a shattered spar with more desperate strength than . . . Mason gripped the Normandie.”
Hardship and loss await the Masons at their destination, an ancestral farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore called Mason’s Retreat. And so it happens in the closing scene of my story, they are on Pier 88 in New York on September 1, 1939, preparing to board the Normandie for a return to England. Except that the Normandie did not set sail that day. Fearing German U-boat attacks on the pride of French engineering and design, the French Line ordered the captain to wait out the war in the safety of New York harbor. Mason catches a ride back to England on the Cunarder Aquitania, and the rest of the family spends the war in Chicago.
What happened next for that beautiful ship was a small tragedy in the context of the war, but it still breaks my heart. She languished at the pier until the days after Pearl Harbor, when she was seized by the United States, renamed the U.S.S. Lafayette, and readied to serve as a troop transport. On February 9, 1942, she caught fire. As the fire boats poured water into her she began to list, and despite the frantic pleas from the French Line to simply scuttle her and fight the fire with her resting on the bottom, – a mere foot below her keel – the Coast Guard continued their efforts until she capsized. Those famous photographs of her on her side at the pier, a thousand-foot long ruin, simply defy the imagination.
Except for the Titanic, no role for an ocean liner in any novel could come close to the Normandie’s. I have to say that I am unaware of any other novel but mine in which she does play a role, but no matter. Still, in my most recent novel, The Right-Hand Shore, there the French Line is again. This novel picks up with the same Mason family on the same Maryland farm, but covers the period 1857 to 1920. France is the setting for some important scenes, and as my friend pointed out, I go out of my way to identify the mode of transport between the US and Europe.
The first transatlantic passage in the novel occurs in 1881, and the ship in question is the Péreire, named after the two brothers who formed the forerunner of the French Line in 1855. It was a modern screw-driven ship (though carrying sails) and extremely fast, but still, the passage must have been a little rustic and not without danger. In my telling, they encounter rough weather, a sort of brief comic interlude I borrowed – as I acknowledge in the book – in good part from a letter written home by Harriet Beecher Stowe about a crossing in 1853.
Later in the book, the ship that preceded the Normandie in the nineteenth century as the most beautiful, luxurious, indeed most French liner afloat, La Touraine, sails into view. In the words of one of the French Line’s experts, William H. Miller, Jr., “Sleek lines, twin masts, and widely spaced short funnels suggested a large yacht.” But she was famous for her grand interior appointments, her haute cuisine, her luxury suites, and her service. As it turns out in my book, my characters do not partake much of these amenities, but beauty must be given its due. I have an original of a poster of La Touraine arriving in New York, Statute of Liberty in the background, ferries and steam yachts floating alongside in welcome. This poster hangs prominently in my house, and I love it for many reasons, among them that I absolutely stole it on E-Bay – sorry, E-bay seller, I shouldn’t have let you sell it for that price.
But I still haven’t answered my friend’s question. I suppose I must start by saying that I love all passenger liners. I am a train buff as well; they seem to tweak the same brain cells, these powerful transportation machines. But my fondness for ocean liners no doubt started in my affluent childhood, in the 1950s, when I made transatlantic trips twice with my family. The first crossing over, in 1956, we were on the rather blue collar Greek Liner New York, but returned in style on the U.S.S. America. Two years later, this time with my grandmother paying the passage, one of my brothers and I and two of our first cousins went over on the Queen Mary, and returned at breathtaking speed on the United States.
I don’t suppose that anyone, of any age, who had those experiences could fail to treasure the memories of transatlantic liners. The fact was that until perhaps 1960, when airplanes finally took over the task, the way one travelled to Europe was on ship: grandmothers who wore their diamonds to dinner, college kids clutching their Fodor’s guides, immigrant families returning for a visit to the old country, they were all on ship. And for all of them, there can be few more thrilling sensations of departure than the moment when the last line was cast off from the pier, and the ship’s whistle gave a blast at almost unimaginable volume, and the last streamers were tossed to friends come to wish a bon voyage. Even years later, when I was in the U.S. Navy and casting off for long deployments, leaving my young wife at the pier in Norfolk, Virginia for months at a time, that thrill of setting sail, of casting off, remained privately in my heart.
As the paragraph above makes clear, I never travelled on a French Liner. The Ile de France it would have been, or the Liberté. I know that it was the photographs and the tragic story of the Normandie that first caught my interest, but I have since come to realize that these great steamship lines – the Cunard, the North German Lloyd, the Italian Line, the United States Line – seemed uniquely to capture a nation’s culture. These ships were, not surprisingly, floating repositories of the cuisine, the engineering, the style, the attitude of their flags. “One’s reputation on an ocean liner,” thinks my character Edward about his own behavior on ship, “literally travels around the world.”
The Transat, took this up and ran with it like no other. As the slogan had it in the nineteenth century, “You are in France the moment you cross the gangplank.” At times in the heyday of the line some of the best restaurants in the world were on these ships and people made passages simply for the food. The decorating style beginning in the twenties on French liners was aggressively Art Deco, with African motifs, wild friezes and reliefs adorning columns and bulkheads, and shimmering glass fountains. None of this fussy, still Chippendale-inspired interiors of the Cunarders, or the more utilitarian sensibility of the Germans. The French liners were, along with Picasso and Le Corbusier and Stravinsky, epitomes of modernism; they carried the news from Paris. Even the open weather decks on the Normandie were designed in such a way that all the winches and hatches and rigging were concealed so that nothing would interfere with the sleek, sculptural lines of the “most beautiful ship in the world.”
And then too, from the very beginning, the French Line always exuded that special French amour propre, that self-styled grandeur, that haughty arrogance that those of us who love them – I myself majored in French literature in college – find charming, a poke in the eye to American ideas of exceptionalism. The French Line and Charles de Gaulle: both perfect embodiments of a somewhat diminished world power that refused to know its place. Even as the French failed to contest the English and Germans for the famous blue riband, the unofficial award for the fastest transatlantic crossing (which was won, finally, for good by – mon dieu! – the United States) they sniffed haughtily, as if true elegance travelled at its own speed. And even as the last ship in the line, the aptly named, wing-funneled France was retired in 1974 to free up funds for the Concorde Fleet of Air France, the French Line refused to admit that she was a folly from the beginning. The French Line went out as it had started: with class, dignity, high ambitions, unswerving belief in la gloire Française.