At least 63 Finnish people took part in the first voyage of the Titanic. Of them, 55 travelled in the third-class part of the ship, eight in second class. Twenty Finnish passengers survived and 43 perished in the accident.[i]
The first news accounts about the Titanic crashing into an iceberg were published in Finland on the 17th of April 1912, only a couple of days after the accident.[ii] According to these earliest reports, however, the Titanic had only been damaged in the collision with the iceberg and was still on its way to New York. The full horror of the situation only became clear in the following days and weeks. It is noteworthy, too, that most of the news accounts about the Titanic published in Finland were translations from British and American newspapers.[iii]
Many Finns were deeply affected by the Titanic disaster, for several reasons. Firstly, the accident occurred during the so-called Great “Migration” of Finns to North America (the years between 1870 and 1930). At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, nearly 400 000 Finns moved to North America.[iv] Thus, many Finns found it easy to identify with the immigrants on the ship. Secondly, the accident was also widely covered in the media, including most Finnish newspapers. It was easy to find detailed information about the accident and about the Finnish passengers on the ship. Naturally, not everyone had access to or was literate enough to read the newspapers. [v]
The first Finnish fictional texts and literary works about the Titanic were written in 1912, with the majority of stories having been written by 1914. In this article, I will provide an overview of them. What kinds of literary texts did Finnish authors write about the Titanic? How do these fictional texts and works treat this world-famous maritime accident?
Two Early Finnish Poems about the Titanic
The earliest Finnish fictional text about the Titanic was written by the poet V. A. (Veikko Antero) Koskenniemi (1885–1962). His poem, “Mister Hartley,” was published in the Finnish cultural journal Aika (“Time”) only a few weeks after the accident.[vi]
“Mister Hartley” describes the violinist and conductor of the orchestra on the Titanic, Wallace Hartley (1878–1912).[vii] In the poem, Hartley is described as a fearless hero who continues playing even in the face of death. In one of the most famous and widespread stories about the Titanic, the last song played by Hartley on the deck was the hymn “Nearer, my God, to Thee,” also touched upon in Koskenniemi’s poem.[viii]
Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, “Mister Hartley” was often performed at literary meetings in Finland. According to contemporary reviews, the audience was deeply touched by these performances and the poem was appropriate for reciting in popular circles.[ix]
Another Finnish poem about the Titanic was also published in 192. The poem, quite simply called “Titanic,” was written by Eino Leino (1878–1926). Like Koskenniemi, Leino was one of the most central Finnish authors of the time.
Leino’s “Titanic” is longer than Koskenniemi’s “Mister Hartley”: the poem consists of 11 stanzas. Between the first and the tenth stanza, the line “nearer, my God, to thee” (in Finnish, “Lähemmä, Jumala, sua”) is repeated twice, in the first and in the fifth line. In the last stanza, however, the hymn title is repeated four times, in every other line of the stanza. The repetition of the hymn gives a specific rhythm to the poem. At the end of the poem, the rhythm quickens. Moreover, every other line of the last stanza of the poem ends with a dash. Both the quickening rhythm of the poem and the lines ending with dashes evoke images of distressed breathing, sentences being interrupted and building up a sense of panic.
Both Koskenniemi’s and Leino’s poems about the Titanic were inspired by the supposed last hymn performed on the Titanic and the famous musicians on board the ship. The two poems also share other similarities. Like Koskenniemi’s “Mister Hartley,” Leino’s “Titanic” was also widely performed in 1912. In fact, Leino himself recited the poem several times while on tour in autumn of 1912. According to reviews, “Titanic” was the final number during every performance on the tour. The same reviews also describe the poem and its recital as impressive and shocking.[x]
Nowadays, while several works by both Koskenniemi and Leino are part of the national literary canon, their poems about the Titanic have more or less been forgotten.
A Finnish Short Story Collection about the Titanic
Aino Kallas (1878–1956) is the only female Finnish author who has written about the Titanic. Her short story collection, Seitsemän. Titanic-novelleja (“Seven. Short stories about the Titanic”) was published at the beginning of 1914, two years after the poems by Koskenniemi and Leino.
Kallas heard about the Titanic disaster on the 17th of April 1912. She was visiting Paris at the time. In her private (later published) journal, she writes about her shock upon hearing the news. In the same journal entry, Kallas compares the sinking of the Titanic to a total eclipse of the sun, which simultaneously occurred in Europe.[xi] Afterwards, the same comparison has been made several other times, both in literature and elsewhere[xii].
About a year after the accident, Kallas started to write her short stories about the Titanic. She acquainted herself with information concerning the Titanic, in particular by reading early representations of the accident.[xiii] In her short stories, Kallas refers to many actual and assumed events that took place on sinking Titanic. For instance, in the short story “Filemon ja Baukis” (“Filemon and Baukis”) she describes an elderly couple that refuses to be separated from one another at the moment of disaster. This description resembles a famous story told about a millionaire couple named Straus, well-known passengers on the Titanic. Moreover, in the short story “Jumalan jalka” (“The Foot of God”), Kallas describes one lifeboat that was almost lowered on top of a lifeboat below it – an event that actually occurred on the sinking Titanic. Contrary to the poems by V. A. Koskenniemi and Eino Leino, however, Aino Kallas did not describe the musicians and the so-called last hymn performed on the Titanic.
Whereas Koskenniemi’s and Leino’s poems about the Titanic received positive attention from critics and audiences alike, reception of Kallas’s Seitsemän was more negative. Kallas’s short stories were heavily inspired by symbolism, which did not please contemporary critics. Confusingly, the harshest criticism was made by V. A. Koskenniemi: according to him, Seitsemän had low literary value and Kallas had described the tragedy “in an unfeminine manner.”[xiv] For Kallas, the negative reception was a disappointment, one which she also wrote about in her journal.[xv] Seitsemän was largely forgotten for decades, but the work has been rediscovered in recent years.[xvi]
Finnish Broadside Ballads about the Titanic
Though the above well-known and highly recognized Finnish authors described the Titanic in their works, most Finnish fictional texts about the Titanic were in fact penned by uneducated writers. The shipwreck of the Titanic was one of the most popular themes of Finnish broadside ballads, the writers of which were mainly part of the class of people known as commoners.
Finnish broadside ballads about the Titanic were written during the so-called “golden age of Finnish broadside ballads,” between 1870 and 1920. At that time, broadside ballads were abundantly produced and widespread.[xvii] Most Finnish broadside ballads about the Titanic were written in 1912, but new songs about the sinking of the Titanic continued to be written for many more years.[xviii]
The National Library of Finland includes 19 printed broadside ballads about the Titanic in its archive. Moreover, the collections of The Finnish Literature Society contain several printed broadside ballads about the Titanic and numerous manuscripts and recordings of broadside ballads on the same theme.
The broadside ballads often describe the sinking of the Titanic hyperbolically. They describe the accident, for instance, as the most remarkable event in human history and as the greatest sorrow of mankind.[xix] Many broadside ballads reflect a black-and-white worldview: the millionaires on the ship are sharply contrasted with the poor immigrants. In many songs, Bruce Ismay, the managing director of the White Star Line, is condemned. For instance, he is called “Ismay the Mean” [Ismay ilkeä] and is described as being responsible for the death of hundreds of people.
Since the writers of these broadside ballads were not practised authors, orthography caused problems for many of them. Instead of “the Titanic”, for instance, many writers wrote about the “Titanig,” “Titaani,” “Titan,” or “Titania.” Moreover, sometimes the name of the ship was changed so that it could better be rhymed with Finnish words [“Titanicki” – “rikki”] (rikki = broken).[xx] Broadside ballads were also sung in a specific tone (for instance, the tone of well-known folk songs),[xxi] which also was challenging for some writers.
Although broadside ballads were extremely popular among the common people, they were not considered proper literature by educated people. Both in Finland and elsewhere, broadside ballads have been cheaply produced and a poorly respected genre.[xxii] Finnish broadside ballads about the Titanic include several crucial features of broadside ballads in general: they describe a tragic historical event and a current topic in a detailed way and in a sensational manner.
Descriptions of the Titanic by Forgotten Finnish Authors
In this article, I have looked at works by three well-known Finnish authors and at broadside ballads written by self-educated writers. However, there are two early Finnish fictional works about the Titanic that also deserve attention.
Edvin Calamnius (1864–1927) was a Finnish writer who wrote books under the pseudonyms “Esko Virtala” and “Esko Valtala.” His novel Titanicin perikato (“The Ruin of the Titanic”), published in 1912, is a love story that transcends class boundaries and an adventure novel sabout the sinking Titanic. The protagonist of the novel is a Finnish immigrant male whose fight for survival is exhaustively described.
Calamnius’s novel is the first and most likely the only Finnish novel about the Titanic. However, it is an adaptation of a Swedish novel title Dödsfärden, written by the Swedish author Willy Grebst. In fact, the most essential difference between these two works is a description of ethnicities. In Calamnius’s novel, the heroic protagonist and his closest friends are young Finns, while the equivalent main figures in Dödsfärden are young Swedish men.[xxiii] As this example indicates, contemporary conceptions of authenticity and plagiarism have not always been understood in a similar way.
Toivo Waltari (1880–1939) was a Finnish priest and a religious writer who is also remembered as an uncle of one of the internationally best-known Finnish authors, Mika Waltari. Toivo Waltari’s story collection Titanic’in häwiö [The Loss of the Titanic], published in 1912, is a combination of a documentary, a fictional story, and a religious text. Waltari’s work became an immediate bestseller, with a print run of 10,000 copies in the first year.[xxiv]
Nowadays, both Edvin Calamnius and Toivo Waltari are largely forgotten authors. After the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking, both works have been re-examined to an extent.[xxv] For the reading public, however, both works are practically unknown.
The Titanic disaster has been described as a modern myth, one which spread transnationally across the Western world very soon after the accident.[xxvi] In many cultures, stories about the Titanic have been repeated and appeared in various forms in works of fiction.
Early Finnish texts and works about the Titanic were written during last years of the so-called Great Migration of Finns to North America. Immigration is also the central context in which Finnish fictional works about the Titanic must be interpreted. At the same time, however, these works include thematic and stylistic features of contemporary literature.
Many of the works considered in this article are nowadays more or less forgotten. The Titanic theme often is a curiosity in the oeuvre of a famed Finnish author from a century ago. These works and texts, however, are fascinating examples of an unknown part of an author’s oeuvre and are also examples of occasional popular poems. Some of these works have also been rediscovered in current research – first and foremost, the short story collection Seitsemän by Aino Kallas, who was also an internationally successful Finnish author. Moreover, as a theme of Finnish broadside ballads, the Titanic remained pivotal for a number of years.
Aika 5 / 1912.
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