In winter of 1814, British sailors recorded seeing “clouds of ashes” at the peak of Mount Tambora, a volcanic mountain in the East Indies. A few months later, in the spring of 1815, Tambora exploded with huge, jet-like flames, a column of fire known as a “Plinian” eruption, after Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. But Tambora burned hotter than Vesuvius, and it was so powerful that it ejected rock, ash, and other materials into the stratosphere, where they remained suspended, wreaking havoc on global weather patterns for the next three years. 1816 was known as “The Year Without Summer”—a relatively mild title for a year that brought famine, disease, and poverty. In the United States, there was snow in June, destroying crops and bringing the country’s first economic depression. In Ireland and China, unremitting rains flooded fields; while in India, monsoon season never arrived. Bacteria flourished in these stagnant, impoverished conditions, and outbreaks of typhus and cholera can be traced back to that dreary, volcanic winter.
I learned these and many other historical details from Gillen D’arcy Wood’s Tambora: The Eruption That Changed The World. Tambora is a new book, but one I discovered haphazardly, through that great portal of haphazardness: Wikipedia. I was fact-checking an overwrought simile (re: procrastinating) and landed on the Wikipedia entry for Frankenstein, where I learned that the great fictional monster was the indirect result of “The Year Without Summer.” I’d never heard of “The Year Without Summer” and in its addictive way, Wikipedia provided a link to an article on the subject, which in turn provided a link to the 1815 Eruption of Mount Tambora, which in turn provided a link to the Pacific Ring of Fire, which in turn led to an article about plate tectonics, which in turn led to a page about super-Earths, which in turn led me to wonder about the origin of the universe and what is the meaning of life on Earth, which I believe is that state of existential confusion to which all Wikipedia rabbit holes eventually lead. I am grateful that on this particular foray, it only took six steps—and also, of course, that it led me to read Tambora, which gave me a glimpse into a startlingly dramatic period in history.
To get back to “The Year Without Summer” (which at this point in July sounds like a marvelous situation) and the creation of Frankenstein, you must transport yourself to a storm-lashed villa on Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. There, sitting in front of a roaring fire, is Percy Shelley, Mary soon-to-be-Shelley Godwin, Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron, and also, Lord Byron’s doctor (whose presence is somewhat irrelevant, but who I will include, anyway, in the spirit of Wikipedia). This privileged, literary bunch has been driven indoors by unseasonably cold weather, driving rain, and spectacular thunderstorms—all due to Mount Tambora, although of course they don’t know it. Bored and perhaps tired of reciting poetry, they decide to have a contest for who can tell the best ghost story. Mary’s late entry is a tale about a student, Victor Frankenstein, who discovers how to bring life to inanimate material. Frankenstein uses this power to create an eight-foot tall “creature” who is never given a name, but who eventually kills Frankenstein’s wife and escapes to the North Pole. It’s not a ghost story but a monster story, one inspired by Shelley’s extensive readings into science and myth.
Wood argues that Frankenstein was also inspired by the stormy, Tambora-induced weather, and that “the pyrotechnical lightning displays” raging outside Shelley’s villa windows were written into the novel. He cites a passage from Frankenstein in which a teenaged Victor Frankenstein witnesses an oak tree catching fire after being struck by lightning: “As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak, which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared and nothing remained but a blasted stump.” This is Frankenstein’s moment of inspiration, or as Wood writes: “In the fierce smithy of that Tamborean storm, Frankenstein is born as the anti-superhero of modernity—the ‘Modern Prometheus’—stealer of the gods’ fire.”
That small extract gives a taste of Wood’s prose style, which can veer toward over-the-top, but one of the things I liked about Tambora was its generous dose of literary criticism. Not only does Wood mention the influence of Tambora’s volcanic weather on Frankenstein, he also writes about the ways that Shelley’s 1826 post-apocalyptic novel, The Last Man, may have been inspired by the cholera epidemic that emerged in the wake of Tambora. Wood also discusses the poetry of Shelley’s fireside companions, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley; and in his chapter on China, Wood quotes from the verse of Li Yuyang, who chronicled the heavy rains and flooding that came as a result of Tambora: Rain falls unending, like tears of blood/from the sentimental man/Horses sink and shudder/like fish in the rippling water. Reporting on the effects of Tambora on America, Wood turns to the writings of Thomas Jefferson, whose Edenic vision of America and in particular, his home state of Virginia, was challenged by the inexplicably cold weather brought on by Tambora. Even more challenging was the real estate bubble and economic depression that followed The Year Without Summer, thanks to what we would probably now characterize as “fluctuations in the global marketplace.”
Today, we understand very well how the weather affects local, and even global economics. (And in fact, while I was reading Tambora, I heard a radio story on NPR’s Marketplace about the ill-effects of this past long winter on the American economy.) We may also have a better understanding of how the weather, and in particular severe weather, affects literary imagination. It doesn’t take an especially sensitive critic to link the recent popularity of post-apocalyptic novels to headlines like “Climate Change Deemed Growing Security Threat By Military” and “In Sign of Warming, 1,600 Years of Ice in Andes Melts in 25 Years.” But the extent to which the human imagination can actually understand and foresee global environmental change is harder to gauge. It’s telling that many post-apocalyptic novels focus on the survival of an individual or a family or perhaps a very small group of people. The story has to be scaled down, otherwise the prospect of a post-apocalyptic future is too big, or maybe just too depressing, to imagine.
With Tambora, Wood doesn’t have to imagine anything—or maybe it’s fairer to say that he doesn’t have to make anything up. He frequently has to imagine what it would have been like to experience extreme weather, disease, and famine, without any scientific understanding of why it is happening. Wood acknowledges this problem in his preface: “The formidable, occasionally mind-bending challenge in writing this book has been to trace cataclysmic world events the cause of which the historical actors themselves were ignorant.” He sees the eruption of Tambora and its devastating after-effects as a case study for rapid climate change, arguing that the years post-Tambora offer “a rare, clear window onto a world convulsed by weather extremes, with human communities everywhere struggling to adapt to sudden, radical shifts in temperatures and rainfall.” Wood further argues that the influence of Tambora on this period of history has been overlooked because “the Tamborean climate emergency followed hard upon the devastations of the Napoleonic Wars and has always remained in the shadows of that epochal conflict.” I like that Wood uses the word “epochal” to characterize the importance of the Napoleonic Wars, because an epoch is also a unit of geological time and seems to hint at the irony that Wood is exposing: human societies have been mostly profoundly shaped by environmental factors thousands of years in the making, yet we continue to look to recent historical events (usually wars engineered by Great Men) to understand our predicament.