A Volcano That Fanned the Arts

The deep volcanic crater, top, was produced by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in April 1815 - the most powerful volcanic blast in recorded history. PHOTO: Iwan Setiyawan/KOMPAS, via Associated Press

The deep volcanic crater, top, was produced by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in April 1815 – the most powerful volcanic blast in recorded history. PHOTO: Iwan Setiyawan/KOMPAS, via Associated Press

That the volcanoes have power is plain, cemented truth. You hear of their trail of ravage – ash, rocks, lava, evacuation, barren lands. The volcano vocabulary is dreary, if you may say so. But not the eruption of Mount Tambora. For this be the reason for many a flood, famine, disease, civil unrest and economic decline.

“The year without a summer,” as 1816 came to be known, gave birth not only to paintings of fiery sunsets and tempestuous skies but two genres of gothic fiction. The freakish progeny were Frankenstein and the human vampire, which have loomed large in art and literature ever since.

“The paper trail,” said Dr. Wood, a University of Illinois professor of English, “goes back again and again to Tambora.”

Before it exploded, Tambora was the tallest peak in a land of cloudy summits. It lay atop the tropic isle of Sumbawa, its spires rising nearly three miles. Long dormant, the mountain was considered a home to gods. Villages dotted its slopes, and nearby farmers grew rice, coffee and pepper.

On the evening of April 5, 1815, according to contemporary accounts, flames shot from its summit and the earth rumbled for hours. The volcano then fell silent. Five days later, the peak exploded in a deafening roar of fire, rock and boiling ash that was heard hundreds of miles away. Flaming rivers of molten rock ran down the slopes, destroying tropic forests and villages. Days later, still raging but by then hollow, the mountain collapsed, its height suddenly diminished by a mile.

Locally, an estimated 100,000 people died. Sumbawa never recovered.

The repercussions were global, but no one realized that the widespread death and mayhem arose from an eruption halfway around the world. What emerged was regional folklore. New Englanders called 1816 “eighteen hundred and froze to death.” Germans called 1817 the year of the beggar. These and many other local episodes remained unknown or unconnected.

Dr. Wood expanded the portrait in his book, which is due out in paperback next month. It draws on hundreds of scientific papers as well as Dr. Wood’s knowledge of 19th-century literature to lay bare three years of planetary mayhem as well as the origins of fictional demons.

“My interest was to understand a global event,” Dr. Wood said in an interview, “and that meant serious detective work in lots of unfamiliar archives.” Five years of inquiry took him to China, Europe and India.

It also transported him to Tambora, where he braved leeches and razor-sharp leaves to peer across its yawning caldera, four miles from rim to rim.

The exploding mountain, the book notes, heaved some 12 cubic miles of earthen matter to a height of more than 25 miles. While coarse particles soon rained out, finer ones traveled the high winds in a spreading cloud. “It passed,” Dr. Wood wrote, “across both south and north poles, leaving a telltale sulfate imprint on the ice for paleoclimatologists to discover more than a century and a half later.”

The global veil, high above rain clouds, reflected much sunlight back into space. So the planet cooled. The pall, Dr. Wood said, also spawned tempests far below.

His book reprints an 1816 oil painting of Weymouth Bay, a sheltered cove on England’s south coast, by John Constable — the sky above churning with dark clouds. “Everywhere,” Dr. Wood said, “the volcanic winds blew hard.” He noted that both history and computer models speak of fierce storms back then.

The particles high in the atmosphere also produced spectacular sunsets, as detailed in the famous paintings of J.M.W. Turner, the English landscape pioneer. His vivid red skies, Dr. Wood remarked, “seem like an advertisement for the future of art.”

The story also comes alive in local dramas, none more important for literary history than the birth of Frankenstein’s monster and the human vampire. That happened on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, where some of the most famous names of English poetry had gone on a summer holiday.

By 1816, Switzerland, landlocked and famously rugged, was beginning to reel from the bad weather and failed crops. Starving mobs stormed bakeries after bread prices soared. The book recounts a priest’s distress: “It is terrifying to see these walking skeletons devour the most repulsive foods with such avidity.”

Want to know what Tambora has to do with Frankenstein? The New York Times has the connect.

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