Gillen D'Arcy Wood. Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World

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Date: Spring 2015
From: Studies in Romanticism(Vol. 54, Issue 1)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Book review
Length: 2,048 words

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Gillen D'Arcy Wood. Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. Pp. 293. $29.95.

Gillen D'Arcy Wood's new book, which maps out a chain of apparently unrelated disasters triggered by the explosion of Mount Tambora in 1815, arrives as a timely intervention for a humanities obsessed with subspecialty buzzwords like "empire" and "ecology," even as it serves as a validation of urgent pleas by forward-looking activists--some might say realists--that time is running out. It is truly not for nothing then that D'Arcy Wood describes Tambora as a cautionary tale that foretells our own fate (11). What he claims in his chapter on Tambora-induced early-American crop failure serves as a frightening leitmotif of the whole book and of our precarious contemporary condition: "the old weather legends revive again to haunt us, this time as premonitory images of our own emerging climate dystopia" (200). We might well say that D'Arcy Wood's book puts into historicized climate-change context both Faulkner's remark that the past isn't dead, it isn't even past, and Joyce's that history is a nightmare from which we are trying to awaken.

As D'Arcy Wood shows in grim detail, the "Year without a Summer" of 1816 that resulted from Tambora, in addition to being a time of devastating famines, epidemics, and death, was also the year that Mary Shelley conceived of and began Frankenstein. Born in a chateau at the feet of the Swiss Alps from the 18 June 1816 ghost-writing contest between rain-rebuffed Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori, Frankenstein remains a cautionary tale about humanity's scientific and technological ambitions doubling back and threatening their continued species' existence. As D'Arcy Wood is quick to recount, this contest among the sheltered friends and literary rivals (they weren't quite, as we say now with that wonderfully Frankensteinian word-merger, "frenemies") resulted in the two defining monsters of modernity: the creature from Frankenstein and, more waywardly, Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), which emerged from the dim influence of Polidori's fragmentary Vampyre, itself adapted from Byron's own fragmentary ghost tale (51-53). But D'Arcy Wood's is not simply another account of these well-known literary and cultural touchstones; instead, his is the first study to link them to weather-related causal history, specifically, Tambora's eruption and its resulting strange and stormy stratospheric disruptions. In lucid and compelling prose, D'Arcy Wood illuminates how Romanticism's most globally visible creation on page, stage, screen, and Halloween trappings--Shelley's creature--is intimately tied (and one can think here of the icy, treacherous accumulations of Mont Blanc that appear in so many late Romantic texts) to what we now call, variously, global warming, climate change, or, in the more no-nonsense phrase, global climate disaster.

As tantalizing as this may sound for Romanticists and literary historians, it is not D'Arcy Wood's intention to explore the implications of Tambora for, and in the work of, the Shelleys and Byron despite occasionally brief-and for this reader, often glancing and cursory--readings that pop up ("Darkness," 66-69; The Last Man, 95-96; "Mont Blanc," Frankenstein, 151-57). Rather, the Shelleys and Byron "serve as our occasional tour guides through the suffering worldscape of 1815-1818" (9). Although the book's fleeting glimpses of such important figures, and his breezy reading of their works, will prove frustrating for some, D'Arcy Wood nevertheless does open pathways for future Romantic-era studies by providing a transatlantic and transpacific scientific and historical context for the Shelley circle in particular and late Romanticism in general.

So while D'Arcy Wood demonstrates Tambora's importance for some key Romantic texts--like the aforementioned Frankenstein--his main aim is both more globally-ranging and broadly popular (as the low price tag suggests, D'Arcy Wood and Princeton University Press are targeting a much more inclusive market than the typical academic one). Stylistically the book presents a great deal of sophisticated material in straightforward prose accessible to a wide audience, complete with D'Arcy Wood's occasional personal reflections (such as his own eye-opening pilgrimage to Tambora's crater). Methodologically speaking, however, D'Arcy Wood's approach is more typically scholarly, helpfully following Tambora where it leads him and doing hard historical and scientific detective work to flesh out the global span of this catastrophe. As D'Arcy Wood notes, "Tambora's aftermath ... is rich in folklore and continues to be the subject of popular histories," but these books have dealt with North America and Europe rather than the disaster's impact in places like India and China, both devastated by Tamborean ripples (10). Therefore, D'Arcy Wood's study contributes to our knowledge of Tambora in several ways: by suggestively enriching our understanding of climate and its essential connection to late Romanticism; by charting the reach of Tambora beyond Eurocentric horizons; and by putting historical and climate-change-based studies into conversation. "It is high time," he argues, that "historians caught up with the climatologists on Tambora" (10). The book's range is, in other words, impressive, combining an internationally expansive historicism with deep and broad scientific erudition set against the backdrop of (very famous) literary historical moments.

For literary scholars, the individual chapter with the most interest will likely be chapter five, "The Sorrows of Yunnan," which features the first English translation and contextualization of poet Li Yuyang's work written between 1815-18. Yuyang witnessed the climate disaster visited on his village by Tambora and powerfully and movingly captures the hardships of the famine in his remote mountain village of Yunnan. Because this climate disaster has left few survivor narratives, the literary remains of Yuyang "must stand in for countless histories of individual and community trauma from the Tambora period that are lost forever" (11). Although the province of Yunnan, a mountain region in southwest China and "a key transit point along the ancient silk road," had experienced crop failure before, it experienced unparalleled crop loss once Tambora induced winter during summer: out-of-season cold snaps destroyed the nearly-indestructible rice crop upon which Yunnan's fragile economy depended. This wintry summer is a concrete, microcosmic example of what D'Arcy Wood says Tambora can teach us about the future of life on Earth: "a world convulsed by weather extremes with human communities everywhere struggling to adapt to sudden radical shifts in temperatures and rainfall, and a flow-on tsunami of famine, disease, dislocation, and unrest" (8-9). With crop failure came famine, and Yuyang, composing poetry on the misery of starving people in the village thoroughfare, sat up at night feeling white hairs sprout from his head as he and his family also suffered starvation pangs. Parents in the village eventually took to selling their children. "Think of our son's body as food, as grain for one meal," he writes. Yuyang's poetry, evoking the hardships of famine and disease on a formerly close-knit community, exemplifies the sprawling, unknown-at-the-time effects of Tambora. The personal is the sociopolitical, though, and so D'Arcy Wood notes, too, the sad but completely logical (given the circumstances) evolution of Yunnan into "a rogue narco-state in thrall to the international drug trade" that began with climate sprawl's Tambora famines and crystallized two decades later into a village ravaged by individual and economic opium addiction (117). Such an otherwise unexpected evolution leads D'Arcy Wood to conclude that Yunnan "shows the sinuous correlation that can exist between high-impact climate change events ... and social disruption on global scales and centennial time frames" (120).

No doubt, for some, the book's relative lack of engagement with literary texts will prove unsatisfactory; for others, the rich depth of its climate history and historical post-colonial interdisciplinarity will more than make up for this lack (if such a lack it is). Chapter one, for instance, offers an imagined eyewitness account of Tambora's 1815 eruption on Sumbawa Island before walking readers through the volcanic fallout and molten destruction of land and livelihood the inhabitants suffered. The next chapter, "The Little (Volcanic) Ice Age," uses ice core studies to show how rich sulfate deposition in the atmosphere during the 1810s stemmed from Tambora's monstrous eruption and led, as the title implies, to a sustained suppression of global temperatures and thus a brief, historically underappreciated and even unrecognized ice age. Other chapters look at how Tambora's monster monsoons aided and abetted a cholera epidemic in Bengal during the years 1816 and 1817, "the (other) Irish famine" of 1817 and subsequent typhus outbreak, and, in the new world, Jefferson's crop failures at Monticello as representative of weather-related agricultural disaster in North America.

The book also engages with the fields of arctic literature, travel narratives, and geographic glacial historicism, chronicling how Tambora made possible the delusion-fueled nightmares of British polar exploration in the early nineteenth century. Take the tale of John Franklin, the so-called "Man Who Ate His Boots," and his expedition, which "quickly descended into a mobile purgatory of starvation, insanity, murder, and cannibalism" (144). (It's worth noting that a ship from Franklin's doomed 1845 voyage was found in September 2014). More than a climate-change inflected Arctic history, the chapter entitled "The Polar Garden" also puts to rest, by recounting "the British Admiralty's decision to embark on a doomed quest for the northwest passage in 1818" (123), contemporary climate-change deniers' unlikely use of Sir Joseph Banks's report of melting Arctic sea ice to the Royal Society in 1817 as a document of "quasi-biblical importance" in proving climate's natural, as opposed to human-made, variability (121). ("But a bonus of the research presented here will be the opportunity to lay to rest ... the false notion that the ice-free polar seas of 1817 were a product of natural variability of climate and that, accordingly, we should think nothing of the catastrophic ice declines of the early twenty-first century" [122]). Hence, the book also intervenes in contemporary political campaigns of misinformation and denialist nonsense (226-28). While he follows the destructive wake of a natural volcanic eruption, D'Arcy Wood decisively and convincingly demonstrates that this natural disaster is ultimately proof not of nature's self-determining cyclic destruction but proof of the impact of that other powerful annihilative earthly force: the human species.

Therefore, although D'Arcy Wood's book will find a large audience with its interdisciplinary global reach--the Romantic era, the Shelley circle, Southeast Asian history, Chinese literature, colonial American studies, nineteenth-century Irish history, the history of science and disease, and climatology and hydroclimatology--its various audience appeal is, surprisingly, not the most important aspect of the book. Speaking in a more expansive historical sense, for those interested in the future of the human species that is, the book adds a valuable chapter to our understanding of the longer arc of what we now call, all too accurately, "the Anthropocene." We live in a period when human beings, for the first time, in a "deep time" sense, have become the world's dominant actors and are poisoning the planet's sky, land, and water to the extent that our own lives are put at risk as the earth undergoes dramatic, irreversible changes because of our irresponsible, nay hedonistic, actions. Despite its complete difference in style, methodology and purpose, D'Arcy Wood's historical account thus proves an unlikely complement to another recent book on climate by another Romantic scholar: Timothy Morton's Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (2013). D'Arcy Wood's observation that "climate change is hard to see and no less difficult to imagine" (5) gels well with Morton's contention that climate change is a hyperobject, which Morton defines as a delocalized phenomena composed of thousands of varying objects and therefore not easily seen by human eyes. By charting its long-term global yet local effects, Tambora makes climate change more legible within human history on both macro- and micro-timescales. As D'Arcy Wood puts it in the closing pages of his study, "if a three-year climate change event in the early 1800s was capable of such destruction and of shaping human affairs to the extent I have described in this book, then the future impacts of multidecadal climate change must be truly off the charts" (233-34). As a contribution to Romantic studies, Tambora glimpses a future world of "dread and desolation" that echoes Byron's "Darkness" and thus reorients us to the post-apocalyptic, haunting corners of Romanticism; as such it fits in well with David Collings's and Jacques Khalip's Romantic Disaster volume (2012). For its human readership at large, meanwhile, in this book there is, to quote Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Mont Blanc," "much of life and death."

Christopher Washington

University of Southern Mississippi

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A422060025