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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Spontaneous Human Combustion in Literature: Herman Melville

Herman Melville is best known for his work, Moby Dick.  Like much of Melville's work, Moby Dick was loosely based on a true story.  The same holds for his 1849 book, Redburn.  However, in the latter, Melville employs a popular trope of the time when a drunken, shanghaied sailor falls prey to spontaneous human combustion:

...two threads of greenish fire, like a forked tongue, darted out between the lips and in a moment, the cadaverous face was covered by a swarm of wormlike flames... [the body] burned before us, precisely like a phosphorescent shark in a midnight sea.

While some historians have questioned whether or not Herman Melville actually witnessed a case of spontaneous human combustion, the excerpt proves rather tellingly that he probably did not.  It was a common belief of the time that only drunks could succumb to such a demise, and the meme appears throughout the literature of the era.

© C Harris Lynn, 2011

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