Upcycling the American Pastoral: A New Perspective on Hollow Earth Utopias
With the disappearance of terra incognita from maps in the Nineteenth Century, writers of speculative fiction had to reach beyond lost continents and darkest Africa to find a new setting for their socio-political speculation. The hollow Earth, or terra cava, became one of the new imaginative destinations of fiction writers in the wake of John Symmes’s 1818 popular theory of polar openings leading to a hollow, habitable globe. More than just recycling traditional utopian tropes, these novels embraced a ‘technotopia’ approach, applying technology to the pastoral in an age of rapid urbanisation. The quest to reclaim America’s lost frontiers is combined with the perceived promises of technology to ease (and advance) life towards the utopian.
Nothing says literary compost like the Nineteenth century utopia that embraced new and old ideas of feminism, politics, economics, technology, and a dozen other topics. This paper aims to explore the tropes being ‘upcycled’ by early science fiction authors exploring the possibilities of socio-political improvement through the use of technology and return to the virginal frontier that shaped the American conscious. As opposed to the ‘low-tech’ lost-world/race novels that attempt to reclaim the ancient Garden, these fin de siècle hollow Earth narratives attempt to balance the benefits of urban technology with the desire to live in clean, open spaces, what Leo Marx called ‘The Machine in the Garden’. From power to food to goods production, these works articulate a Nineteenth century desire to create the new within a familiar, edenic environment – even if it were one that never really existed.
Several novels treated the terra cava as a genuine lost world awaiting discovery, a new American frontier, and their sublime descriptions were meant to entice readers’ imaginations as well as their inclination to support expeditions to the Poles. By setting techno-pastoral scenes in a seemingly plausible hollow world, American readers were absorbing the propaganda of both necessary imperialism and industrial integration with the desperately missed frontier. Significant unique differences, though, are to be found in the terra cava novel in America as opposed to other pastoral or imperialist novels. Three novels will present us with the scope of the fin du siècle’s hollow earth utopias, and how they addressed issues of urban and rural space, ecology, and technology and upcycled old literary tropes into a new pastoral technotopia inside the Earth: Mary Braley Lane’s Mizroa of 1880, Byron Welcome’s From Earth’s Center in 1894, and at the end of the terra cava literary tradition, Willis George Emerson’s The Smoky God from 1908.
The synthesis of urban and rural spaces into a harmonious until, upcycling tropes seen in other contemporary writers, is a significant feature of terra cava texts. Nineteenth century authors were undoubtedly familiar with works such as Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, which used photography to expose the wretched tenement conditions in New York City, and reported such instances as ‘The death of a child in a tenement… registered at the Bureau of Vital Statistics as “plainly due to suffocation in the foul air of an unventilated apartment”.’ Or consider the Charles Folsom report made to the Massachusetts State Board of Health in 1877: ‘It is readily seen, that, except at the headwaters, the Nashua River is so polluted throughout its whole length that it would be unwise to use any part of it for a domestic water supply.’ Balance this with the Emerson-Thoreau view of American nature as the sublime. Spacious, well organised living conditions, built amidst luscious greenery and light, are the dream of these utopian writers.
In the feminist utopia Mizora, the narrator, Vera Zarovich, remarks upon her first site of ‘a mighty city…all the buildings were detached and surrounded by lawns and shade trees, their white marble and gray granite walls gleaming through the green foliage’ (16). Within the large cities, homes are built around large, verdant parks, and the same in suburban regions (40); there are no concrete towers or rough log cabins to which most Americans were accustomed. Zarovich observes that ‘The houses…all seem to have been designed with two special objects in view – beauty and comfort’ (40). This is a planned community, designed to suit both urban and rural need as well as appeal. ‘The walks were smoothly paved and shaded by trees of enormous size’ (41). Pavement and trees, the artificially produced and the natural, harmoniously combined. This is the essence of Bradley Lane’s work, attempting to demonstrate a world that had learned to smoothly incorporate its technological and industrial developments, more so than the US.
On a slightly different tack we have Welcome’s 1894 novel, From Earth’s Center: A Polar Gateway Message, is based upon the socio-political theories of the American Henry George, published a year after economic crisis swept the US. The organisation of urban and rural land is a central tenant of George’s reformist agenda. As one character in a large city explains, ‘There are people who prefer the advantages of a central location like this, while others prefer more seclusion and a separate home. Their tastes are in all cases gratified. You can live just as you please here, with nothing but your inclination to guide you.’ (36). But a non-central location is not necessarily detrimental to cultural enjoyments like the theatre, due to effective transportation and land organisation: ‘In this country there are few places so small that they cannot afford nearly all the luxuries we have in the large cities’. (39). Cities, towns, and villages are described as being close together and rapidly connected by an efficient train system, allowing people to live and work in different habitats (71), a modern luxury unknown in Welcome’s era. As one character describing land usage notes, ‘it is more economical… to live densely together, than to be scattered over the whole state, where all these public improvements and convenience we now enjoy would be impossible’ (219). But even this so-called dense living is not described as anything other than pleasant, not the sort of slum living found in major urban areas. The elimination of poverty and carefully controlled rents and land usages makes it easier for everyone to live in healthy conditions. The countryside and nature is easily available to all, not just the upper class.
At the closing of the terra cava literary era, we find one of the shortest and most unique stories, Willis George Emerson’s Smoky God of 1908. Written as the dying testament of one Olaf Jansen and then edited by Emerson, this longish short story finds a young Jansen and his father, Norwegian fishermen who sail through the Arctic and into a Symmes hole. Encountering a race of 12-foot tall giants who are beautiful and refined (because who else would occupy this Eden?) Jansen and his father spend the next ten pages offering not a narrative, but an overview of this ‘Land beyond the North Wind’ as their Norse myth calls it. The housing is described as large, beautiful and uniform without being the same, thus pleasing to the eye and not baring the marks of the haphazardly assemble mining and railroad towns that dotted the American West, or the urban slums of the East: ‘All buildings are erected with special regard to strength, durability, beauty and symmetry, and with a style of architecture vastly more attractive to the eye than any I have ever observed elsewhere’ (39) Jensen states, reinforcing the contemporary dissatisfaction with American construction technique and aesthetics. These pleasing dwellings are set among hillsides covered in vineyards and valleys devoted to growing grains (34). The urban and rural imagery are synthesised. Jensen and his father are given leave to visit the ‘colleges of music and art,… great fields, [and] wonderful forests of timber’ (37), a touristic synthesis of the rural and the municipal. In furtherance of this, the primary occupations of the inhabitants are said to be ‘architecture, agriculture, horticulture, the raising of vast herds of cattle, and the building of conveyances… for travel on land and water’ (39). Engineering and agrarian concerns are the vocational call of these civilised giants. The capital city is even called Eden, implying both a religious connection to human origins, and at metaphorical image of paradise brought into the present, and readily attainable.
The organisation of urban and rural greenery carries with it improvements upon the ecology of the surface world. Descriptions of verdant habitats in the interior world upcycle traditional elements of ecological description and travelogues of explorers with the integration of utopian ideals and environments modified to suite imagined hollow earth conditions. America was supposed to be the bright paradise of ‘beautiful…spacious skies…amber waves of grain…purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain! – this of course being derived from Katherine Lee Bates 1895 poem. But the progression of American settlement across the continent had despoiled much of this scenery in the opinion of many observers. Consider the declared closing of the American frontier with the results of the 1890 census, putting an end to the fifty year philosophy of manifest destiny. These novels are not about finding a new frontier; they are about finding lands of unspoiled and thriving nature, and how America might get back to this state of grace.
In Bradley Lane’s Mizora, the narrator observes upon her arrival ‘Birds of bright plumage flitt[ing] among the branches, anon breaking forth into wild and exultant melody, as if they rejoiced to be in so favoured a clime. And truly it seemed a land of enchantment. […] The languorous atmosphere… produced in me a feeling of contentment not easily described’ (14-5). The light reflected into the interior is described as ‘rapturous’ and ‘hangs like a veil of enchantment over the land of Mizora’ (25). There is no description here but that of heavenly perfection. The air itself is charged with a natural electric élan to rejuvenate the mind and body. There is no smoke or ash polluting the atmosphere, a benefit of a technologically advanced society that does not rely on fossil fuels.
From Earth’s Center decides to improve upon nature itself, chided the exterior’s natural forces for not being as efficient as the interior. Rather than rain dropped to the ground after being evaporated and condensed in clouds, the interior world of Centralia has ‘sweats’ in which water from beneath the surface rises to the top to moisten the soil and vegetation: ‘Is it not a much simpler process to come forth from the earth, where it is abundant, than for it to rise in a thin, invisible vapour form the same source?’ (84).There is no drought, no flooding. The amount of hydration is perfectly balanced via Welcome’s own interpretive science, involving electric currents moving in such a way as to draw the water up. Just as with Bradley Lane’s Mizora, electricity is perceived to be in the air itself, this new power emerging at the end of the Nineteenth century that was seen as a vitalistic force. The narrator comments that ‘Nature’s gifts have been bountiful;…the balmy air, the favourable surroundings’ (237) all working in a perfect society to produce a surplus of food and resources. The interior of the world suffers from none of the extremes of the exterior (from politics to poverty to temperature).
The inner world of The Smoky God is not just vitalising to Jensen and his father, it resurrects disappearing animal species, preserving what was being lost in America. Jensen remarks that ‘A writer in an article on this subjects says: “Almost every year sees the final extinction of one or more bird species.”[…] Is it not possible that these disappearing bird species quit their habitation without, and find asylum in the “within world”?’ (40). The hollow earth is a haven for the animals mistreated on the earth’s surface, hunted to extinction and pushed out of their habitat by humanity’s expanding population. Jensen goes on to states that ‘the strange conditions “within” are favourable not only for vast meadows or luxuriant grasses, forests of giant trees, and all manner of vegetable life, but wonderful animal life as well.’ (40). Jensen compares it to the Miocene age he read about as a child (40). Besides the native population averaging over twelve feet in height, the plant and animal life is also massive in size
The use of technology in these pastoral utopias is what makes them incredibly unique for their time, in addition to being set within the interior of the earth. The supposition of finding advanced races within, races that had not been ejected from the proverbial Garden, suggested to authors and readers alike a people who had found a way to smoothly integrated technology into their lives in a way that America had thus far failed to find. The advent of electricity yielded up the promise of, according to an 1891 article in The Saint Paul Daily Globe, ‘the solution of some profound problem by which the use of electricity can be made universal to the wants of man’ (28 Sep 1891 pg 5). Edward Bellamy discussed such utopian technological progress in Looking Backwards, but that was published seven years after Bradley Lane’s Mizora. Edward Bulwer-Lytton explored a technologically advanced society in The Coming Race, an early and popular terra cava novel, one of the first British lost-race stories that dealt with not a so-called primitive race, but a superior civilisation that would threaten Anglo-American superiority. All of these terra cava novels possess races with technological superiority that aides in their utopian status.
In Mizora, technology has freed women from the drudgery of domestic life known to the average woman of the Nineteenth century. A machine with brushes and sponges, and attached bottles of soap and water, scourers the floors, not a woman. Not that they are freed from all labour, but they pursue work in the fields of science, engineering, art, and education. Mizora is described as a ‘land of brain workers’ (45) where no menial labour exists, and those which we might consider menial (childrearing, cooking, or tending an orchard) are revered as the work of only the best educated, because of the technical work that goes into such tasks. Technology has afforded a healthier, easier way of procuring food in Mizora, which is chemically prepared (19), and thus free from the defects of naturally raised foods, or the diseases found in animal products: ‘Bread came from the laboratory, and not from the soil by the sweat of the brow.’ (21). The removal of impurities from food is apparently part of the cause of the women’s ‘suppleness and bloom of eternal youth’ (19). The population is freed from the tribulations of flood and drought resulting in famines, and reality even in America in the Nineteenth century. The scientific preparation of food makes it a respectable pursuit, betraying the author’s – and America’s – prejudice towards intellectual production over manual production.
Technological progress in Welcome’s fictional Centralia is never a negative, but an economic boon to this very capitalist nation. There are recording devices to disseminate speeches and concerts (62), synchronised clocks powered by that strange force electricity (64), electric street cars (71) for improved communication and goods transportation, and electric boats (97). This is accomplished by the conversion of coal directly into electricity, rather than a coal powered steam engine producing electricity (98). The inclusion of wires built into every home for conduction electricity is a foreshadowing of the modern development.
The Giants’ boat which picks up the Jensens is described as having silent but powerful machinery to propel it at speeds greater than any railroad in America, and Jensen describes this as ‘wonderful’ (33). The benefit of the railroad was its speed, but its drawbacks included the noise and pollution emitted by the engines. Jensen’s (or Emerson’s) metaphor of the train is refined to stifle the cacophony, increasing the power, and eliminating the foul by-products. An electric monorail is described as noiseless and running perfectly balanced on a single iron rail at a high rate of speed, carrying the Jensens ‘up hills and down dales, across valleys and again along the sides of maintains, without any apparent attempt having been made to level the earth as we do for railroad tracks’ (35). Mechanical transportation has been smoothly integrated into the lay of the land, rather than the scars set into mountains dynamited by railroad companies. Electricity, just becoming a widespread source of power in the US, provides quiet, invisible energy for the whole of the Inner world. Even the air is described as being electrically charged and a constant source of vitality for the Jensens as they breathe it. The atmosphere is not just unpolluted; this is an Eden whose very air is energising, a pastoral, electrified paradise: ‘Nature chanted a lullaby in the faint murmur of winds whose breath was sweet with the fragrance of bud and blossom’ (41).
Transportation is a significant feature of all of these novels, and none of them involve horses. At this point in time there were dire predictions of large cities like London and New York would be buried under the manure of hundreds of thousands of work horses. Electricity offered an alternative power for transportation of people and goods. Animals were enjoyed for their nature (though not for their consumption as these literary paradises were vegetarian) and freed by technology as much as the menial worker.
These novels are a taste of the larger canon of terra cava literature, which embrace many of these same upcycled cultural and literary tropes of the garden, technology and utopia. Without any more topographic white spaces in which an island paradise of perfect people, flawless government, and advanced civilisation might be lurking, the uncharted poles and theoretical hollow earth were one of the last earth-bound literary spaces in which writers could project their hopes and expectations for an American future that has technologically upgraded and ecologically integrated the living space of the population. The edenic pastoral literature of the era and the very real encroaching pollution of urbanisation and industrialisation lead to the composted result of hollow earth literature. Urban and pastoral landscapes in these proto-science fiction tales are ripe spaces for ecocritical scholarship.