A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

Beyond Symzonia: Science in Late-Nineteenth Century Hollow Earth Literature

Image[Taken from a paper give at the British Society for Literature and Science conference, Cardiff University, April 2013.]

We might ask why such a seemingly outlandish theory as Symmes’s Polar openings leading to a hollow, habitable Earth was so readily embraced in the American mid-west, and for that, Charlotte Sleigh, a historian of science, gives us what she calls ‘The American Situation’. Feeling the poor cousins compared to their European brethren in terms of scientific advancement in both theory and technology, America felt the need to develop a distinctly ‘American science’. People devoured public lectures and demonstrations, as well as books and articles about science coming out of Europe. This yearning for an American science in a country that had precious few ‘professional’ scientists at the start of the nineteenth century, resulted in an American public ready to embrace anything perceived as new, and the geology of terra cava fulfilled some of that need for scientific originality.

Symmes’s work set off a century of scientific and literary speculation in the United States, leading to the US Exploring Expedition in 1838 and a quest to find the holes in the Polar Regions that would lead to a hollow, habitable earth ripe for colonisation – preferably by the US. The lack of Newtonian mathematics being applied to Symmes’s hypothesis, and the reliance upon publicly available information from other amateur scientists and explorers, allowed for several others to pick up the flag of Symmes’s cause and run with it, incorporating their own evidence and observations to tweak the theory as the century progressed. While there were not a lot of additional scientific speculation about the nature of a hollow world – the US Exploring Expedition unsurprisingly failing to find any evidence – several fictional works utilised the scientific observations brought back and encouraged readers to entertain the possibility of a hollow, habitable world, one which must be claimed by Americans, for Americans, as quickly as possible. We might also look at this as a precursor to what we now call ‘hard science fiction’. Several of these works included additional references for the reader – footnotes, appendices, essays, et cetera – to trace the author’s informational sources, as well as introductory or concluding statements of support for the exploration of the Poles in search of an entrance to the interior world. Even though the US Exploring Expedition failed in this regard, the fin de siècle saw an international advance toward reaching the dipoles of the earth. In a column from The Sunday Globe as late as 1901 there is an analysis of the Symmes theory in conjunction with the new spate of Arctic and Antarctic exploration, remarking, “If the inner country exists we would like for an American to discover it, but under the circumstances we are willing to yield to anybody making the discovery. We wish them all success.”

Now, as much as we might be tempted to include such European titles as Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race, these did not incorporate the American pseudo-scientific work of Symmes, and were not pushing for the exploration of a theoretical terra cava. They were, however, popular books in the US in the latter decades of the century, which helped to encourage further publication of hollow earth narratives. Among the fictional texts that best embrace the inclusion of the hypothesis of the hollow earth with scientific extrapolation, there is Washington Tower’s Interior World from 1885, given the lengthy subtitle of ‘A romance illustrating a new hypothesis of terrestrial organization, with an appendix setting forth an original theory of gravitation’, and the nominally spiritualist text Etidorhpa, by John Uri Lloyd in 1895, a resident of south-western Ohio like Symmes. These works embrace a scientific approach to understanding the various phenomena of the world by examining what lays beneath our feet.

Washington L. Tower’s Interior World is nothing short of an exercise in American manifest destiny, driven beyond the Western edge of the continent and into the hollow earth, where a new world waits for American exceptionalism and exploitation. The preface to Interior World outlines the author’s ‘prime objective’ to place before his readers “an original theory on the subject of Gravitation. Interwoven in the narrative, and more fully set forth in the Appendix, is a series of ideas which have resulted from many years of thought and research.” In other words, the adventure plot is merely a conveyance for the author’s scientific theories. Three men fall through a crevice in a cave, and due to the reversal of gravity at the half-way point in the earth’s crust, with the aid of their initial momentum and a strong gust of wind, they are pushed to the concave surface of the inner world. It does not take them long at all to realise their predicament, and begin their hike to the north polar opening. The acceptance of this state of the world is arrived at with little discussion – as if the reader should already be familiar with this particular geologic form – and it is the exploring of the nature of this world that takes precedent. Much like travel writing moving methodically through description and geography, the one great difference in Interior World is that it’s written in the third-person, the only terra cava novel to do so, distancing readers from the psychology of the characters in order to emphasise the environment.

Throughout Tower’s narrative there are moments of stilted didactic exposition, echoing the scientific lessons from works like Symmes’s Theory of Concentric Spheres: “We will now suppose that the polar openings occupy five degrees all around the pole; this makes the boundary of these openings latitude 85. Then light enters the polar opening at latitude 85, and… shines on the opposite side to a point about 47 degrees south of the place where it enters”[1] and so on. A hollowed-out pumpkin with its top and bottom removed is used to illustrate the point. The mathematics of the angles of polar opening and light reflection take intense concentration for the reader to comprehend, which is why Tower switches tactics and uses the gourd to further emphasise his point for the less mathematically inclined. But the purpose is still to complete the world view of terra cava geology. It is not enough to say that the Poles are open; there must be accompanying geometry and physics to explain the natural forces of this world.

After the end of the narrative proper, with an American settlement laying claim to the whole of the inner world, there is the author’s Appendix, referred to in the subtitle. Tower states that “When a narrative like the foregoing, containing statements that are utterly at varience with the commonly received teachings of science in published, a decent respect for the opinions of the reader would seem to require that some proof in support of such novel philosophic declarations be presented. For that reason the following treatise is appended.” He acknowledges that the world he has constructed goes against the grain of common acceptance, and in an effort to inspire confidence in his semi-scientific assessments, Tower has to engage in a further dialogue directly with the reader to outline Forces in the world based on its perceived structure, going on for over 30 pages. Only then do we find the words ‘The End’ written, and an Index leading us back to events and evidences in the story. This inclusion of an index, usually an item reserved for non-fiction works, lends further weight to author’s idea of writing a serious scientific text couched in the tropes of romance. Ten years later another author would go to similar lengths to reinforce the perception of scientific veracity.

In John Uri Lloyd’s Etidorhpa there are three layers to the complex narrative: the first is Lloyd, claiming to be only editor and publisher, the manuscript presented to him by Llewellyn Drury, who copied it out based upon conversations with a strange visitor called “I-AM-THE-MAN-WHO-DID-IT”, and the tale of I-AM-THE-MAN’s journey inside the earth is our core narrative. I-AM-THE-MAN’s conversations with his blind, bipedal cave-fish of a guide, and I-AM-THE-MAN’s interlude conversations with his scribe Drury, are rife with scientific speculation and experimentation, meant to convey to the reader easily duplicated experiments to prove to themselves the veracity of Lloyd’s work: hydrostatics and how water moves around the earth, how gravity functions, the origin of volcanoes, and so on. It is a heavily illustrated novel, not just of the characters and events, but sketches of scientific experiments and charts meant to outline Lloyd’s theories. He makes an affirmation of factual intent in the introduction: “My purpose is to tell the truth.”[2] Part of the effort Lloyd makes at scientific veracity is with the inclusion of an appendix on the life and work of Professor Daniel Vaughn, stressing that this was a real researcher and not a figment of Lloyd’s literary imagination in chapter 24.

Lloyd does not make use of Symmesian geology but instead has I-AM-THE-MAN enter the world via a cave in Kentucky (a state riddled with large caves, some of which were mistakenly identified as ‘Symmes Holes’ to visitors[3]) and make a journey similar to that of Verne’s characters in Journey to the Centre of the Earth, via foot and boat through a semi-porous world. This narrative process of an unending journey, rather than voyage and discovery, allows for a systematic movement through Lloyd’s scientific musings – and I really do use the word scientific in its loosest possible definition. In explaining volcanoes, the guide reveals to I-AM-THE-MAN, who reveals to Drury, that underground reservoirs of water spilling onto an unnamed metallic element causes a massive exothermic chemical reaction, which is the cause of volcanic eruptions. We are also told dismissively that ‘the theories of man concerning volcanic eruptions, in connection with a molten interior of the earth, are such as are evolved in ignorance of even the subsurface of the globe. The earth’s interior is to mankind a sealed chamber.’ This kind of language, dismissing other scientific theories in favour of far-reaching speculations, is used bother by the Guide with I-AM-THE-MAN, and then I-AM-THE-MAN to Drury. Not once, but twice, is nearly everything explained to us, and all doubts about the veracity of Lloyd’s science dismissed as unfortunate ignorance.

Etidorhpa became extremely popular and underwent eighteen editions and translations in seven languages. It became a bible of sorts to American spiritualists who believed the tale to be true while ‘Etidorhpa’ (Aphrodite spelt backwards, though we never learn why) became a fashionable name for daughters.[4] Contemporary reviewers praised the novel not only for its literary eccentricities, but its “clear-cut science without empiricism… Happy is the scientist who can present science in a form so inviting as to charm not only scholars of his own profession, but laymen besides.”[5] More recent reviewers have been far less forgiving, with some accusing Lloyd, a pharmacist or some repute, of happing sampled his own wares in writing the novel: “Psychedelics Lloyd must have had contact with include marijuana and opium poppies”.[6] It is more likely, though, that Lloyd’s writing was influenced by his reading of other contemporary scientists and lesser-literati, like his hollow earth peers from Ohio, a state that produced more terra cava literature than any other.

Etidorhpa, though scientifically inaccurate, is an exercise in what we today would call hard science fiction. Known and speculative sciences are explored, tested within their linguistic limits, and either accepted, modified or dismissed. Etidorhpa is also one of the few American hollow novels to remain in print, but for its spiritualist principles rather than its scientific ones. After 1910 of so, the publishing of hollow earth stories disappeared almost entirely, as the scientific evidence against such a world structure simply became too overwhelming, and only in New Age spiritualism do we find the belief surviving.

This metamorphosis from science to spiritualism has really allowed us to forget what these nineteenth century terra cava novels did for science, exploration, and early sf literature in America. I’m not necessarily defending the literary quality of these works – there is very good reason for the vast majority of them to have never been republished – but they are a historical milestone in the synthesis of science, travel, adventure and narrative that continue to reverberate today in pastiches, and the occasional Hollywood blockbuster/flop.


[1] Tower, Interior World, p. 87.

[2] John Uri Lloyd, Etidorhpa; The Strange History of a Mysterious Being (Charleston, SC: Forgotten Books, 2007, originally published 1897), p. 13.

[3] “Symmes’ Holes”, The Sunday Globe, 28 July 1901, p. 7.

[4] Neil Harris. Cultural Excursions: Marketing Appetites and Cultural Tastes in Modern America. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990). p. 151.

[5] Time-Star, Cincinnati, in Lloyd, Etidorhpa, p. 379.

[6] Neal Wilgus, in Standish, Hollow Earth, p. 218.

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