A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

After ‘Symzonia’: Critical Reception of a New Idea

The critical reaction to the publication of Symzonia was tepid: ‘It is, upon the whole, dull and uninteresting. A great deal might have been made out of the subject, for there is at least as much to satirize as in the age of Swift. The author is, however, very good natured, and if there is nothing brilliant in his observations, there is nothing to offend.’[1] The novel is treated with the same tongue-in-cheek attitude that Symmes himself was, referring to his ‘concentric’ theory as ‘the excentric theories’ that inspired the novel.[2] Duane Griffin claims that ridicule of Symmes’s theory increased because Symzonia was a satirical novel,[3] but most readers would probably interpret it as an earnest effort, not one of satire, even if there are several parallels with Gulliver’s Travels. The deficiencies of American society and politics are shown contra the perfection of Symzonia; Gulliver, unlike Seaborn, does not admit to these issues. Peter Fitting states ‘I read this novel – as have most of my colleagues in the fields of science fiction and utopia – as a satirical utopia which includes a defense of Symmes’s theory.’[4] Another contemporary reviewer of the novel actually barely references Symzonia at all, choosing instead to review Symmes’s theory and make reference to the ‘internal’ as infernals, and that moving to the inside of the earth would be financially sound, ‘for if ordinary bottom lands are notoriously fertile, what must those be, which are not only at the bottom, but on the other side.’[5]  There is also strong anti-imperial sentiment when the anonymous reviewer claims that if ‘the Internals refuse to eat, drink and smoke, as we direct, there then will doubtless be found ways to compel them’,[6] emphasising (and disparaging) the rules of colonial trade that the U.S. had within the last two generations thrown off. Hester Blum finds Symzonia to be ‘parodic…but not of the outlandishness of Symmes’s theories themselves’ and is instead ‘a critique of US and British imperialism…a jape at the genre of writing produced by imperial ventures.’[7] From the contemporary reviews, Blum may be right about how the themes of exploration and imperialism are being treated, but unlike the others, does not believe that Symmes himself is an object of derision, especially if Symmes is the one doing the writing. There is some reason to doubt some of the insincerity towards nationalistic expansion, though, because the U.S. had only recently, with the Louisiana Purchase, doubled its size. Nor could Americans have been unaware of the ever-expanding British influence across the globe.

Setting aside the satire about American society and politics, at face value Symzonia does appear to urge readers to support American exploration and expansion (as well as American ideas and American literature). The novel itself seems to stand in contrast to what some historian’s viewed as Symmes’s distinctly anti-imperial language in his known writings: ‘For Symmes, the polar entrances to the interior belong to “the world” and to the mind rather than to the factional economic and political actors that—in his age and ours—continually conquer new territory in search of wealth.’[8] While Symmes did put his theories to the rest of the world, he was looking for economic and scientific support. The petitions that went before Congress certainly emphasised the need for America to get there first, as do many later novels. Only after failing with his own people did Symmes try to join a Russian expedition to the Arctic.

It is difficult to read into the intentions of Symmes (if it was indeed Symmes, though it seems unlikely to be any other) in the publication of this story, as he never wrote any other fictional narratives, and spend the bulk of his life after this point travelling the US and proselytising his theory, in which this tale might have been a tool. Besides Symmes as the author, a case has been made for one of contemporaries, Nathaniel Ames, but few have taken up that call. There is also the interesting bit of evidence that Elmore Symmes provides in his trio of essays about his father in which he provides a copy of a hand-drawn map by Symmes, and ‘the word “Symmsesonia” is the name he desired given to a continent when one was discovered’;[9] a slightly different spelling, but the same sentiment, put on paper in 1822. The novel is the epitome of early science fiction, blending scientific fact and theory at a time when these things were in a constant state of fluctuation, for an audience that was ready to receive an exciting travel narrative not unlike those of actual accounts. Most significantly, though, Symzonia would help to lay the foundation for dozens of hollow earth stories to follow over the next hundred years.

Imaged from Elmore Symmes's article 'The Theorist, John Cleves Symmes'.

Imaged from Elmore Symmes’s article ‘The Theorist, John Cleves Symmes’.

[1] Anon., ‘Review of Symzonia: A Voyage of Discovery’ in The Literary Gazette; or, Journal of Criticism, Science and the Arts. 6 January 1821 (Vol. 1, No. 1), p.8.

[2] Anon., ‘Review of Symzonia’, The Literary Gazette, p. 6.

[3] Duane Griffin, “Hollow and Habitable Within”. P. 390.

[4] Peter Fitting. Subterranean Worlds. P. 106.

[5] Anon., ‘Art. VI – A voyage to the internal world’ – The North American Review (Vol. 13, Issue 32, 1821), pp. 135-6.

[6] Anon., ‘A voyage’, The North American Review, p. 140.

[7] Hester Blum, ‘John Cleves Symmes and the Planetary Reach of Polar Exploration’, American Literature (Vol. 84, No. 2, June 2012), p. 261.

[8] M. Allewaert and Michael Ziser, ‘Preface: Under Water’ in American Literature (Vol. 84, No. 2, June 2012) p. 236.

[9] Elmore Symmes, ‘John Cleves Symmes, The Theorist’, Southern Bivouac: A Monthly Literary and Historical Magazine (Vol. 2, 1887), p. 628.


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