A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

Seeking Empire at the Centre of the World: Nineteenth Century American Hollow Earth Novels

[This is an abbreviated version of a paper delivered at ICFA 2014]

The 1890 Census of the United States erased once and for all the distinctive frontier line the once bisected the eastern half of the continent from the mythical west, a revelation that paralleled the global cartographic developments of the late nineteenth century: the disappearance of terra incognita. A subset of the unknown land I have termed terra cava, the narrative of an inhabitable space beneath the earth’s surface. Nether regions once considered only in terms of spiritual consequence became hypothetical realms of mineral and literary wealth.

There are three ways in which the developing consciousness of American empire is expressed in these novels: the need for commerce, the need for land, and the need for technology. Three forces of empire, three exemplifying novels among the dozens of terra cava narratives published in America that embraced the native theory of a hollow earth accessible via holes in the North and South Poles. These are not idle fantasies either; the US Exploring Expedition, launched in 1838, was initially commissioned by John Quincy Adams with the goal of discovering these polar openings and claiming the interior of the earth.

I – Symzonia and the American Adam

Published in 1820 under the nom de plume ‘Adam Seaborn’, Symzonia is considered to be one of the first American utopian fictions. Though occasionally categorised as a ‘burlesque’ for its commentary on American culture and use of charactonyms, Symzonia is serious in its treatment of the Symmes Theory of Concentric Spheres and the prospect of a hollow, habitable world.

In the shortest possible summary, Captain Adam Seaborn commissions a ship to sail to the Antarctic, where he expects to find a Symmes Hole opening to the interior world. The narrative is a conglomeration of Symmes’s scientific ideas (in the loosest possible definition of ‘scientific), anti-British sentiment, and socio-political commentary on the new nation of America. Finding a technologically advanced race of pure-white utopianists, Adam Seaborn, in scenes reminiscent of Gulliver’s Travels, find himself and his country wanting in the face of such perfection. Returning to the US without proof and thrown into debtor’s prison, Seaborn publishes his travelogue in hopes of earning his freedom and encouraging others to follow in his footsteps, to establish trade with the Symzonians before another country – id est, Britain – gets there first. America’s future in global trade and expansion rests on getting to the interior of the world.

John Reider writes of Symzonia as a ‘fantasy of appropriation’, one of ‘discovered wealth’ in a world perceived to be losing its easily obtainable resources. Seaborn is the fulfilment of what R.W.B. Lewis called ‘The American Adam’: he is the proverbial first man, entering into an Edenic garden; ‘The world and history lay all before him.’ Unfortinately, this Eden happens to already be inhabited. The experiences Seaborn gains – as with the original Adam – are his downfall and he is cast out. For a time, though, the voyage to Symzonia made Seaborn a very rich man, and the narrative ends with the prospect of regaining that wealth if another expedition is sent.

Believe it or not, the author of Symzonia, and John Cleves Symmes himself, were not being facetious. President John Quincy Adams commissioned the US Exploring Expedition in 1828 at the behest of Symmes’s followers, though the ships would not launch until 1838, nine years after Symmes died. In the intervening decade the focus shifted from reaching the interior of the world to simply charting the southern hemisphere and looking for trade opportunities. In his opening statement, Seaborn claims, “I projected a voyage of discovery, in the hope of finding a passage to a new and untried world. I flattered myself that I should open the way to new fields for the enterprise of my fellow-citizens, supply new sources of wealth, fresh food for curiosity, and additional means of enjoyment; objects of vast importance, since the resources of the known world have been exhausted by research, its wealth monopolized, its wonders of curiosity explored, its every thing investigated and understood!… The faculties of man had begun to dwindle for want of scope, and the happiness of society required new and more copious contributions.”

The concept of ‘Manifest Destiny’ – that the American flag would rule over the entirety of the continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific – was still decades away from its full enunciation. And the Monroe Doctrine, which would press for American isolationism, would not be put into effect until 1823. But here we see Seaborn laying the foundation of an American desire to stretch the Stars and Stripes further into the world, lest the Union Jack get there first. At the time of publication, America had only been at peace with Great Britain for five years, and John Symmes himself fought against them in the War of 1812.

At the point that the narrative leaves the known map, venturing into the imaginative, the transition is subtle, leaving readers to wonder when exactly it was they left the surface of the earth. On the ‘discovery’ of ‘Seaborn’s Land’ at around between 78° and 83° S (further than Cook’s recorded Antarctic penetration or his Sandwich Land) a ceremony of deeply national, imperialistic, and legal significance is performed: “Aware that there was a possibility that I might miscarry, and never get back to this place, I devoted a day to the performance of a necessary duty to my country, namely, taking possession of the country I had discovered, in the name and on behalf of the people of the United States of America.” He plants a flag and a plaque attesting to the claim, then ceremonially fires the ship’s canons. Without a globally recognised body to settle land disputes, employing ceremonial formalities that should be recognised by other European bodies (no one else’s opinion counting) is the best any explorer can do. Seaborn, though naming the island for himself, does not claim it for himself, but for his country. Just like Columbus, he did not set out to form his own country, but to bring greater glory and gold to his home. This is an interesting and generous offer, considering that the US government did not sponsor and was not aware of Seaborn’s voyage, unlike the other empire-expanding voyages of exploration throughout history. He is acting without the foreknowledge and consent of his government; yet approval of his actions is assumed. The future American empire will not be assembled by the U.S. government, but by enterprising Americans.

II – Interior World and the American West

Symmes’s theory faded to the background of American consciousness in the wake of civil war and reconstruction – not to mention the U.S. Exploring Expedition returning in 1842 to report no Symmes holes in the Poles. In the last three decades of the century, though, it came roaring back. Two of Symmes’s sons wrote tracts about their father’s theory, as did several others. Fiction authors also came to appreciate the narrative opportunity a hollow world presented them with as the U.S. rapidly manifested its continental destiny.

Published in 1885 ostensibly for young, male readers, Washington Tower’s Interior World stands apart from its terra cava brethren for one very specific reason: it is not a lost race novel. There are no inhabitants in this lush, virginal paradise to contest the character’s claim to the interior of the earth. The proverbial Adams in this story do not need to fear being cast out of this garden; it is theirs to claim free and clear.

In true American Manifest Destiny philosophy, the protagonists, are inspired by their present circumstances ‘with the spirit of enterprise, and they determined to incur the hazards, difficulties, and hardships of a migratory life, being supported with the belief that they were destined to accomplish a great work – a work of no less importance than that of opening communication between two worlds’ (pg. 74). This is a sentiment found often in other hollow earth works; that of the characters feeling duty bound to alert the rest of the world to the presence of a hollow and habitable land waiting for trade, settlement, etc. The bait for readers to yearn for this world’s veracity is set in the rich open lands, exotic pelts to be obtained (pg. 85) and the gold that is just lying around waiting to be plucked from the ground (pg. 99). The mythical view of the American pastoral as an Eden is being recreated in the hollow earth. In the tradition of formal colonial claiming, the three men recite the solemn oath ‘We… do by right of discovery, now formally take possession of the Interior World in the name, and for the eternal behoof of the United States of America’ (pg. 128). This kind of ceremony can be seen clear back to Symzonia.

In his study of the American west as symbol and myth, Henry Nash Smith referred to the American west as the ‘Garden of the World’, and American empire built upon ‘a populous future society occupying the interior of the American continent’ (p.12). At the end of Tower’s novel, two of the three men remain behind, newly married to the female descendants of the lost Tichborne heir (a piece of history we cannot delve into now) – they are a pair of Adams and Eves who will begin to populate the interior of the world, wanting for nothing. The pages of the novel are filled with references to a variety of ever-budding fruits and abundantly available meat sources: ‘Nature was most generous, supplying their table with every luxury that heart could wish’ (p. 154).

This western garden of America helped to fulfil the doctrine of the ‘safety valve’, allowing the ever-increasing population of the U.S. to move from East to West into empty lands, preventing over-population from leading to urban squalor and perceived social decay. Tower’s novel embodies this principal from start to finish, in an authorial introduction that states his intent to ‘present a narrative entertaining to boys, yet free from any thing tending to awaken vicious or ignoble passions’, along with a 33-page index providing ‘scientific’ evidence for his theory of gravitation in a hollow world. Tower claims that ‘the Interior World is of a vast extent – only a few thousand square miles less in area than the exterior.’ The reader, hopefully free of any ignoble passions, will believe Tower’s assertions and follow his lead to this vast interior world on behalf of Americans everywhere.

III – Atvatabar and the Machine in the Garden

No other terra cava novel is so blatant in its imperial fantasy as The Goddess of Atvatabar, given the rather lengthy subtitle, ‘Being the history of the discovery of the interior world and the conquest of Atvatabar’. Published in 1892 by William Bradshaw, this narrative of overt American land acquisition was graced with an introduction by Julian Hawthorne, comparing it to the likes of Bulwer-Lytton, Haggard, and Verne, and praising it above their works; European rather than American authors, emphasising the literary distinction between Old World and New World literature.

The protagonist is called Lexington White, a wonderfully American and imperial name if there ever was one: the first battle of the American Revolution, and the symbolic colour of purity. He is a wealthy, private entrepreneur – like Adam Seaborn – who sails through the Arctic Symmes Hole and encounters a lost race of universal attractiveness and unparalleled technological advancement. White’s conquest is not just of the country of Atvatabar, but the heart of its resident goddess, Lyone, both seemingly by force. Initially he sets out ‘for the sake of science and fortune and the glory of the United States’ (p. 9) It is the old inducement of imperialism: Glory, God, and gold. White set out for the North Pole with the intention of standing on top of the world, a ‘monarch of an empire of ice’ (p. 10). White has gone so far as to provide his crew with ‘a special triumphal outfit… a Viking helmet of polished brass surmounted by the figure of a silver-plated polar bear’ (p. 12). Image and pageantry, invoking the northern warriors of old and the ancient Roman practice of a triumphal march. This was never just an exploring expedition; it is a new century of conquistadors.

As for Lyone, the celibate goddess, a stolen kiss from her is a ‘proclamation of war upon Atvatabar’ and the inevitable ‘destruction of a unique civilization’ (p. 94). With legitimacy granted by the love of the local deity, White and his crew succeed in deposing the current monarch and crowning himself the new king of Atvatabar, Lyone the Queen. Bradshaw is negotiating a fine line between American aspirations for empire, and the American belief in the superiority of its democratic republic. White, his crew, and the United States now have access to all of Atvatabar’s $8 trillion in annual revenue (p. 167) and advanced technology, which will put America ahead of its global competition. Where Symzonia sought only to seize trading preference for America, Atvatabar has seized the land itself. Where it differs, however, is that the British offer assistance near the end of the narrative; where the nineteenth century started with British and American competition, the close of the century saw America and British cooperation in economic and imperial ambition.

The technology made available by Atvatabar’s conquest aligns with Leo Marx’s study of The Machine in the Garden; technology makes Atvatabar better, a utopia that has figured out how to negotiate industrialisation with the dream of the pastoral. The Atvatabarans have worked out how to balance their mechanised society with both urban and agrarian ideals.


Americans would not be the first to either of the Poles, but they did not miss out on the opportunity to claim the interior continents of the world: the final nail in the coffin of Symmes’s theory of a hollow, habitable world was pounded into place. The terra cava narrative disappeared into obscurity, to be replaced by adventures stories set on other planets in outer space; there was nothing left on earth to conquer without running into other people who too much resembled the reader. Traditional imperialism was already starting to buckle under the strain of socio-political reform.


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