A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

Nineteenth Century Anglophone Literary Worlds: The American Terra Cava versus the British Terra Amissa

In terms of the nineteenth century novel that went in search of terra incognita in a world whose maps were rapidly losing their blank spaces, an interesting distinction presents itself between the American and the British plot; while many American authors took up the pen in favour of a hollow world, British authors preferred the idea of a lost world. The differences extend far beyond geography, though, and are deeply reflective of cultural perception.

The British Empire, covering one-fifth of the world’s landmass, was unchallenged for supremacy, and this is reflected in the literature. Despite having the best maps in the world, plucky adventurers and lost sailors always seemed to find a hidden island or jungle plateau that revealed a heretofore unknown bounty of plant and animal life, along with primitive, hostile natives. Why? Because that is what centuries of British travel literature told readers to expect when they arrive in an uncharted territory. In keeping with post-Darwinian perceptions of racial hierarchy the Anglo-Saxon man was the pinnacle of evolution, and in literature proved this repeatedly by besting the primitive races he found in the corners of Africa and the Amazon.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel The Lost World bequeathed its name to this subgenre of literature, following a plucky young journalist to a unexplored plateau in the Amazon jungle, home of primitive, ape-like natives and a few surviving dinosaurs. Rider Haggard was one of the most successful craftsmen of the undiscovered country, from the primitive Amahaggar of She (1887) in Africa to the ancient Mesoamericans hidden in the mountains in Heart of the World (1895). These discovered pockets of primitive life (be it in the form of Ice Age fauna or troglodytes) usually experience a small apocalypse at the end of the narrative (floods, earthquakes, and volcanos are perennial favourites) explaining why they have not been incorporate into the British Empire. But even though these literary British adventurers were not always enriched materially by their experience, they did prove their masculine, British superiority by surviving.

The rapidly expanding American Empire of the nineteenth century took a completely different view of their place in the world. Americans feared running of space, exhausting their frontiers. A hollow world provided them with new continents, not just islands and mesas. And what writers found more often than not in these new worlds below ground were civilisations that far outstripped America’s. Only when America’s economic and technological capabilities began to outstrip Europe’s did their literary explorers did the primitive begin to appear in America’s hollow realms.

In 1820 Symzona appeared in the U.S., transporting readers through an Antarctic opening into a hollow world populated by a race of pure white utopianists. Less than one hundred years later Edgar Rice Burroughs sent his American adventurers into Pellucidar, a hollow world that resembled Doyle’s, filled with primitive races and saurian beasts, ready to be reformed by American ingenuity. The intervening years saw terra cava narratives meant to instruct Americans in spiritual, technological, and political improvement. Lane’s Mizora (1880) directed surface dwellers to better educate their children and liberate women; Welcome’s From Earth’s Center (1894) demonstrated the superiority of the single-tax economic theory in bringing about universal prosperity; Adams’s Nequa (1900) was a technotopia of sexual equality. American progressives saw room for improvement (lots of improvement) in nearly every aspect of their lives, and the creation of advanced civilisations inside the earth provided a didactic outlet for such yearning. America was not yet to the level of Great Britain, but with such reforms as those suggested in these narratives, they might easily surpass them.

The few British forays into nineteenth century hollow worlds starkly contrast with their American counterparts. None of them embrace the Symmes theory, but a Vernian semi-porous earth. Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race features an advanced civilisation, but one that does not encourage the improvements of humanity; the Vril-ya are a threat, and set to supplant the surface dwellers. Bulwer-Lytton’s use of an America protagonist expresses the British fear of being displaced by an ascendant American continent. Cutcliffe Hyne’s Beneath Your Very Boots (1889) also features an advanced civilisation residing in caverns beneath the British Isles, but they are not a separate race. Rather, the Nrada are descendant of the original inhabitants of the Britain who moved below ground to escape the worries of the world and form a more perfect society. Fawcett’s Swallowed by an Earthquake (1894) more closely follows its Lost World predecessors, following the adventures of two British students on holiday in Italy who are swallowed by an earthquake and encounter a primitive civilisation that is subsequently destroyed by further seismic activity.

The elimination of the Earth’s blank spaces and the discovery that there was no hollow earth pushed storytellers out into the stars, to find whatever advanced or primitive race they saw fit.

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