So we come to the story of John Cleves Symmes Jr. (1779-1829), who fought in the War of 1812, and later came to believe that the earth was at most 800 meters thick, and that beneath it lay another earth, brighter, wiser and smaller than the one on which he walked. He petitioned Congress for the funds to travel to the South Pole, to explore the opening he was sure he would find there. And the great part of this story is, Congress gave Symmes the money to make his voyage. He never got as far as the South Pole, however. I don’t remember what happened—I think he hit bad weather off the Argentine coast, and was forced back—but he returned to the United States as much a believer in the world within the world (which he called “Symzonia,” although, not having set foot there, he didn’t have the right to claim it) as ever.
Symmes petitioned Congress for the funds to mount a second expedition. But the time of the War Between the States was drawing near, and Congress had other things to think about. The petition was never answered.
Disappointed, Symmes spent the rest of his life on the lecture circuit, explicating his “Theory of Concentric Earths and Polar Voids,” revealing to people what they might find, if only they went far enough South. A gentle, fair land, he said, populated by people very much like Americans, only shorter, and paler, and covered with long, fine hair, all over their bodies. They lived in peace with one another, he said, and harvested the ample fruits of the fertile inner-earth soil—which were ripened, he explained to the skeptical, by the “inner sun.”
Symmes died before his theory was disproved. The admiring citizens of Hamilton, Ohio constructed a monument to him: a sort of dented globe, set on a low obelisk. And actually, the monument has an interesting afterlife in the history of letters: William Dean Howells, styled by many “the father of American naturalism,” or “realism,” or something, I forget, grew up in Hamilton, Ohio. He related how, as a boy, he used to tremble at the sight of Symmes’s monument, “set,” as he put it, “at the grave of a philosopher who imagined the world as hollow as much of the life is on it.”
Howells did not find life on the surface of the globe hollow—or if he found it so, it was a curious kind of hollowness, which furnished him with the material for 43 books. Still I wonder if Howells hadn’t put his finger on something crucial to the hollow-earth theory. It seems obvious that, if you found life up here hollow, dull and disappointing, you might hypothesize the existence of another life down there, lit by a more interesting sun. I don’t know if this was true of Symmes or not. He had fought in the Revolutionary War, and, I think, in the War of 1812; he must have seen many people die. Maybe he was more in love with what lay under the earth than with what moved on its surface.
Or maybe the truth is the other way around: maybe Symmes’ theory was a product of his too-great enthusiasm for life up here. Maybe he loved this earth so much, he couldn’t stand the idea that there was only one of it! And so: Symzonia, white hairy little people doing who knew what under our feet.