American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

SYMZONIA; A VOYAGE OF DISCOVERY (1820). Most scholars believe that “Captain Adam Seaborn,” the author of this fictional, first-person narrative, is the pseudonym of army officer and amateur geographer Captain John Cleves Symmes (1780-1829). Symmes claimed that the earth was hollow and accessible by “holes in the poles,” basing his theory on sea captains’ reports of southern voyages. Granted an audience before Congress, Symmes built interest for the eventual U.S. Exploring Expedition* of 1838-1842.

In Symzonia Captain Seaborn constructs Explorer, a sail-and-steam ketch designed for seal hunting and Antarctic* exploration that is capable of sixteen knots. Despite a mutinous third mate, Seaborn sails beyond the Antarctic Circle, through warmer waters, and into the earth, proving Symmes’ theory. Seaborn discovers a benevolent, Utopian society that he names Sym- zonia. Through Seaborn’s descriptions of Symzonia, the author raises questions about nineteenth-century manifest destiny, exploration, materialism, slavery, and government. Symzonians have invented aircraft, clothes made from spider webs, and jet-propelled ships that can sail within four points of the wind. To protect their society, they ask Seaborn to leave. He sails back to the exterior and on to Canton, China, to trade sealskins. Seaborn convinces the sailors to swear to be silent about their discovery, and he returns home only to lose all of his new wealth onshore. Seaborn claims that he is forced to reveal his findings and publish this narrative in order to earn money for his family and for another voyage to the interior.

Symzonia, along with the works of Jeremiah N. Reynolds,* a disciple of Symmes and an activist for Antarctic exploration, influenced the maritime writings of Edgar Allan Poe,* particularly “MS. Found in a Bottle” (1833) and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket* (1838). Symzonia is one of the earliest American works of science fiction and Utopian fiction.

Richard J. King