Cover image for American monster : how the nation's first prehistoric creature became a symbol of national identity
American monster : how the nation's first prehistoric creature became a symbol of national identity
Semonin, Paul, 1936-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : New York University Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
xvii, 483 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
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QE882.U7 S46 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In 1801, the first complete mastodon skeleton was excavated in the Hudson River Valley, marking the climax of a century-long debate in America and Europe over the identity of a mysterious creature known as the American Incognitum. Long before the dinosaurs were discovered and the notion of geological time acquired currency, many citizens of the new republic believed this mythical beast to be a ferocious carnivore, capable of crushing deer and elk in its "monstrous grinders." During the American Revolution, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson avidly collected its bones; for the founding fathers, its massive jaws symbolized the violence of the natural world and the emerging nation's own dreams of conquest.

Paul Semonin's lively history of this icon of American nationalism focuses on the link between patriotism and prehistoric nature. From the first fist-sized tooth found in 1705, which Puritan clergyman claimed was evidence of human giants, to the scientific racialism associated with the discovery of extinct species, Semonin traces the evangelical beliefs, Enlightenment thought, and Indian myths which led the founding fathers to view this prehistoric monster as a symbol of nationhood.

Semonin also sees the mystery of the mastodon in early America as a cautionary tale about the first flowering of our narcissistic fascination with a prehistoric nature ruled by ferocious carnivores. As such, American Monster offers fresh insights into the genesis of the ongoing fascination with dinosaurs.

Author Notes

Paul Semonin received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Oregon

Reviews 1

Library Journal Review

Before dinosaurs were discovered, there existed in theory a mysterious creature known as the American incognitum. A few bones and some giant teeth were the only evidence that this gigantic beast once roamed North America. But America's classically educated citizens, lacking notable monuments or temple ruins of their own, latched on to the incognitum as a means of elevating New World history. The first complete mastodon skeleton was discovered in 1801 in the Hudson River Valley, and Americans adopted it as the symbol of their nationhood. Semonin (history, Oregon State Univ.) chronicles this little-known aspect of American cultural history from the discovery in 1705 of the first tooth, through Indian lore and Enlightenment philosophy, to Darwin's theory of evolution and the acceptance of species extinction. He explores America's mastodon in light of the prevailing 18th- and early 19th-century belief that any fossils had to be explained according to the biblical history of the world, with humans as the central object of God's creation. Given its specialized topic and dry rendering of detailed factual information, this book is recommended for larger academic libraries with natural history collections.DGloria Maxwell, Penn Valley Community Coll., Kansas City, MO (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsp. ix
Prefacep. xiii
Introduction: Patriotism and Prehistoric Naturep. 1
1 The Giant of Claverack in Puritan Americap. 15
2 The Antediluvian World as a "New Found Land"p. 41
3 The Mystery of the Siberian Mammothp. 62
4 Big Bone Lick: "The Place Where the Elephant Bones Are Found"p. 84
5 The American Incognitum in Parisp. 111
6 The Anatomy of a Carnivorep. 136
7 The "Monstrous Grinders" in the American Revolutionp. 162
8 The Doctrine of Monsters Rebornp. 186
9 American Degeneracy and White Supremacyp. 214
10 The Savagery of Prehistoric Naturep. 235
11 "Monarch of the Wilderness"p. 263
12 The Elephant with Clawsp. 288
13 Exhumation of the Monsterp. 315
14 The Mastodon of Nationsp. 341
15 The Mastodon in the Age of Dinosaursp. 362
Afterword: The Myth of Wild Naturep. 392
Notesp. 413
Bibliographyp. 447
Indexp. 463
About the Authorp. 483