Are Monsters The Key To American Exceptionalism?

I just finished W. Scott Poole’s Monsters in America, and while I think the book has an unfortunate tendency to wander away from its central thesis (and as a result to not entirely prove it), the premise is interesting enough to merit further consideration. Essentially he argues that “the narrative of American history can be read as a tale of monsters slain and monsters beloved” — and more specifically that in the United States, monsters exist not just as engines of social control and reflections of our anxiety, but as things that we define ourselves by conquering. Poole describes one delightful example, the arrival of what a lot of people thought was a large sea serpent off the coast of Massachusetts:

Numerous New Englanders claimed to have seen it, and everyone tried to invest it with meaning. The Gloucester serpent quickly, in fact almost immediately, mae its way into political discussion. The anxious maritime entrepreneurs of Gloucester gave their sea monster the nickname “Embargo,” a reference to the controversial Embargo of 1807…The 1817 Boston broadside certainly makes it clear that destroying the monster in Gloucester harbor was the community’s first priority. On the first day of the sighting, ‘a number of our sharp-shooters’ were in pursuit, firing muskets at the serpent. There seems to have been no public discussion of this effort. It was assumed that killing the monster was the only possible course. The men of the New England coast killed giant sea creatures for a living, and this particular wonder would receive the same treatment. The monster in American history is not simply that which destroys. It is a being that must be destroyed.

Poole doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining how that American mindset is different from that of other countries, mostly asserting that it’s the case, even though I think he might have built a stronger one. The Puritans’ commitment to destroying monsters didn’t stop at self-control: Cotton Mather and others were all too eager to visit bodily destruction on the people who they believed had become monstrous in the country they’d come to subdue. The transformation of slaves who rebelled against their treatment into monsters in the canon of American mythology certainly had real-world consequences in the militarized mindset of the pre-Civil War mindset, and the treatment of fugitive slaves. But there’s no question that America is very good at mobilizing swiftly to absolutely destroy the kinds of things we’ve decided are monstrous, whether they’re New England sea serpents or al Qaeda.

It would be interesting to consider whether there’s a distinctly American approach to monsters that originate elsewhere. The edit and reframing that produced the American version of Godzilla turns the monster’s death from a tragedy and ominous warning into a triumph. In Europe, we desperately need Van Helsing to corner Dracula. Here, apparently, teenage girls can dispatch them either by slaying or seduction. The mark of real victory over a monster is when you don’t need to be afraid of it any more. America hasn’t defeated all of its monsters, and it never will. But to a certain extent, it can’t. It’s hard to remain exceptional if there’s nothing left to stand against, no way to distinguish yourself by the victories you can achieve that no one else can.