Monster on the margin: The Sea Serpent phenomenon in New England, 1817-1849
Burns, Elizabeth Iris
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Monster on the Margin: The Sea Serpent Phenomenon in New England, 1817-1849, by Elizabeth Iris Burns, is a cultural history of the Sea Serpent seen by thousands of people on the New England coast, treating first, the creature's impact in the writing of New England regional identity, a process evident in reportage, science, essays, poetry and fiction; second, scientific inquiry in relation to a two-sided nationalistic discourse of natural history; and third, the New England project of historicizing the Sea Serpent, when newspaper editors and writers characterized the creature in the context of their troubled recent past and ambivalent place in presidents Jefferson and Madison's expanding union. It argues that the Sea Serpent contained anxieties and aspirations of New England in these years, and so was both a hot and cold medium according to the definitions of Marshall McLuhan. Finally, the work explores the popular cultural dimensions of the Sea Serpent, relating it to a change in attitude toward the seashore from repulsion to fascination and discusses how the Sea Serpent anticipated the showmanship of P.T. Barnum. The hot media of Sea Serpent reports, written to list facts, cooled down over several decades to admit increasing elaboration, such that the phenomenon in the antebellum allowed the folkloric and psychological refraction seen in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Egotism, or the Bosom Serpent," 1841, and the fantastic mixed-form novel, Eugene Batchelder's Romance of the Sea Serpent, or, The Icthyosaurus, 1849. In the Early Republic, the Sea Serpent, by his cultural work and in spite of his mythic associations, became real.