Monday, December 17, 2007

Pg. 99: D. Graham Burnett's "Trying Leviathan"

The current feature at the Page 99 Test: D. Graham Burnett's Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature.

About the book, from the publisher:

In Moby-Dick, Ishmael declares, "Be it known that, waiving all argument, I take the good old fashioned ground that a whale is a fish, and call upon holy Jonah to back me." Few readers today know just how much argument Ishmael is waiving aside. In fact, Melville's antihero here takes sides in one of the great controversies of the early nineteenth century -- one that ultimately had to be resolved in the courts of New York City. In Trying Leviathan, D. Graham Burnett recovers the strange story of Maurice v. Judd, an 1818 trial that pitted the new sciences of taxonomy against the then-popular -- and biblically sanctioned -- view that the whale was a fish. The immediate dispute was mundane: whether whale oil was fish oil and therefore subject to state inspection. But the trial fueled a sensational public debate in which nothing less than the order of nature -- and how we know it -- was at stake. Burnett vividly re-creates the trial, during which a parade of experts -- pea-coated whalemen, pompous philosophers, Jacobin lawyers -- took the witness stand, brandishing books, drawings, and anatomical reports, and telling tall tales from whaling voyages. Falling in the middle of the century between Linnaeus and Darwin, the trial dramatized a revolutionary period that saw radical transformations in the understanding of the natural world. Out went comfortable biblical categories, and in came new sorting methods based on the minutiae of interior anatomy -- and louche details about the sexual behaviors of God's creatures.

When leviathan breached in New York in 1818, this strange beast churned both the natural and social orders -- and not everyone would survive.

Among the praise for Trying Leviathan:

"Graham Burnett's pathbreaking book teems with lively accounts of a notorious legal conflict between different kinds of people and different kinds of knowledge played out in New York in the early years of the nineteenth century. Disputes like these vividly illuminate the preoccupations of past societies and make us more conscious of our own. An important and thoroughly engaging book."
--Janet Browne, author of Charles Darwin: The Power of Place

"'Is a whale a fish?' Melville famously wrestled with the question in Moby-Dick, but as Graham Burnett reveals in Trying Leviathan, the question had already been argued in -- of all places -- a Manhattan courtroom in 1818. In addition to providing a fascinating and provocative look at the relationship between science and culture in early nineteenth-century New York, Burnett writes eloquently about how the whalemen regarded their mysterious and awe-inspiring prey. This is a fun, surprising, and, in the best sense, challenging book."
--Nathaniel Philbrick, author of In the Heart of the Sea

"Trying Leviathan recounts a remarkable collision of science and law in a New York City courtroom in 1818. Burnett brilliantly parses the case both inside and outside the court, exploring the conflicts it aroused between learned taxonomists and sea-leathered whalers, practical businessmen and everyday citizens. A compelling, provocative work."
--Daniel Kevles, Yale University

"In this irresistible narrative, full of fascinating characters, Graham Burnett has given us a brilliant, imaginative, often amusing, wonderfully realized study that brings together questions of epistemology, the relation of observation to theory, the era's worship of nature and simultaneous commercial exploitation of it, claims of class to intellectual authority, and the relation of expertise to democracy."
--Thomas Bender, New York University

"I can't remember reading a more intelligent and well-written book than Graham Burnett's Trying Leviathan. He is a brilliant writer, and he has transformed a nineteenth-century legal battle over the taxonomic classification of whales into a wonderful and engaging book."
--Richard Ellis, author of Men and Whales

Read chapter one from Trying Leviathan and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

D. Graham Burnett is associate professor of history at Princeton University, where he recently held the Christian Gauss Preceptorship and directed the Program in History of Science. His other books include Masters of All They Surveyed (Chicago) and A Trial By Jury (Knopf).

The Page 99 Test: Trying Leviathan.

--Marshal Zeringue