- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: Princeton University Press (January 24, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0691146152
- ISBN-13: 978-0691146157
- Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.8 x 8.9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 10 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #685,042 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature
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Trying Leviathan isn't just another fish story....[H]is story is riveting, one of those wonderful obscure microcosmic matters.---Sam Roberts, New York Times
It's science itself that was put on trial in 1818 in a dispute over a $75 inspection fee, as related in this fascinating account...Burnett's look at the trial and its fallout adds a historical dimension to debates caused by science's role in the legal sphere, especially when it introduces new concepts. (Publishers Weekly)
In 1818, in a New York City courtroom, the case of Maurice v. Judd posed an apparently straightforward question: Was whale oil fish oil, and therefore subject to state inspection and taxation? As expert witnesses testified, however, the trial quickly became a passionate public debate on the order of nature and the supremacy of man. In the fascinating Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature, D. Graham Burnett describes the trial, its undercurrents, and its repercussions with sublime wit and consummate skill.---Anna Mundow, The Boston Globe
At once bewitching and bookish, with a Dickensian cast of characters (including a sea captain named Preserved Fish), Trying Leviathan bristles with insights about the relationships between popular belief, democracy, science and the law that resonate with contemporary controversies over Darwinism and intelligent design.---Glenn C. Altschuler, New York Observer
When the Catholic Church put Galileo on trial for his heretic views, man's position in the Universe was at stake. When schoolteacher John Scopes entered a Tennessee courtroom in 1925 for violating the state's anti-evolution statute, the issue was man's relationship to the animal kingdom. It's hard to imagine that a case brought by a Manhattan fish-oil inspector against a purveyor of whale oil could end up in similar territory. As D. Graham Burnett's enthralling book demonstrates, it did just that...Burnett curates the abundant quotations with skill and strengthens his thesis with some marvellous contemporary illustrations. His clear writing and delightful detours help build a sense of suspense at the outcome of the trial. All of which makes this serious book an unexpected page-turner.---Henry Nicholls, Nature
...[Burnett's] perspective on the intellectual and social climate of early-nineteenth-century America makes fascinating reading. The issues raised in Maurice v. Judd have surfaced again and again, right up to present-day battles over the teaching of intelligent design in public schools. (Natural History)
In Trying Leviathan, D. Graham Burnett links the case of Maurice v. Judd to a number of important cultural and social issues, but he consciously avoids depicting the story as a battle between learned men of science and the ignorant masses. Instead, he uses the trial as an epistemological exercise: how could Americans know at the time that whales were not fish? Who had the authority to make such a classification? How does scientific knowledge become conventional wisdom? Burnett's examination of these questions makes for one of the most intellectually rigorous fish stories ever told. (American Scientist)
As D. Graham Burnett notes in his curious new history, Trying Leviathan, ...[t]he vast majority of American not only assumed that a whale was a fish, but were surprised to learn that the question could be debated. ...Burnett describes the trial with the keen eye of an informed courtroom observer.---Alexander Nazaryan, The Village Voice
From the Back Cover
"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
"Burnett shows the conflicted heart of nineteenth-century American science by looking at the complicated, amusing, and well-publicized trial of Maurice v. Judd, in which the question at stake was whether a whale is a fish. This makes a fascinating story, Burnett writes uncommonly well, and the final chapter is one of the most interesting pieces on popular science that I have ever read. Trying Leviathan is a powerful and brilliant addition to the history of American science and culture."--James Gilbert, University of Maryland
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Wouldn't have purchased this if I was just browsing, but it discusses quite the interesting topic - in the early part of the 19th century, there was significant controversy around classification; this is embodied by the question of whether a whale is a fish. This book tracks and analyzes a legal case on this topic, and is very well-written, as I said, for a history text. The conclusion's a bit wishy-washy, but other than that, it's quite worth purchasing, rather than checking out from a library, for the relevant class.
"Trying Leviathan" is a richly detailed account of a nineteenth century New York City court case which was brought to decide whether a whale was a fish or a mammal. (Melville, by the way, came down on the side of "fish.") The case was brought because a whale oil merchant refused to pay a tax levied on fish oil because a whale is not a fish. It is a mammal. Despite testimony by the leading scientific authorities of the day the whale is ruled a fish -- in what was seen as a victory of common sense (and the common man) over learned authorities. Sound familiar? It should.
In 2013 science is still ridiculed by a claque of the willfully ignorant -- even as atmospheric carbon levels approach the tipping point. Burnett's book is not about just a single legal case. It is about public discourse, our understanding of the world, and the importance of an informed population to a healthy democracy. And -- it's a compelling read.