Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature

Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature

by D. Graham Burnett
     
 

ISBN-10: 0691146152

ISBN-13: 9780691146157

Pub. Date: 01/24/2010

Publisher: Princeton University Press

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

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Overview

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 recreates 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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780691146157
Publisher:
Princeton University Press
Publication date:
01/24/2010
Pages:
304
Sales rank:
1,086,661
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.90(h) x 2.20(d)

Table of Contents

List of Figures xi

Chapter One: Introduction 1
The Peace Offering That Stank 1
Maurice v. Judd and the History of Science 5
From Dock to Docket 14

Chapter Two: Common Sense 19
Manhattan and Its Whales 19

Chapter Three: The Philosophical Whale 44
Samuel Latham Mitchill and Natural History in New York City 44
"No More a Fish than a Man" 61
Taxonomy at the Bar 72

Chapter Four: Naturalists in the Crow's Nest 95
What the Whalemen Knew 95

Chapter Five: Men of Affairs 145
The Whale in the Swamp ?145

Chapter Six: The Jury Steps Out 166
The Knickerbockers Slay a Yankee Whale 166
Who Decides Who Decides? 167
Picking Up the Pisces 178

Chapter Seven: Conclusion 190
New Science, New York, New Nation 190
Epilogue:Whales and Fish, Philosophers and Historians, Science and Society 210

Acknowledgments 223
Bibliography 225
Index 247

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