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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
D. Graham Burnett

Winner of the 2007 Isabelle Hermalyn Book Award, New York Urban History
Winner of the 2007 New York City Book Award

Paperback | 2010 | $26.95 / £18.95 | ISBN: 9780691146157
304 pp. | 6 x 9 | 16 color plates. 19 halftones.

eBook | ISBN: 9781400833986 |
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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.


"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

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      File created: 3/10/2015

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