Monday, July 21, 2008

Book Review: "Trying Leviathan"

Did you know that a New York jury in 1818 determined that a whale was a fish? I didn't, but I do now, thanks to 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 (Princeton University Press, 2007). Burnett takes as his subject the notable case of Maurice vs. Judd, in which an inspector of fish oil sued a merchant for $75, the cost of inspecting three barrels of whale oil. Judd, the merchant, claimed that the statute mandating inspections didn't cover his oil, since the law read "fish oil" and his came from whales. A trial ensued over whether the statute applied (and hence, whether "fish oil" included whale oil or not, and thus, whether whales were fish or not).

Featuring the testimony of taxonomists, whalers, merchants and legal experts, the trial offers a great example of the conflict between science, government, and common perception (some things never change). As Burnett writes, this case provides a look into the "contested territory of zoological classification," and he offers a brief but deep look at the problematic nature of cetacean classification through history. He also examines the question from the point of view of whalers (those "on the ground," so to speak), using evidence from logbooks, diaries, and, naturally, Moby-Dick, and he also digs into the question from the perspective of oil merchants and leather manufacturers (those most directly concerned with the practical issues at hand).

Burnett did his homework in writing this book, and it shows. The footnotes (positioned right at the bottom of the page where they belong) are both complete and instructive, and the bibliography is rich (my "to read" list expanded greatly just with the titles from this book). A readable and excellent book which brings an important but forgotten moment to life in fine style.