BOOK REVIEW: D. Graham Burnett’s "Trying Leviathan"

A few weeks ago, on a hike to History Rock in Hyalite Canyon just south of Bozeman, I noticed this rock in the trail. I said to my friend who was with me that it looked like a whale, and she replied that it could also look like a fish. I thought that little exchange ironic considering that I was near finishing D. Graham Burnett’s Trying Leviathan(Princeton, 2007), a book that revolves around a historical investigation of the question, “Is a Whale a Fish?” It took me a while to read this interesting (but densely erudite!) book – mostly 10 to 15 minutes during my lunch break everyday working at the campus library since January. If given the time, however, I probably could have polished it off in a few weeks, but time is always limited, and I am not as prolific a reader as a fellow blogger, who has also read this book (and hopefully planning to review, Brian?). So, that said, I am happy to finally post my review of Burnett’s book about” The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature” (this is its subtitle), and I thank Princeton University Press for their patience.

In Trying Leviathan, Burnett, a historian of science at Princeton University and author of Masters of All They Surveyed: Exploration, Geography, and a British El Dorado (UCP, 2000), explores a little known New York trial from 1818, Maurice v. Judd, in which a fish oil inspector (James Maurice) brought a candle maker and oil merchant (Samuel Judd) to court over his refusal to pay fees on whale oil (a law stated that fish oil had to be inspected for quality and purity). Maurice was represented by lawyers William Sampson and John Anthon, who desired to keep the trial about commercial regulation and away from, in Burnett’s words, the “muddy matters of taxonomy” (p. 17). Judd, whose defense included the testimony of the well-respected New York naturalist Samuel Mitchell, was represented by Robert Bogardus and William M. Price, who thought differently – they saw this as a taxonomic issue, and were willing to get dirty in the muddy matters (this case is also mentioned in the endnotes of Eric Jay Dolin’s Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America (W.W. Norton, 2007), pp. 384-385). What results is a splendid examination of questions about taxonomic systems, epistemology of natural historical knowledge, semantics, literary references, authority of various classes of New York citizens, and the relationship between science and society. Although the trial centers on the question of whether whale oil is fish oil, and hence if whales are fish, Burnett strives to look deeper into the reasons why the trial came to court at all, and what it meant beyond the straight science of taxonomy; he writes in his introduction: “It is perhaps cliché to assert that all taxonomy is politics, or to insist that epistemological problems are always problems of social order; Maurice v. Judd provides a striking occasion to test the viability (as well as the limits) of such sweeping claims” (p. 10).

Burnett organizes his book around three reasons why this case is important to study: the status of “philosophy” and natural history in learned institutions and intellectual culture of New York in the first quarter of the nineteenth century; the importance of whales and other cetaceans that were considered “problems of knowledge” to this period of history in the United States; and the shaky status of zoological classification, surely not one of a “golden age of the classifying imagination” (I do think I should fully read Harriet Ritvo’s The Platypus and the Mermaid: And Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination (Harvard UP, 1997) – I read the first chapter for an animal histories course in 2005). These considerations, and the trial’s main question in general (is a whale a fish?), are investigated by chapters devoted to what different categories of people in New York did or did not know about whales: naturalists, sailors and whalemen, artisans, merchants, and dealers in whale products, and regular folk of New York. While Mitchell thought it important to understand the authority of the first three, Sampson added the last category, considering the opinion of everyday citizens as worthy of attention.

The everyday citizens are tackled first, with Burnett concluding that a majority of people – whose limited contact with whales (textually or physically) included the authority of the Bible and its tripartite taxonomy (fish/water, beasts/earth, and birds/sky), popular natural history texts, the occasional strandings or moorings of whales, and the whale jaw bone of Scudder’s American Museum – thought of whales as fish, and it was hard to stomach that whales could be in the same category (mammals) as humans. Whales seemed to sit outside of natural history, more as curiosities than as creatures which could be easily classified. Peculiar examples of animals pointed to exceptions to the rule of classification, which damaged the authority of the new philosophy of taxonomy, brought forth mainly by the comparative anatomy of Cuvier (as being different from the Linnean-style categorization of plants or animals based on external characteristics).

Yet the naturalists, “those who philosophize,” would make the case that whales are indeed mammals, the subject of Burnett’s third chapter. Anthon, who represented the oil inspector, stated to the jurors: “Many of us may not have seen a whale,” but this should not cause us to be “led astray by the learning of philosophers” (p. 41). At issue was the authority of the naturalist and ichthyologist Samuel Mitchell, author of “The Fishes of New-York” and star witness of the defense, and in the long run, the authority of the enterprise of science itself. If common sense tells regular citizens of New York that whales are fish (for the Bible says so, and they swim in water like fish), then on what grounds should a naturalist’s erudition and, maybe, mere opinion, tell them otherwise? Since taxonomy was brought to the forefront in the case, the prosecutors sought to show that the current state of taxonomy is in question, and that there is disagreement between the learned.

Not only did Mitchell represent the “new philosophy” of classification based on comparative anatomy, but he had big ideas about a program for a patriotic, American natural history, to make New York a scientific center by popularizing the city’s natural history collections and promoting natural history to its citizens through lectures. And it was to this up and coming natural history and scientific culture that Maurice v. Judd may have owed its time in court: “through the trial flowed the strong currents of opposition to the institutions, innovations, and schemes of state-sponsored ‘philosophy.’ Science in the service of the state looked to many New Yorkers suspiciously like the state in the service of the men of science” (p. 207), while there existed an “emerging cultural and intellectual ambitions of a rising community of artisans and merchants, who were seeking support for their own institutions for the advancement of learning” (p. 203). Maurice v. Judd was more about social order in New York than it was about figuring out what a particular type of creature was (such that Burnett could have titled his book Trying Natural History, or Trying Mitchell, but Trying Leviathan sounds better).

In Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869), the naturalist Pierre Aronnax, with his apprentice Counsel, and the harpoonist Ned Land at times disagreed over not only their fate aboard Nemo’s Nautilus, but also matters of life in the sea; and while Aronnax showed erudition as to the species of plants and birds (expert knowledge), Ned Land knew how to capture and prepare them for eating (practical knowledge). Naturalists and whalemen had different ways of looking at whales, and in the fourth chapter of Trying Leviathan, Burnett investigates what whalemen knew about their prey. Two whalemen were witnesses in the trial – one believed whales were not fish, noting similarities with humans, and the other did, until the trial caused him to possibly think otherwise. Whalers combined physical experience with whales with texts that discussed natural history of marine mammals, which may or may not have contrasted with the views of “cabinet naturalists.” Burnett uses the logs and journals of whalemen to understand how they understood cetaceans. One way whalers thought of whales was in terms of oil; they were not solely animals, but instead storehouses of a money-making product. But they also thought of whales in terms of zoology. Important to Burnett’s look into the whaleman’s natural history is their cutting-in patterns, diagrams which depicted the methods by which a whale would be cut up, a “high-seas butchery,” in which different whales necessitated different cutting-in operations due to different anatomies – anatomies different from those of naturalists, an “autonomous domain of natural knowledge” (p. 118). I like Burnett’s observation that a harpoon or shaft is just as much a pointer to anatomical detail as it is a whaler’s fatal tool. But he is quick to note that such anatomical detail represented for whalemen only a “superficial anatomy,” because whalemen learned the anatomy useful to their purpose (whale oil was found in areas near the outer layer, or “blanket,” of the animal), while naturalists learned as much as they could to have as complete a picture of nature as possible. With whales referred to as fish in logbooks, whalers not considering some whales to be “whales” (semantics), and whales as whales in the water yet fish if out of water, I take it that whalers generally considered their catch as fish.

In the fifth chapter, Burnett discusses the last group worth studying, those involved in the whale product industries (mainly oil), the “men of affairs.” Although the shortest of the chapters to look at what a group of people knew about whales, it is here that Burnett teases out more motives of Maurice v. Judd. He asks what was really at stake, since the fine put on Judd was only $75. Like the Scopes Trial in 1925, Maurice v. Judd best represented a formal test case for the New York law passed in March of 1818 that authorized “the appointment of guagers [sic] and inspectors of fish oils” (p. 147), to test the scope and interpretations of “fish oil.” Dealers in oil generally understood fish oil and whale oil to be distinct, while Gideon Lee, a leather industry man who drafted the statute, desired to have all oils under the term “fish oils” inspected for purity to clean up a messy oil industry, full of “deceptions and fraud” (p. 162). Plus, fish oils were important for leather manufacture, and for Lee, “money made its own taxonomic distinctions” (p. 161). In the end, Maurice v. Judd really concerned venders of oils (those who were inspected) and purchasers of oils (the leather tanning industry) protecting their commercial interests. Animals were classified differently in this context, in what Burnett calls “taxonomies of craft and trade” (p. 164).

In the pages of the penultimate chapter of Trying Leviathan, Burnett reveals the outcome of the trial, and for that reason, I am not going to discuss it. This book was an exciting read, and Burnett brought to life for the reader many characters and their arguments in early nineteenth century New York. I think the reader deserves to find out the outcome for themselves. He pulled from a multitude of sources – logbooks, natural history texts, lecture notes, trial transcripts, newspaper articles, letters, and illustrations – representing a variety of people concerned with the trial. It’s science history, social history, intellectual history, religious history, economic history, and law history (are there any others?) all brought together to illuminate one small and largely forgotten event in American history. There is much more in this book than I could possibly share, and I am still trying to decide if Maurice v. Judd owes its occurrence to a science vs. artisans issue or a venders vs. purchasers problem in New York.

9 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: D. Graham Burnett’s "Trying Leviathan"

  1. Um, why did the font get all weird in this post? I don’t think it’s my browser — I see other posts just fine, but in this one the font size increases in four increments, paragraph by paragraph, until the letters are so large as to run together in the fourth and subsequent paragraphs.

  2. The font appears fine when I see it, and when my wife looks at it on her computer…. Anyone else having font size issues with this post?

  3. Hi Michael – nice review! Sorry I didn’t mention it in my review of 1 Sept – didn’t discover it until now. Have to keep better track of my blogging buddies. All best, Michael
    PS: will you be at HSS in November?

  4. Thanks, Michael. I just got an email today through H-Net showing a review of Trying Leviathan on the historical geography page:
    http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=15616

    As for HSS, I do want to go. My wife and I trying to figure out if we can afford me going. I wouold only be going as an attendee, but in the fall of 2009 I may be presenting, so I think it would be great for me to see what a conference is like, meet some people, such as yourself. And Reidy is giving a talk on Tyndall, which would be beneficial for me…

  5. HSS used to have a pool of money that grads could apply for to cover travel expenses. I don’t know if they still do this. Given the Tyndall connection, I wonder if you could hit up Reidy or the Tyndall project for some funds.

  6. Hi Michael – I searched the HSS site for info about travel grants, but I couldn’t find anything… Reidy told me before that the history department only helps students with travel if they are presenting at a conference… but I am an email out to another student here who is going and is presenting about any options he may know for me…

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