Monday, December 17, 2007

D. Graham Burnett's "Trying Leviathan"

D. Graham Burnett is associate professor of history at Princeton University, where he recently held the Christian Gauss Preceptorship and directed the Program in History of Science.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his latest book, Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature, and reported the following:
So we flip open my new book to page 99, and find ourselves in the opening of the fourth chapter, “Naturalists in the Crow’s Nest.” This is convenient, since I am in the middle of recapping where the book has been and where it’s going. Hence the page-99 reader gets a bit of an overview: Trying Leviathan is about a trial held in New York City in 1818, Maurice v. Judd, in which a jury had to determine whether a whale was a fish (it all started with a dispute over a tax on fish-oil, which whale-oil merchants refused to pay). This Burnett-person seems to think that the case merits attention because the testimony (which is weird and wonderful) dramatizes changing ideas about natural order between Linnaeus and Darwin. New taxonomic groupings in this period (mammal, for instance) threw human beings together with some strange kin (“the sperm whale is my cousin?”), and this got some people pretty agitated, particularly those concerned to protect biblical ideas about “man’s place in nature.” Throw in some anxiety about French atheism (the new natural history was coming out of Paris), a simmering fear of racial differences (were human beings one species or several?), and a lot of conversation about women’s breasts (the key part of a mammal), and the stage was set for a risqué, high profile showdown of science and religion in the early United States — a sort of nineteenth-century Scopes Trial, if you like.

But who are these naturalists up in a crow’s nest? Skimming page 99 answers the question: the “naturalists” at issue in this chapter are not book-trained men of science at all, but rather whalers, folks who knew a good deal more about whales, practically speaking, than any university professor inspecting a few dry bones in his museum. Trying Leviathan, it turns out, is organized around four core chapters that dig up what different groups of people knew about whales in 1818: first, the “men of science” (naturalists who studied taxonomy); second, “men of affairs” (businessmen who dealt in whale products); third, “ordinary New Yorkers” (who had no obvious stake in the question); and finally, the whalemen (who spent a good deal of time up to their necks in whale guts). All these folks testify in Maurice v. Judd, and all of them have very different ideas about whales. Trying Leviathan is thus a little like that joke about the blind men and the elephant: everybody comes away with a different idea about the creature, and when they all meet in a court of law it is pandemonium.

Upshot? I think the reader of page 99 could come away with a reasonable sense of both what my book is about, and the sort of book it is. Ultimately, I think it is fair to say, it’s a quirky book from which they will learn some quirky things about the past (example from page 99 itself: there was a whaling captain in the early nineteenth-century who became a Fellow of the Royal Society, the most prominent club of scientists in the world at that time — who knew?). The book wants to have fun (there is a long section about an old-time showman who charged New Yorkers a quarter to get peek at a dead whale — and yes, there was a band!), but it has some serious claims to make: about science and society, about the history of the United States, about how we know what we think we know.

So I give the “Page-99 Test” a thumbs-up. Though I will add as a post-script, that I myself am partial to the “Index Test”: flipping through an index will always be my preferred technique for assessing a new book. How does it work on Trying Leviathan? Well, I think you have to like a book that has an entry for “whale bacon,” especially when that entry thoughtfully redirects you to “see bacon, of a whale”!
Read chapter one from Trying Leviathan and learn more about the book at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue