Anna Mundow interviewed D. Graham Burnett, author of Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature, for the Boston Globe.
Mundow's introduction and the first exchange of the interview:
Read the entire interview.
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" (Princeton University, $29.95), D. Graham Burnett describes the trial, its undercurrents, and its repercussions with sublime wit and consummate skill. Burnett, the author of "Masters of All They Surveyed: Exploration, Geography, and a British El Dorado" and "A Trial by Jury," is associate professor of history at Princeton University. He spoke from his home in Princeton, N.J.
Q. Is there a common preoccupation that connects this and your previous books?
A. I suppose I'm concerned with the way that facts become facts. My first book dealt with the history of cartography; maps are wonderful spaces to see natural and social facts in the making. My second book is more personal. In 2000 I served as the foreman of a jury in a murder trial in Manhattan, and found myself completely caught up in the complicated dynamics of proof, evidence, and persuasion in the courtroom. "Trying Leviathan" represents an intersection between those two previous books, perhaps, since here I open up a legal case that is of real importance in the history of science. There was a good deal of serendipity in all this. I am a lover of "Moby-Dick" and had decided I wanted to write a book about changing ideas about whales in the modern era - how did these creatures go from monstrous "beasts" to soulful, musical friends of humanity? I was doing this research when I stumbled on the records of Maurice v. Judd.
The Page 99 Test: Trying Leviathan.