March 5, 2008: Books and Arts
By David Marcus ’92
D. Graham Burnett ’93 has put the dramas played out in two New York City courtrooms to good use. In his 2002 book, A Trial by Jury, he describes serving as the foreman of a jury that took four days to decide a manslaughter case. The Princeton associate professor of history says the experience made him ponder “the role of courts in the production of knowledge,” and, more broadly, how society creates and agrees upon it. That issue is central to the academic discipline of the history of science, Burnett’s specialty, and it’s at the core of his new book, Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature, published by Princeton University Press in December.
Trying Leviathan explores the 1818 trial in Maurice v. Judd, which centered on the question of whether whales are fish. The issue may seem arcane, but newspapers from Maine to Arkansas reported on the case, which pitted the prevailing biblical view of nature against the new European ideas about natural order that derived from Linnaean taxonomy, a method of classifying living things by genus and species developed in the 18th century. The grouping of whales with mammals rather than fish contradicted the biblical book of Genesis.
Burnett’s book offers a fascinating glimpse of early 19th-century New York, a place where cutting-edge science intersected with both polite society and popular entertainment, and the selling of whale oil was big business. The study also shows a world where, as Burnett puts it, science was “sent to the wings” when it got in the way of a religiously based outlook or powerful economic interests.
The defendant in the case, whale-oil merchant Samuel Judd, had refused to pay the fee for his wares to undergo the inspection that a New York State law required of all “fish oil.” Judd claimed that whales weren’t fish, but the inspector, James Maurice, wanted the fees, and the leather tanners who used whale oil in the production of their wares wanted it inspected.
Maurice v. Judd put not only science but also whaling and commerce on trial. Several merchants offered their views on the production, uses, and classification of oil. A veteran whaling captain, named Preserved Fish, testified that his observations of the animals led him to believe that they weren’t fish. And the plaintiff’s lawyer, William Sampson, sparred with Samuel Mitchill, the defense’s star witness and a preeminent American expert on taxonomy, who fared so badly in trying to explain why whales are mammals that he walked into the courtroom as one of New York’s leading intellectuals and exited it “a laughingstock,” writes Burnett. In the end, the jury ruled that whales were fish, but in response whale oil magnates lobbied the New York state legislature to reverse the jury’s holding by passing a law exempting whale oil from mandatory government inspection.
Entertaining as these vivid sketches are, they also undergird one of the book’s major themes: the tension between popular opinion and scientific expertise in the United States. “That question never leaves us,” Burnett says.
David Marcus ’92 is a PAW contributor.
By Maria LoBiondo
If you think of musical theater as fluffy diversion, composer and lyricist J. Michael Friedman challenges you to think again.
Take This Beautiful City, one of four works by Friedman slated to premiere this year. One of three Hodder fellows at Princeton, Friedman and the documentary acting troupe he helped found, The Civilians, are fine-tuning the play, which explores the interplay of religion and civic life and is based on weeks of interviews in Colorado Springs, Colo., home to a large population of evangelical Christians.
“My projects tend to come out of intellectual curiosity,” says Friedman, who in 2007 won an Obie award for sustained excellence in music. “I like working on new things, and with The Civilians, we like to do projects where we know nothing about the subject in the beginning. And I’m OK with not being sure of the outcome.” Friedman is spending this academic year at Princeton composing music for a theatrical adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel Fortress of Solitude, about two boys, one white and one black, growing up in Brooklyn. He also is working with playwright Rinne Groff on an adaptation of the movie Saved!, a comedy about teenagers at a Christian high school.
Friedman is just the kind of up-and-comer for whom the Hodder fellowship was created: promising humanists with highly acclaimed work under their belts who are tackling new endeavors that might not be possible without the “studious leisure” a year at Princeton provides. The other two Hodder fellows are novelist Monique Truong and poet Kathleen Graber.
During their time at Princeton, fellows give presentations to the University and local community; in Friedman’s case it was a concert version of The Civilians’ Gone Missing, a look at dealing with loss created from interviews with New Yorkers after Sept 11. Truong and Graber gave readings from their works in October.
“The fellowship brings students and faculty in contact with some of the most exciting early-career artists in their fields,” says Lewis Center for the Arts Chairman Paul Muldoon. The artists “benefit from having some time and space in which to pursue a new project. We benefit from being exposed to new ideas. It’s a perfect arrangement.”
Truong, who is teaching a creative writing course this spring, mainly has used her time at Princeton hashing out her second novel, Bitter in the Mouth, whose main character lives in New York City and looks back at her childhood in a small Southern town. Truong’s debut, The Book of Salt, was set in late 1920s Paris and imagined the life of Binh, a fictional Vietnamese cook for Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein. Like Binh, Truong was born in Vietnam.
For Truong, attending readings at 185 Nassau St. punctuates the days of solitary work. “To be there with writers like Joyce Carol Oates and Edmund White makes you feel as if you’re part of a greater literary endeavor,” she says.
Graber, on leave from New York University, also is teaching at Princeton this spring. She has spent fruitful hours in Firestone browsing material for a series of poems on St. Augustine. “A lot of my work emerges out of my response to other texts,” she says. “There is, as one would expect, a huge body of critical literature on [St. Augustine],” she says.
Winner of the 2005 Saturnalia Poetry Prize for Correspondence, Graber echoed Friedman and Truong in emphasizing the gift of time the fellowship gives — one that all three deem invaluable.
“My only regret about being a Hodder fellow is that I [will] have to leave,” Graber says. “It has been a kind of writerly paradise for me.”
Maria LoBiondo is a PAW contributor.
Princeton has acquired its first painting by Pablo Picasso, the 1964 oil on canvas Tête d’homme et nu assis (Man’s Head and Seated Nude), pictured above. Purchased by Gregory Callimanopulos ’57 for the Princeton University Art Museum, the gift fills a major gap in the museum’s collection of modern art. The work, the museum’s most significant single donation in recent years, is a “great piece for teaching Picasso,” says Karl Kusserow, assistant curator of later Western art, because it provides an avenue to explore the artist’s major themes: gender relations and the relationship between the artist and subject, and creator and muse.