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Archive for Book Review

Saturday’s Big Stories

In the news for Friday and Saturday:

Chinese astronaut Zhai Zhigang opened the hatch of his Shenzhou 7 and took a brief stroll in orbit Saturday. This makes China only the third country in the world, after the United States and Russia, to have completed a space walk. More to the point, it demonstrates that China is ramping up for some of the heavy lifting required of long-term space projects (e.g. space stations and moon missions) which would require people moving outside of spacecraft for construction and repair projects.

Why are such journeys outside of spacecraft called “space walks”? It’s an interesting choice of words since there is no real walking as far as I can see. “Space crawl,” “space climb” and “space float” would all be more accurate if less pithy.  We must scout out the etymology of the term. It strikes me that NASA and cold-war space enthusiasts would like “walking” because it is far more active, self-directed and dignified verb than floating and crawling. Another question, what are the Russian and Chinese terms for these ex-craft jaunts?

The New York Times Book Review features Bruce Barcott’s write up of Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver’s new book Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes. I’m only a couple chapters in, but Fallen Giants promises a comprehensive, socio-cultural look at high-altitude mountaineering in the last 150 years. Despite the vast heap of books written on the history of mountaineering, this type of project is sorely needed.

Deep Sea News has now made the move to Discovery Blogs.

In other news:

There was a presidential debate.

The world economy is in free-fall.

Book Review: Trying Leviathan

D. Graham Burnett. Trying Leviathan. the Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature. xiv + 304 pp., figs. biblio., index. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. $29.95 (cloth).

On 1 July 1818, Samuel Judd landed on the wrong side of the law. He purchased three casks of uninspected whale oil from John Russell, violating a New York statute that required all fish oil to be inspected before sale. When James Maurice, fish oil inspector, learned of the sale, he took Judd to court. Thus began Maurice v. Judd, a three-day trial that unfolded in the Mayor’s Court in mid-winter 1818.

Whaling ships and oil casks, New Bedford MA, 1870

Whaling ships and oil casks, New Bedford MA, 1870

Fish oil, let’s be honest, doesn’t fire the imagination, and Maurice v. Judd will never carry the gravitas of other iconic American trials such as Brown v. Board or Roe v. Wade. But as Trying Leviathan shows, the case has a number of hidden gems, each carefully quarried by D. Graham Burnett. Had Judd denied buying the casks, or alternatively, agreed to pay the $75 dollar fine, things would have turned out differently. As it was, he took a novel approach to his defense, arguing that the law had been misapplied; the casks in question did not contain fish oil, but whale oil. By framing his case in this way, Judd transformed what would have been a quotidian commercial dispute to a public debate over modern taxonomy, namely: “Is the whale a fish?”

Samuel Latham Mitchill

Samuel Latham Mitchill

Judd’s clever defense allows Burnett to use Maurice v. Judd as a perch from which to view the taxonomic landscape of early 19th century America. Ranging over this landscape was Dr. Samuel Mitchill, physician, commissioner, assemblyman, and congressman, who entered the courtroom prepared to defend the status of whales as mammals. Mitchill was every lawyer’s dream of an expert witness: well-known (see above) and well-respected, especially as a lecturer in natural history at the College of Physicians and Surgeons. But Mitchill’s day in court did not go smoothly, and he was forced to acknowledge serious disputes among philosophers over taxonomic classification. Maurice’s attorneys picked off Mitchill’s arguments, but didn’t stop there, taking aim at Mitchill himself as well as what he represented: gentleman-philosophers who had lost touch with common sense. As Burnett tells it, the drubbing of Mitchell signaled a broader standoff between the public and its men of science. Maurice’s lawyers “went after the cultural authority of the sciences in general and natural history in particular.” (75) No longer was this a case about casks of oil, he claims, but “the proper place of science and men of science in the Republic…”(75).

Yes, well, this hurls the argument a bit further than the sling permits. It’s hard not to love trials because they provide the spark of controversy so useful in historical analysis. Whether these sparks represent the brushfires of a broader culture, however, remains to be seen; the artificial, polemical nature of the American court, much like American politics, sometimes draws lines where, say, smudges are more appropriate.  Indeed, a key contribution of Trying Leviathan is in showing that Maurice v. Judd cannot be reduced to the binary opposition of Men of Science v. Everyone Else. Burnett is at his best in showing that the whale, common to Americans of many stripes, was not, in fact, common at all. Men of science, the general public, whalers, and commercial men all understood Leviathan differently, gathering their knowledge of it in different ways. The writings of Linneaus and Georges Cuvier may have inspired a generation of taxonomists to cast the Whale out of Fishes, but ordinary Americans still hewed closely to a Biblical taxonomy that classified animals into flyers, crawlers, and swimmers. Whalemen, on the other hand, were experts in a “superficial natural history” (125) of their prey, a phrase Burnett uses literally, rather than pejoratively, to mean a knowledge of the outer parts. They, more than anyone else, could identify whales at a distance from blow pattern, fin shape, fluke, or splash. Their knowledge extended to the outer layers of the whale, from black skin to the thick blanket of fat that they collected for the tryworks. What lay beneath this blanket, however, remained mysterious. The meaty parts of the whale were not valuable, and the animal, once disrobed of its blubbery coat, soon sank to the bottom. But this was exactly the part of the whale that Mitchill and other taxonomists (inspired by the excavating impulse of Cuvier) found so interesting.

Historians of science may feel satisfied at this point, having seen views of the whale from the street, the wharf, and the lecture hall. But Burnett is not quite done, taking the reader into the marketplace, too, where vendors and purveyors understood this creature in their own peculiar way. Commercial men attended themselves to the specific qualities of whale oil, a commodity that, whatever rung the whale occupied in God’s Ladder of Creation, was not fish oil. Whale oil, a clean substance with few impurities, was rendered by trying blubber in pots aboard ship. Fish oil, on the other hand, was nasty, impure stuff, a stinking emulsion of oil, blood, scum, and other fishy matter used primarily in tanning. This commercial taxonomy of the whale might seem a rather narrow, arcane bit of information to end on, but Burnett is right to pursue it; the commercial distinction between whale and fish proved crucial in determining Maurice v. Judd (for the plaintiff) and brought about subsequent changes in New York law (for the defendant).

Burnett’s only misstep in Trying Leviathan is overstating Maurice v. Judd’s relevance to a series of historiographic debates. The book concludes, rather deliriously: “Is the whale a fish? Is science social? Is philosophy historical? The precedent question is always this: What stories must be forgotten to answer these questions?” These are good, if stratospheric questions, but ones that Burnett’s analysis of Maurice v. Judd cannot answer and that divert the reader from his greatest accomplishment: the creation of a new map of the whale in American culture, one textured by close-readings and breadth of scale, engraved with love and a sense of wit.

Thanks to the University of Chicago Press for permission to publish this review. It will appear in an upcoming issue of Isis.

The Last Imaginary Place

B. Bellotto, Veduta Fantastica

Two thousand years ago, a new innovative culture emerged in the world, one which established large, wide-ranging settlements and networks of long distance trade. Between 500 and 1500 CE, this culture began to expand, developing new technologies which allowed it to move into other regions thousands of miles from its place of origin. Ultimately, these technological advancements allowed it to dominate and displace the native peoples who lived there. By 1000, it had establishing a place for itself in a new system of trans-Atlantic trade.

I speak not of Romans or Vikings but of the Inuit, who developed from the Old Bering Sea people two thousand years ago on the coast of Alaska. The Old Bering Sea people lived in large, year round settlements and established long-distance trading networks. They developed or acquired the bow and arrow as well as the means to hunt bowhead whales. Shortly thereafter, they began moving northeast, towards the Arctic shores of North America, displacing the Tuniit, an Arctic culture that predated them by hundreds of years. It is not clear what drew the Old Bering Sea people east, but evidence suggests that they were eager to acquire metal impliments brought by Norse peoples who began to occupy Greenland.

Old Bering Sea Culture Equipment

Old Bering Sea Culture Equipment

All of this information comes from Robert McGhee’s new book “The Last Imaginary Place: A Human History of the Arctic World.” McGhee’s Arctic is no wintery wasteland, but a dynamic place, the crossroads of many different cultures: Asian, American, and European. At 270 pages, McGhee can hardly be comprehensive. But he manages to tell his stories of Arctic history with an impressive cast of characters: Inuit, Tuniit, European, and Siberian.

One of the goals of McGhee’s analysis is to destroy the myths that still haunt our image of the Arctic and its peoples. For centuries, Europeans described the Inuit as the primitive children of nature, a timeless people who scratched out a living in the same manner as their stone-age ancestors did thousands of years before. In truth they had much in common with their European counterparts. They were expansionist, adaptive, and quick to exploit the resources of their environment.

McGhee also manages to link his broader points to personal experience. On the Inuit for example he states:

The realization that the Inuit are not a peripheral people was forced on my mind one night on the coast of Chukotka, as I climbed by myself over the remains of the ancient community at Ekven. A few kilometers up the coast, the low night-time sun was throwing an orange glow on the rocks of Cape Dezhneva, the most easterly point of Asia, and on Great Diomede Island halfway across the Bering Strait to Alaska. In the bright calm night I suddenly had the overwhelming sense that I was not standing at the distant margin of a world, the end of the earth, as far as one could travel from Europe. Instead I was standing at the very heart of another world, a nexus that for millenia had linked the peoples and cultures of Asia and America. It was a world in which many nations and cultures had flourished, among them the Inuit and their way of life.

The Diomede Islands of the Bering Sea

The Diomede Islands of the Bering Sea

This is a terrific book. I’ll be writing a more formal review of it soon for The Historian.

Book Review: The Lost Land of Lemuria

Sumathi Ramaswamy. The Lost Land of Lemuria. Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic Histories. xv + 334 pp. illus., figs., index. California: University of California Press, 2004. $21.95 (paper).

The world has many mythic places: the Garden of Eden Atlantis, El Dorado. Opinion about these places usually breaks down into two camps. Believers defend them as real, lost to the modern world through acts of natural or divinely-induced catastrophe. Skeptics see them as fantasies, the labors of a blinkered imagination. Missing from this debate over real or fantasy is the cultural function of lost worlds in human society. For Ramaswamy, this is the starting point for her project. “What is a lost place? What symbolic capital does a lost place command that an available place does not?” (3) Her case study is Lemuria, a lost continent that some believed stretched over large parts of the Indian Ocean. The story of Lemuria begins in 1864, when British zoologist Philip Sclater published an essay, “The Mammals of Madagascar” in the Quarterly Journal of Science.

Sclater observed several similarities between the species of Madagascar and India, particularly in the distribution of lemurs. To Sclater, this suggested that Madagascar and India were once part of the same continent, a place he playfully called “Lemuria.” Scientists such as Thomas Huxley, Alfred Russell Wallace, and Ernst Haeckel seriously debated the existence of Lemuria, an idea made plausible by catastrophist theories of geology and biogeographical evidence in the field. Yet support for Lemuria waned as Alfred Wegener’s continental drift theory gained support in the twentieth century. Wegener provided an alternate, compelling explanation for the biogeographical similarities between Madagascar and India: these regions had once been connected and then drifted apart millions of years ago. But while support for Lemuria petered out among scientists, it lived on in two communities which Ramaswamy dubs “eccentric and off-modern”: Western occultists and Tamil devotees in southern India. For occult organizations such as the Theosophical Society and its twentieth century New Age offshoots, Lemuria offered a way of anchoring the idea of lost continents, central to their creation stories of the world, to the work of respected scientists. For Tamil devotees, the lost continent of Lemuria lent credibility to the idea of an ancestral Tamil homeland, Kumarinatu, that they believed was destroyed by the sea. In each of these cases, the story of Lemuria’s destruction was a creative act, one that required “labors of loss.”


This is an impressive work. While Ramaswamy is not the first scholar to attempt a cultural analysis of mythic places, the scope and depth of her analysis raise the bar for scholars who follow. Not only does she demonstrate how Lemuria (and by extension other mythic worlds) gain their power by appearing in the modern world as “lost,” she also shows how the role of Lemuria evolves in three very different communities. That Ramaswamy is at ease discussing biogeography, New Age philosophy, and the texts of Tamil devotion shows her great flexibility and synthetic powers as a scholar. Unfortunately, few readers will be able to make it through the thicket of Ramaswamy’s prose to complete The Lost Land of Lemuria. Written in the language of post-colonial critique, it is at times too comfortable with showing that processes are complicated and contradictory. To offer one example:

Labors of loss around Lemuria occupy the vortex of the dialectic constituted by the opposing pulls of the will to disenchant and the rush to re-enchant. Modernity’s discontents are thus both disabling and enabling for the preoccupations of loss around this vanished land. (10)

Lemuria is also a place that burgeons with hyphens. It is a land of place-worlds and life-worlds, inhabited by the non-modern, off-modern, and the counter-disenchanted. While “loss” is a central concept for this book, the term rains down on the reader relentlessly, in chapter titles (all except one), subheadings, and on almost every page. What is most upsetting here is not that The Lost Land of Lemuria is difficult to read. It is that the language will keep it from audiences who should be reading it. Ramaswamy tells us how important it is to give voice to groups who are marginalized by the Western paradigms of science and history, but she has written a book that – significant as it is- will only be discussed within the ramparts of the academy.

Thanks to University of Chicago Press for permission to re-print this review. It first appealed in the journal Isis December 2006, 97 (4): 775-776.

Book Review: The Oxford Companion to Exploration

The Oxford Companion to World Exploration, ed. David Buisseret (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)

The Oxford Companions are strange creatures, neither fish nor fowl. Outwardly they resemble the cross between a dictionary and encyclopedia. But this description doesn’t quite do them justice. A companion, after all, is something or someone with whom we have a relationship, a bond that transcends that of a mere guide or reader. In a review of the Oxford Companion to Music, David Schiff points out that a companion “implies something more intimate and less predictable… informed but not infallible, quirky, opinionated, worldly yet parochial.” This is a lovely notion in principle, but could easily turn out to be a mess in practice. Fortunately, the companion format proves liberating for editor David Buisseret, who, with a team of section editors and advisors, has developed a creative fusion of subjects, from short biographies of 250 words to comprehensive pieces of 10,000 words or more.

David Buisseret

Buisseret brings a big-tent philosophy to Companion, helped, no doubt, by his wide-ranging research on cartography and exploration, and his twenty years of experience as editor of Terrae Incognitae, the journal for the history of discoveries. “We have defined [exploration],” Buisseret writes, “as the process by which one or more people leave their society and venture to another part of the world (or, now, heavens), then return in order to explain what they have seen.” This is about as expansive a definition for exploration as one can give, and would probably include my own travels abroad (I do not receive an entry). As a result, the 700 entries of the two-volume Companion consist of a heterogeneous mix of subjects, from the famous (Christopher Columbus, Antarctica, Sputnik) to the obscure (Odoric of Pordenone, Chinese Empirical Maps, Quiviria). Serious readers of exploration will find two features useful. First, Companion provides comprehensive surveys of exploration in all major geographical regions (Africa, Arctic, Pacific, etc). Each of these is broken up into sub-entries that provide useful detail and context. Under the entry “Central and South America,” for example, the reader finds subentries on: “Colonies and Empires,” “Conquests and Colonization,” “Scientific Inquiry,” “Trade and Trade Goods,” “Trade Routes,” and “Utopian Quests.” Second, Companion offers a number of sophisticated thematic entries on exploration, such as “Alterity,” “Imperialism and Exploration,” and “Fictions of Exploration,” which touch on issues that will be of interest to academic audiences. The Companion does have its weak spots. Major entries use multiple authors for each subentry which often leads to some repetition of material. Obscure explorers (such as polar adventurer Charles Hall) sometimes receive their own entries whereas major explorers (Robert Peary, putative discoverer of the North Pole) do not. Moreover, inclusive does not mean exhaustive; any companion on world exploration should come prepared to weigh in on the “Grand Tour,” “Noble Savage,” and “Contact Zone.” An entry on the last term would be especially welcome since “Contact Zone,” coined by Mary Louise Pratt in her 1992 work Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation is now used by many in the academy as a conceptual upgrade of the Eurocentric term “Frontier.” It would also show that Buisseret means it when he tells us of his “struggles against the European connotation of the word [exploration].” Still, it is too easy to take pot shots at anything this expansive and multi-authored. All in all, Companion is a very useful reference book, especially given its slim, two-volume size. If it doesn’t take the reader to every corner of the field (what volume could?), it comes with an excellent system of navigation: table of contents, topical outline of entries, directory of contributors, index, and seventy-five colored plates. Ironically, its ease of use only makes one feel guiltier for enjoying it. Browsing its pages, feet up, sipping tea, the reader confronts the some of the most arduous events in human history.

This review will be published in the upcoming issue of the British Journal for the History of Science. My thanks to Simon Schaffer and Gregory Radick for permission to reprint it here.


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