Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature

Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature

Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature

Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature

Synopsis

The late Ming Dynasty (1572-1644) and the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1722) saw the true splendour of short essays in China. No other period in the history of short essays in ancient China can match them in the quality and number of works, literary schools, or the variety of styles. Compared with those written before or after, the short essays in these periods were richer in the choice of topics, and freer in form, focusing not only on real social life, but also on worldly experience and life's little delights. They are a rich and vital part of China's literary and cultural heritage. The 127 short essays in this wonderful book are considered to be the very best examples from an era of China's history that's synonymous with beautifully crafted short essays. 82 essays are from the Ming Dynasty and 45 essays are from the Qing Dynasty, written by more than a hundred different Chinese authors from both dynasties. These are arranged in the order of the authors' birth dates and tenderly translated into English by leading Chinese translators Wang Hong and Zhang Shunsheng, who have faithfully represented the styles and literary achievements made by the featured essayists. It's a wonderful book that will delight fans of classic Chinese short essays, as well as providing the perfect introduction to readers new to the genre. Professor Wang Hong is a prolific and accomplished translator of ancient Chinese classics. Many of his translations have been included in the Library of Chinese Classics, such as Mozi, Brush Talks from Dream Brook (also publishing by Paths International), The Discourses of the States and The Classic of Mountains of Seas. This is the first ever English language version of The Short Essays of the Ming and Qing Dynasties to be published either inside or outside of China.

Excerpt

THE PEACE OFFERING THAT STANK

On the 9th of November, 1819 the distinguished New York physiciannaturalist, Samuel Latham Mitchill, received at his Barclay Street chambers a malodorous packet containing an over-ripe orange file fish (Aluterus schoepfii, Walbaum, 1792) that had run afoul of a Long Island boating party several days earlier and had succumbed to “the stroke of an oar” on the beach near Bowery Cove. This rank offering arrived in the company of an explanatory letter from the Irish Jacobin lawyer William Sampson, the doctor’s fellow member of the Literary and Philosophical Society of New-York, and his sometime adversary in the courts of the city.

“The fish begins to have an ancient and more than fish like smell,” wrote Sampson by way of greeting, and he continued, “I send it to you, that you may either pass judgement upon it or record its characters before it undergoes more alteration.” Could the specimen be a hitherto unknown species, something strange and new? To assist Mitchill on this question, Sampson had gone so far as to enclose a “colored drawing” prepared by his daughter to capture the creature’s appearance in its fresher state.

Dr. Mitchill knew better, and he made a terse note overleaf, identifying the genus and species. Not only was it not new, Mitchill himself had already published on it, and in his annotation on the letter he cited his 1815 monograph on “The Fishes of New-York,” writing across the covering flap, “ … already described in the Lit. & Ph. Transactions of NY.”

It was, in a way, a familiar ritual. Mitchill’s ichthyological knowledge was, by 1819, legendary in New York and beyond, so much so that he

Letter from William Sampson, 9 November 1819, Gratz Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The addressee of this letter has not previously been identified. It is worth noting that Sampson’s salutation is an oblique reference to The Tempest, act 2, scene 2, where Trinculo, examining Caliban, declares, “A fish; he smells like a fish; a very ancient and fish-like smell; a kind of not-of-the-newest Poor-John [i.e., salted hake]. A strange fish!” The allusion is a specimen of the relentlessly referential eloquence of Sampson and Mitchill both. A general note on citations in this book: spelling has not been modernized in quotations from original sources, but punctuation has in some cases (addition of apostrophes in contractions, etc.) been brought into line with current conventions.

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