The Mansion of Happiness

BOOK: The Mansion of Happiness
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Copyright © 2012 by Jill Lepore

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Portions of this book originally appeared in
The New Yorker.

The Life and Age of Man
(c. 1840). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Lepore, Jill, [date]
The mansion of happiness : a history of life and death / Jill Lepore.—1st ed.
p. cm.
“This is a Borzoi book”—T.p. verso.
“Parts of this book originally appeared in The New Yorker”—T.p. verso.
Includes bibliographical references and index.

eISBN: 978-0-307-95850-1

1. United States—Social life and customs.  2. United States—Social conditions.   3. United States—Intellectual life.  4. Politics and culture—United States—History.   5. Popular culture—United States—History.  6. Life—Social aspects—United States—History.  7. Life (Biology)—Social aspects—United
States—History.  8. Life cycle, Human—Social aspects—United States—History.  9. Death—Social aspects—United States—History  10. Happiness—Social aspects—United States—History.
I. New Yorker.  II. Title.
E169.1.L5295 2012
973—dc23       2011050566

Cover design and photograph by Oliver Munday


To John Demos

At this amusement each will find

A moral fit t’improve the mind.   



his book is a history of ideas about life and death from before the cradle to beyond the grave. It starts with a seventeenth-century Englishman named
William Harvey, who had the idea that life begins with an egg, and it ends with an American named Robert Ettinger, who, in the 1970s, began freezing the dead. If Victor Frankenstein were in this book, he’d fit right in, halfway between the egg man and the iceman. But Frankenstein’s not here. In a history of life and death—which, really, could include just about anything—you have to leave rather a lot out.

To write history is to make an argument by telling a story. This is, above all, a book of stories. Each story here stands alone, but each makes an argument about the past, and, taken together, they offer an interpretation of the present. The tales I have to tell range over centuries and circle around a bit, but pause, for a goodish while, in the seventeenth and the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and, again, at the 1960s and ’70s, because my argument is that the age of discovery, Darwin, and the
space age turned ideas about life on earth topsy-turvy. New worlds were found; old paradises were lost. Many of these ideas were ideas about America.

Life used to be a circle: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Fortune used to be a wheel that turned, and turned again.
Aristotle wrote about three
ages of man: youth, the prime of life, and old age. Morning, noon, and night. Medieval writers wrote about three, too, or maybe four, like the seasons, from the spring of childhood to the winter of old age, or seven, like the planets. Whatever the number, the metaphor was always drawn from the
natural world, and went round and round. Then life lengthened, and the stages of life multiplied. In 1800, the
fertility rate in the United States was over seven births per woman, the average age of the population was sixteen, and
life expectancy was under forty. By 2010, the fertility rate had fallen to barely two, the average age of the population had risen to thirty-seven, and the average American could expect to live to nearly eighty. This demographic transition has been going on the world over. Life is no longer a circle.

When life lengthened, all those circles became lines: fortune, a number in a ledger; life, an
evolution and, above all, a progression. In the latter part of the twentieth century, talk of progress was replaced by talk of innovation, but, really, it was the same hobbyhorse. Meanwhile, the contemplation of matters of life and death moved from the humanities to the sciences, from the library to the laboratory.

A line, unlike a circle, has an end. Or does it? Linear, scientific narratives of progress promise a different sort of eternity—humanity, undying—right up to the vague and halfhearted notion that one day, when the earth dies, humans will simply move to outer space, as if in the heavens, if not in heaven, will be found, at long last, life everlasting. When thinking about life and death moved from the library to the laboratory, the light of history dimmed. The future trumped the past. Youth vanquished age, and death grew unthinkable. The more secular ideas about immortality have become, the less well anyone, including and maybe especially doctors and scientists, has accepted dying, or even growing old. Freezing the dead, like living forever in another galaxy, is cockamamie, but it’s not so far from anti-aging cream as you might suppose.

A word about this book’s tone: questions about how life begins, what it means, and what happens when you’re dead are so big that when people presume to answer them, or even to ask them, they can get awfully grandiose. “The only source of the true ridiculous,”
Henry Fielding once observed, “is affectation.” Fielding, I like to think, would have found it difficult to read
The Day of a Godly Man’s Death Better Than the Day of His Birth
, a frightfully bombastic sermon preached by
Thomas Foxcroft in Boston on a bitterly cold February day in 1722, without wondering how far into the sermon Foxcroft had gotten before his parishioners slumped in their pews and nodded off. Sometimes, I wonder about that kind of thing, too.

This, also, must be said: matters of life and death have to do with faith
and knowledge and hope and despair. They are not, inherently, political, though they are quite commonly turned to political ends. Generally, the trouble begins when people who think they’ve found the answers start bullying other people into agreeing with them. Wars have been fought over far less. In the last few decades, charged and painful debates about what have been termed “culture of life” issues, including
abortion, end-of-life medical care, stem cell research, and the
right to die, have become battles in what has been called a war for the soul of America. These debates, which are usually understood as having to do with science and religion, have also to do with history. When people do battle over matters of life and death, they often believe, passionately and even devoutly, that their own ideas, and no one else’s, are eternal. But even antique ideas have histories—sacred in one era, profane in another—and some seemingly timeless truths, like “the sanctity of life” or “death with dignity,” turn out to be of fairly recent vintage. Those histories are worth excavating. Still, the past, while always edifying, is rarely dispositive: people believe and hold dear what they believe and hold dear for more reasons than what happened long ago. This book is a history; it’s not a catechism.

The chapters of this book follow the stages of life, or what used to be called the
ages of man: they start with life before birth and end with life after death. In between lie chapters on
infant care,
childhood, growing up, marrying, working, having children, growing old, and dying. But first comes an introduction, about the idea that life is a game, which is where this book gets its title: the Mansion of Happiness used to be the most popular board game around. A book, like life, is a voyage; this one begins with the unborn and ends with the undead. The game board is your map.


n 1860, the year
Abraham Lincoln was elected president, a lanky, long-nosed, twenty-three-year-old Yankee named
Milton Bradley invented his first board game, played on a red-and-ivory checkerboard of sixty-four squares. He called it the Checkered Game of Life. Play starts at the board’s lower left corner, on an ivory square labeled Infancy—illustrated by a tiny, black-inked lithograph of a wicker cradle—and ends, usually but not always, at Happy Old Age, at the upper right, although landing on Suicide, inadvertently, helplessly, miserably, and with a noose around your neck, is more common than you might think, and means, inconveniently, that you’re dead.

“The game represents, as indicated by the name, the checkered journey of life,” Bradley explained. There are good patches and bad, in roughly equal number. On the one hand: Honesty, Bravery, Success. On the other: Poverty, Idleness, Disgrace. The wise player will strive “to gain on his journey that which shall make him the most prosperous, and to shun that which will retard him in his progress.” But even when you’re heading for Happiness, you can end up at Ruin, passed out, drunk and drooling, on the floor of a seedy-looking tavern where Death darkens the door disguised as a debt collector straight out of
Bleak House:
the bulky black overcoat, the strangely sinister stovepipe hat.

BOOK: The Mansion of Happiness
13.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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