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The Mansion of Happiness
Cover of The Mansion of Happiness
The Mansion of Happiness
A History of Life and Death
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Renowned Harvard scholar and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore has composed a strikingly original, ingeniously conceived, and beautifully crafted history of American ideas about life and death from before the cradle to beyond the grave.
How does life begin? What does it mean? What happens when we die? “All anyone can do is ask,” Lepore writes. “That's why any history of ideas about life and death has to be, like this book, a history of curiosity.” Lepore starts that history with the story of a seventeenth-century Englishman who had the idea that all life begins with an egg and ends it with an American who, in the 1970s, began freezing the dead. In between, life got longer, the stages of life multiplied, and matters of life and death moved from the library to the laboratory, from the humanities to the sciences. Lately, debates about life and death have determined the course of American politics. Each of these debates has a history. Investigating the surprising origins of the stuff of everyday life—from board games to breast pumps—Lepore argues that the age of discovery, Darwin, and the Space Age turned ideas about life on earth topsy-turvy. “New worlds were found,” she writes, and “old paradises were lost.” As much a meditation on the present as an excavation of the past, The Mansion of Happiness is delightful, learned, and altogether beguiling.
Renowned Harvard scholar and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore has composed a strikingly original, ingeniously conceived, and beautifully crafted history of American ideas about life and death from before the cradle to beyond the grave.
How does life begin? What does it mean? What happens when we die? “All anyone can do is ask,” Lepore writes. “That's why any history of ideas about life and death has to be, like this book, a history of curiosity.” Lepore starts that history with the story of a seventeenth-century Englishman who had the idea that all life begins with an egg and ends it with an American who, in the 1970s, began freezing the dead. In between, life got longer, the stages of life multiplied, and matters of life and death moved from the library to the laboratory, from the humanities to the sciences. Lately, debates about life and death have determined the course of American politics. Each of these debates has a history. Investigating the surprising origins of the stuff of everyday life—from board games to breast pumps—Lepore argues that the age of discovery, Darwin, and the Space Age turned ideas about life on earth topsy-turvy. “New worlds were found,” she writes, and “old paradises were lost.” As much a meditation on the present as an excavation of the past, The Mansion of Happiness is delightful, learned, and altogether beguiling.
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Excerpts-
  • Introduction

    In 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 jour- ney 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.1

    The history of games of life contains within it a history of ideas about life itself. The Checkered Game of Life made Milton Bradley a brand name. His company, founded in 1860, survived his death in 1911, the Depression, and two world wars. In 1960, to celebrate its centennial, the Milton Brad- ley Company released a commemorative Game of Life. It bears almost no resemblance to its checkered nineteenth-century namesake. Instead, Mil- ton Bradley's antebellum game about vice, virtue, and the pursuit of happi- ness was reinvented as a lesson in consumer conformity, a two-dimensional Levittown, complete with paychecks and retirement homes and medical bills. In Life, players fill teensy plastic station wagons with even teensier pink and blue plastic Mommies and Daddies, spin the Wheel of Fate, and ride along the Highway of Life, earning money, buying furniture, having pink and blue plastic babies, and retiring, if they're lucky, at Millionaire Acres. Along the way, there are good patches: "Adopt a Girl and Boy! Collect Pres- ents!" And bad: "Jury Duty! Lose Turn." Whoever earns the most money wins. (The game's motto: "That's Life!") Inside the game box are piles and piles of paper: fake automobile insurance, phony stock certificates, pretend promissory notes, and play money, $7.5 million of it, including a heap of mint-green fifty-thousand-dollar bills, each featuring a portrait of Bradley, near the end of his days: bearded, aged, antique.2

    As the years passed, Life came to look more and more like that portrait of old man Bradley. Only a handful of games have had as long a shelf life. After all, not for long did anyone play Park and Shop, another game sold by the Milton Bradley Company in 1960, whose object was "to outsmart the other players by parking your car in a strategic place, completing your shopping quickly, and being the first to return home."3 In the 1990s, Has- bro, which bought the Milton Bradley Company in 1984, revised Life to market it to the baby boomer parents who had grown up with it: the sta- tion wagons swelled into minivans and it became possible, a few miles down life's highway, to have a midlife crisis. The update was a disappoint- ment. And so, in 2006, in an attempt to Botox the shiny, puffy nowness of youth into a gray-whiskered game, Hasbro decided to start again, to design a new...

About the Author-
  • Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper '41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from March 26, 2012
    In the 19th century, a Milton Bradley version of the British board game the Mansion of Happiness (known in recent decades as Life) became an enduring staple of American homes. The game raised in a playful way three perennial questions: how does life begin? what does it mean? and what happens when you’re dead? With her characteristically sharp-edged humor and luminous storytelling, Harvard historian and New Yorker writer Lepore (New York Burning) regales us with stories that follow the stages of life (“begin with the unborn and end with the undead”) in an attempt to explore how cultural responses to the questions have changed over time. This journey takes us to unexpected places: for instance, the practicality, politics, and ethics of breast pumps, and cryogenics as a form of resurrection. Through these stories, Lepore shows that as fertility rates changed and as life expectancies rose, the history of life and death, long viewed as circular (“ashes to ashes, dust to dust”) became more linear, incorporating even secular ideas about immortality. Lepore’s inspired commentary on our shared social history offers a fresh approach to our changing views of life and death. Agent: Tina Bennett, Janklow & Nesbit.

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from May 1, 2012
    A sharp, illuminating history of ideas showing how America has wrestled with birth, childhood, work, marriage, old age and death. Brilliantly written and engaging throughout, the latest from New Yorker staff writer Lepore (American History/Harvard Univ.; The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History, 2011, etc.) is about how American society reacts to change. The author starts with the perfect metaphor: In 1860, a young entrepreneur named Milton Bradley created a popular board game called Life. The game had long existed in earlier versions, but Bradley gave it a capitalist spin, changing it from a game of good versus evil to one that "rewards only those virtues that lead to Wealth and Success, like Industry and Perseverance." From there, Lepore tackles conception and how the famous pictures of a fetus in Life in the mid '60s fostered the relatively modern idea of "being unborn as a stage of human life, a stage that was never on any board game." The author shows how E.B. White's surprisingly controversial novel Stuart Little created a small revolution in a country that has always worshipped childhood; she sees it as "an indictment of both the childishness of children's literature and the juvenilization of American culture." Lepore's topics are broad, and they lead her into many interesting byways--e.g., how eugenics was once considered a perfectly progressive idea and how contraception once seemed to threaten society in ways even Rick Santorum has not imagined. She also considers the legacy of Karen Ann Quinlan, the brain-dead young woman whose case helped foment arguments for both the right to die and the right to life, and discusses her visit to the creepy laboratory of cryogenics founder Robert C.W. Ettinger. A superb examination of the never-ending effort to enhance life, as well as the commensurate refusal to ever let it go.

    COPYRIGHT(2012) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    May 15, 2012

    New Yorker staff writer and historian Lepore (American history, Harvard Univ.; The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History) presents a patchwork history of how modern Western--and in particular, American--culture has conceived of the passage of life from birth to death. Many of the chapters originally appeared in The New Yorker, and as a result the book's focus is at times disjointed. (What is a discussion of Stuart Little, for instance, doing between chapters on breast feeding and sex education?) Still, a pattern begins to emerge as Lepore chooses quirky, though always revealing, lenses through which to examine the changing definitions of conception, infancy, childhood, puberty, marriage, middle age, parenthood, old age, death, and immortality. Readers learn more than they may have bargained for about board games, the Time magazine--New Yorker rivalry, scientific management, and psychologist G. Stanley Hall. VERDICT Through sheer force of charisma, Lepore keeps her readers on track: this book, with all its detours and winding turns, is a journey worth taking. Though footnotes are ample and lively, it is not designed for research; recommended for readers looking to peruse. [See Prepub Alert, 2/27/12.]--Molly McArdle, Library Journal

    Copyright 2012 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from June 1, 2012
    The word history in the title of Lepore's essay collection ought not to be daunting, nor should the extensive endnotes, since Lepore's prose is thoroughly engaging and witty. And humor is essential for considering such weighty and politically charged matters as the beginning of life and the modern concept of dying with dignity. As Lepore points out, as times and fashions change, so, too, do notions about whether life is a circle or a straight line, whether these concepts are philosophical or scientific. Are they matters for personal deliberation, or should they be topics of public policy debate? Are these religious concerns? Judicial? Opinions throughout history have and still do run the gamut. The ancients, she notes, believed life began with the seed or semen. Until very recently, it was standard procedure for that dreaded visitor, Death, to call on people only in the privacy of their own homes. Lepore also addresses technologies, from breast pumps to cryogenics, and life's stages, including tweenhood, which is just plain made up, and senior citizens, an interest group. Though not comprehensive, Lepore's book does cover enough of mankind's earnest curiosity about life and death to both entertain and provoke thought.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2012, American Library Association.)

  • Publishers Weekly

    "With her characteristically sharp-edged humor and luminous storytelling, Lepore regales us with stories that follow the stages of life...her inspired commentary on our shared social history offers a fresh approach to our changing views of life and death."

  • Dani Shapiro, The New York Times Book Review "A trenchant and fascinating intellectual history of life and death...elegant."
  • The American Scholar "A breezy, informative, wide-ranging book...singular, always stimulating."
  • Booklist "Lepore's prose is thoroughly engaging and witty...covers enough of mankind's earnest curiosity about life and death to both entertain and provoke thought."
  • Library Journal "Lepore chooses quirky, though always revealing, lenses through which is examine the changing definitions of conception, infancy, childhood, puberty, marriage, middle age, parenthood, old age, death, and immortality...Through sheer force of charisma, Lepore keeps her readers on track: this book, with all its detours and winding turns, is a journey worth taking."
  • Rachel Newcomb, The Washington Post "[Lepore] manages to spin a larger narrative that both fascinates and informs, showing that our taken-for-granted ideas about every stage of life are culturally specific, very much a product of our times."
  • San Francisco Chronicle "Engaging...Lepore writes about our striving to understand our existence. The Mansion of Happiness is an important addition to the effort."
  • Boston Sunday Globe "Lepore has a brilliant way of selecting just the right historical detail to illuminate a larger point...The most valuable lesson here is that of impermanence. Everything changes. And although, as Lepore writes, 'it's best to have a plan,' as her multifaceted, sometimes dizzying joyride of a book reveals, the next roll of dice could, in fact, change everything."
  • Entertainment Weekly "This fascinating book explores a few centuries' worth of ideas about life and death -- you know, just a light beach read. But for all its analysis of Darwin and Aristotle, The Mansion of Happiness is a lot of fun...[Lepore] is always engaging, even surprising."
  • Kirkus, starred review "A sharp, illuminating history of ideas...Brilliantly written and engaging throughout...superb."
  • Garry Wills, author of Lincoln at Gettysburg "Equip a profound scholar with H. L. Mencken's instinct for running down charlatans and chuckleheads, and you get this book. It will amuse and embarrass those of us ever befuddled by the rogues in her gallery."
  • Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How The World Became Modern "Written with sardonic wit and penetrating intelligence, The Mansion of Happiness is a fascinating and startlingly original guide to the ways in which the human life-cycle has been imagined, manipulated, managed, marketed, and debased in modern times. Lepore weaves her way brilliantly along the mazy track that leads from the egg in which life's game begins to the giant freezers in which certain crack-brained visionaries hope to defeat death itself. A fast-paced, hilarious, angry, poignant, and richly illuminating book."
  • James Gleick, author of The Information "This is why Jill Lepore is becoming my favorite historian: wise, witty, wide in scope and deep in spirit."
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