The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death

Over the last couple of centuries, questions about life — how it begins, what it means, and what happens after death — have increasingly moved away from the humanities to the sciences, from attention to the past to a focus on the future. This is historian Jill Lepore’s view and, while there is nothing particularly original in it, her portrayal of American attempts to address those big questions is marvelously fresh and inventive. Eleven essays on the subject, most of which first appeared in The New Yorker, have been collected in The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death. Dealing with life from “before the cradle to beyond the grave,” the essays demonstrate Lepore’s knack for coming up with just the right historical figure — business whiz, popular savant, avatar, or  crackpot — to illustrate a particular cultural movement. The pieces here are also invigorated by storytelling brio, a wry sense of humor, and a gift for the bon mot.

As befits the book’s entertaining nature, Lepore begins with a wonderful essay on board games, beginning with the “Checkered Game of Life” invented (from centuries-old antecedents) by a twenty-three-year-old Milton Bradley in 1860. Intended as a diversion, the game would also, according to Bradley, “forcibly impress upon the minds of youth, the great moral principles of vice and virtue.”  Landing on Honesty, Bravery, or Success, for instance, would speed a prosperous journey from Infancy to Happy Old Age, while Poverty, Idleness, and Disgrace could lead to Ruin, even Suicide. Competition with others and forging one’s own future were the game’s underlying principles and, as such, reproduced, in theory at least, the story of America. This, as Lepore notes, was its genius and the key to its enormous success.

The direction of American progress may be judged from the game’s commemorative edition of 1960, called simply the “Game of Life.” Vices and virtues had disappeared, their place taken by material calamities (jury duty) and boons (receiving presents); the winner was the player who made the most money. In 2007, the game was retooled once again as the “Game of Life: Twists and Turns” — or what might have been more appropriately called “Après Moi le Déluge” — which featured credit cards, leverage of assets, and gaining “life points.”

Lepore takes up changing ideas about the stages of life in many of the subsequent essays. “Stages of life,” she observes, “are artifacts, ideas with histories: the unborn, as a stage of life anyone could picture, dates only to the 1960s; adolescence is a useful contrivance; midlife is a moving target; senior citizens are an interest group; and tweenhood is just made up.” Beginning with the unborn, she sketches the theories and investigations that led to the discovery that human beings begin as eggs (and that a woman’s reproductive organs are not simply a man’s turned inside out). She further argues that the famous 1965 Life magazine photographic spread of developing embryos and fetuses promoted the idea that being unborn is a stage of life. More than that, however, the photographs (which, in fact, were of dead beings suspended in preserving fluid) created the illusion that the unborn baby was autonomous of the body carrying it, from women, that is, a concocted self-sufficiency that found its apotheosis in 1968 with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Lepore observes that attempts to answer questions about life moved “from the library to the laboratory”; put another way, the laboratory moved into the library. Popular literature opened up breast feeding, sex education, human propagation, child rearing, old age, and death as fields to be defined and exploited by scientific and medical professionals, including a good few quacks and savvy operators. Among those The Mansion of Happiness lights on is George Hecht, creator of what became Parents magazine, that great repository of exaggerated and fabricated childhood ills — a man who prospered on the knowledge that mothers “would buy anything as long as they could be kept good and worried.”   

Taking up the modern idea that childhood as a separate realm gives Lepore the opportunity to present the cautionary tale of the rise and fall of the doughty Anne Carroll Moore. She is the woman who created the first children’s library in 1911 at the New York Public Library and went on to oversee the creation of dozens more. In this she was resourceful and indomitable, but she came to wield untold power over children’s literature for decades, growing vainglorious and despotic. The result was a bizarre imbroglio with E. B. White over the publication of Stuart Little, a book that she tried – and failed — to suppress. The campaign ended in her own humiliation.

The final stage addressed in the book is life after death: which is to say, the promise held out by cryonics that one can be frozen at death, held in suspension, and thawed out once medical science has caught up with the pesky problem of mortality. The main character here is Robert C. W. Ettinger, who got a lot of his ideas — to say nothing of his hopes and dreams — from science fiction. He started the cryonic movement with his book The Prospect of Immortality in 1964 — the same year, Lepore points out, with typical insight, as the movie Dr. Strangelove. With that in mind, she writes, “mortality begins to look rather a lot like mutual assured destruction and immortality at 320 below like nothing so much as a fabulously air-conditioned fallout shelter.” Visiting Ettinger in Michigan at his Cryonics Institute, she finally sums the place up as where “some of the sorriest ideas of a godforsaken and alienated modernity endure.”

It is clear that, in these essays, Lepore has followed her appetite for curious characters and convergences, and that she is a journalist quite as much as a historian. The result is not really “a history of life and death,” as the subtitle proclaims, but rather a festive and impromptu encounter with popular thought on the subject. If there is a current that runs throughout the book, however, it is that the history of ideas about life since the Enlightenment shows a progression from meaning to measurement and, finally, to bathos.