In her new book, “The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death,” Jill Lepore begins with the history of the board game we now know simply as Life. It’s a clever meta-metaphor, analyzing a game about life to find what it reveals about the lives of those who played (and created) it. Reading the book is much like the game, too: Each chapter offers a new twist in the zigzagging path of American thinking about birth, life, and death.
Lepore makes her first move with Milton Bradley, the eponymous game maker whose greatest success came in 1860 when he created at the age of 23 the Checkered Game of Life. Bradley’s game was based on an English parlor game called The Mansion of Happiness, which was itself based on an ancient Asian tradition of games such as the Nepalese “game of karma.” One spin sends you up; the next all the way back down. As Lepore notes, these older games taught a clear lesson. Fate was whimsical, and the line between good luck and bad luck was very thin. Most importantly, it was fate/luck that mattered most in life, not talent, hard work, or good intentions. Bradley’s version was distinctly American: There is no death in the Checkered Game of Life and although fate (in the form of a spinner) plays a part, it is also possible to strategize one’s way to success. Milton Bradley “turned a game of knowledge into the path to prosperity,” Lepore writes. “Nothing is in God’s hands. It’s best to have a plan.”
It’s fascinating stuff, but Lepore, a staff writer at The New Yorker and a professor of American history at Harvard who has written about the intellectual and political history of Colonial and 19th-century America, isn’t really interested in board games. Instead, she wants to know what Bradley’s game can tell us about American values and aspirations. As in the game of Life, each chapter takes the reader a little further along the path of human development. Chapter One focuses on conception, two on breastfeeding, three on childhood, and so on, all the way to death . . . and even beyond.
Like any good American game player, Lepore has a strategy for tackling these gargantuan topics: She goes deep and narrow, focusing her gaze on just a few key thinkers and actors in every chapter. The marriage chapter examines the life and work of Paul Popenoe, famous for posing the eternal question, “Can this marriage be saved?” The oddly contentious story behind E.B. White’s story, “Stuart Little,’’ makes up the chapter on childhood, and Lepore dismantles the myth of Taylorized efficiency in “Happiness Minutes,” the chapter on working. Her patchwork approach brings to mind a very American phrase, E Pluribus Unum: Out of many, one. Like the country itself, no one figure can tell the whole story. Of course, just as in Life (and just as in life), some stories succeed better than others
In her introduction Lepore contrasts the can-do spirit of Bradley’s game with the harrowing history of the Bradley family in America, beginning with Daniel Bradley’s arrival in Massachusetts in 1635. The traumas endured by just one of Milton Bradley’s ancestors can stand in for the rest: Hannah Bradley, daughter-in-law of Daniel, was kidnapped in 1697 and held by Indians for two years until her husband tracked her down. Five years later she was kidnapped again while pregnant and forced to march through the woods for weeks. When she gave birth in the woods her newborn baby was murdered by her captors.
She survived this trauma and was eventually rescued again by her husband. Several years later she was once more confronted by an Indian at her home, and this time she shot him. As Lepore writes, Hannah’s life “was a story not of success or failure but of fate.” It’s a tremendous way to begin a book on life and death, and Lepore has a brilliant way of selecting just the right historical detail to illuminate a larger point. I would have been happy to spend the entire book with the Bradley family but there is more — so much more — to come.
“Hatched,” chapter one, examines the sensational 1965 debut in Life magazine of Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson’s photos of human embryos. We’ve all seen them — the subsequent book version, “A Child is Born,” is, according to Lepore, the best-selling illustrated book ever published. Yet as Lepore explains, there is a strange and chilling irony in the way these images were presented. Nilsson is not actually depicting the birth of a child; all of his subjects, from egg to embryo to fetus, were dead (with one exception, an image of a live, full-term newborn).
Although referred to as “babies” and “people” in the text of “A Child is Born,” Nilsson photographed miscarriages and abortions, because it wouldn’t have been possible to photograph them any other way. Lepore goes on to discuss the powerful role Nilsson’s photographs played in the anti-abortion movement and their use in the Roe v. Wade decision, then segues into an analysis of Stanley Kubrick’s Nilsson-esque Space Child image in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” If it sounds like a trippy experiment in stream-of-consciousness thinking, well, “The Mansion of Happiness” can sometimes feel that way, but to Lepore’s credit she does return to a few key themes and historical examples throughout the book. Questions of motherhood and an individual’s right to determine her own life come up repeatedly, as does the disturbingly perennial American fantasy of a “world without women.”
The premise of “The Mansion of Happiness’’ game was to instruct its players on how to live a morally-sound life. In Bradley’s version, players would learn how to live a productive one. Lepore’s book, with its weighty subtitle, “A History of Life and Death,” does not aim to be a primer on how to do anything. Instead, the whirlwind of people and concepts flashing by help us understand just how transient many of our contemporary American opinions may be. Americans once distrusted breastfeeding; then they embraced it; then they dropped it again. A hundred years from now, how will Americans feel about it? No one knows. It’s the same with every important topic, from childbirth to puberty to marriage and death. 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 the dice could, in fact, change everything.Buzzy Jackson is author of “Shaking the Family Tree: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Accidental Genealogist” and a research associate at The Center of the American West at the University of Colorado-Boulder. E-mail her at AskBuzzy@gmail.com.