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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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.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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 game of life, by asking, What would Life be like if it were invented today? That’s a question about the present. If you turn it around, though, you can make it into a question about the past: Why did Milton Bradley invent the Checkered Game, the way he did, when he did? How, in short, did Life begin?
A great many questions about life and death have no answers, including, notably, these three: How does life begin? What does it mean? What happens when you’re dead? These questions are ancient; they riddle myths and legends; they lie at the heart of every religion; they animate a great deal of scientific research. No one has ever answered them and no one ever will, but everyone tries; trying is the human condition. All anyone can do is ask. That’s why any history of ideas about life and death has to be, like this book, a history of curiosity.
“How did the game of life begin?,” though, isn’t an existential question; it’s a historical one, and you can find answers to historical questions in libraries, museums, and archives, like the U.S. Patent Office. “I, MILTON BRADLEY, . . . have invented a new Social Game,” Bradley wrote on his patent application. “In addition to the amusement and excitement of the game, it is intended to forcibly impress upon the minds of youth the great moral principles of virtue and vice.”4 It was a new game, but the genealogy of the Checkered Game of Life stretches back centuries and across oceans. Bradley’s invention is descended from a family of ancient Southeast Asian games—members of a genus called “square board race games”—whose common ancestor is probably over a thousand years old. Nepal has the “game of karma”; Tibet has the “game of liberation.” In India, Jñána Chaupár, the game of knowledge, is played much like the Checkered Game of Life: land on a virtue and you get to climb a ladder toward the god Vishnu; land on a vice and you’re swallowed by a snake. Life has its ups and it has its downs. Then you die, the snake spits you out, and you start again.
In the nineteenth century, games from the farthest reaches of the Brit- ish Empire and beyond found their way into middle-class Victorian parlors. A Persian game of life was collected, probably about 1810, by a British major general serving in northern India. The American firm of Selchow & Righter packaged pachisi as the Game of India at least as early as 1867. The New York–based McLoughlin Brothers sold the ancient Japanese game of Go as Go-Bang in 1887. Beginning in 1892, Jñána Chaupár was available in Britain as Snakes and Ladders; in the United States it was sold, entirely unhinged from its Indian origins, and decidedly karma-free, as Chutes and Ladders.5
Unfortunately, although Milton Bradley kept a diary all his life, he never put his papers in an archive, and most of them have been lost, which, not- withstanding his patent application, makes it something of a challenge to know exactly how a young New Englander came, on the eve of the Civil War, to adapt an ancient Southeast Asian game to a red-and-ivory check- erboard featuring an American vision of the good life.6 He certainly never traveled to India. Still, he didn’t have to look half a world away to find what he was after.
That life’s a game that can be played well or badly is a very old idea, in the West no less than in the East. The people in Thomas More’s 1516 Utopia play a game of life, “not much unlike the chesse,” in which “vices fyghte wyth vertues, as it were in battell.” (The origins of chess are murky. It is thought to have been invented either in India before a.d. 600 or in China about a.d. 800.)7 How to win and what the rules are—whether you’re play- ing against yourself or against God or Satan—are matters of much specu- lation. In 1640, the English poet George Herbert put it this way:
Man’s life’s a game at tables and he may
Mend his bad fortune, by his wiser play;
Death plays against us, each disease and sore
In Man versus Death, being clever helps, but the best you can hope for is to prolong the game. Death always wins. Death is a bastard. Death cheats.
Milton Bradley took a different view. In the Checkered Game of Life, you can win and you can lose and you can even be ruined, but there’s no square called Death. Unless you land on Suicide, you can’t actually die. Also, you have some control over your fate. “The journey of life is governed by a combination of chance and judgment,” he explained.9 There’s what you roll, and there’s where you choose to go. The Checkered Game of Life is a game of destiny checked by strategy. This really was new, because Mil- ton Bradley came from a family ruled for generations by nothing so much as an angry God.
The Bradleys arrived in New England in 1635, when Daniel Bradley, an apothecary’s son, settled in Salem, in Massachusetts Bay, just five years after the Puritans founded their city on a hill. Their sufferings were biblical. Dan- iel Bradley was killed by Indians in 1689; six years later, his fifteen-year-old son, Isaac, was taken captive. In 1697, another son, his wife, and two of their children died in an attack on the town of Haverhill, during which Hannah Bradley, the wife of still another of Daniel’s sons, was captured, whereupon her husband, Joseph, trudged after her, through waist-high snows, with his dog and a purse of coin. He meant to ransom her.
To be rescued from captivity was to be redeemed. It took Joseph Bradley two years, but he finally redeemed his wife and brought her home. Then, in the winter of 1704, Indians returned to Haverhill and broke into the Bradleys’ house all over again. This time, Hannah, who was eight months pregnant, fought back. “Perceiving the Misery that was attending her, and having boiling Soap on the Fire,” she “scalded one of them to Death,” as the minister of Boston’s North Church, Cotton Mather, described it in an account of her trials and tribulations. She hid her sister and one of her children in the back of the house; eventually, she surrendered. She was then forced to walk, for weeks, over hundreds of miles, northward; she lived on nuts, bark, and wild onions. Once, she was allowed a piece of moose hide. She prayed “that the Lord would put an end unto her weary Life!” Six weeks into her captivity, she gave birth, “with none but the Snow under her, and the Heaven over her.” When the baby cried, the Indians “threw hot Embers in its Mouth,” which rendered its “Mouth so sore, that it could not Suck . . . So that it Starv’d and Dy’d.” She endured by faith alone. “She had her Mind often Irradiated with Strong Perswasions and Assurances, that she should yet See the Goodness of God, in this Land of the Living.” At last, “her tender and Loving Husband . . . found her out, and fetch’d her home, a Second time.” And what, upon her redemption, did she pray? “O magnifie the LORD with me, and let us Exalt his Name together.” The next time an Indian came to her door, she shot him. She lived to be ninety.10
In 1707, when Mather wrote about Bradley’s captivity and redemption, he used her story as an allegory for the Puritans’ errand into the wilder- ness, quoting Virgil: “Ab una Disce omnes.” From one, learn all. That same year, he delivered a sermon called “The Spirit of Life Entering into the Spiritually Dead,” preaching from the gospel of Luke: “He was Dead, and is Alive again.” Resurrection is redemption from the captivity of death, but Mather spoke, too, about another kind: redemption from the captivity of sin. Sinners are dead souls, dry bones, but they can be quickened, made alive. There wasn’t much you could do to be saved; the Lord would decide, on the Day of Judgment. You can hearken: “O ye Dry Bones, Hear the word of the Lord.” And you can pray: “Lord, I am Dead! I am Dead! Oh! Let me ly no longer among the Dead.”11
Hannah Bradley’s life was in God’s hands; her captivity was a blessing, her redemption a lesson. She was far from helpless, but she was pursuing neither happiness nor even happy old age. Hers was a story not of success or failure but of fate: God had chosen to visit her with affliction, and there
was nothing she could do but praise him, remembering Psalms 119:50: “This is my comfort in my affliction: for thy word hath quickened me.” Hannah Bradley didn’t think of life as a game. There was no game; there was only God, his word, and the quick and the dead.
The first game called Life, in English, wasn’t Milton Bradley’s. It was the New Game of Human Life, a board game engraved and inked in 1790 by John Wallis, a London printer and mapmaker. Card and table games were fashionable in eighteenth-century London, which is where Hoyle’s books of rules were first published. Board games look like maps, and they were made by mapmakers. The first board game sold to children, Journey Through Europe, or the Play of Geography, was printed in London in 1759. The first jigsaw puzzle, Europe Divided into Its Kingdoms, also a map, was sold seven years later. Wallis’s New Game of Human Life is a map, too: its life is a journey along a twisty path from birth to death, with eighty-four stops on the road, one for each year.12
The notion of life as a voyage goes way back. Plato, in The Republic, wrote about old men as “travelers who have gone a journey.”13 Francis Bacon, in his History of Life and Death, described life as a “pilgrimage through the wilderness of this world.” (It might be a long trip, Bacon warned, so be careful not to wear your shoes out: you might need them in the after- life.)14 In Wallis’s game, life is a voyage to salvation, just as it is in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, first printed in 1678.15 (Either salvation or that other place: “I saw that there was a way to hell,” Bunyan wrote, “even from the gates of heaven.”) Your progress is speeded up by virtue and slowed down by vice. Each stop is a “character.” You begin at the Infant. Who- ever dies first wins. Your reward is to become, at eighty-four, the Immortal Man. There are setbacks at every turn, Jñána Chaupár all over again. Land on the Married Man, at the square marked 34 (the thirty-fourth year of your life), and you get to advance to the Good Father, at 56; but land on the Duelist, at 22, and you’ll be sent back to age 3, for acting like a child. There is some slight sense of improvement—the acquisition of wisdom, maybe—not unlike that captured in a proverb Benjamin Franklin once printed in Poor Richard’s Almanack: “At 20 years of age the Will reigns; at 30 the Wit; at 40 the Judgment.”16 The Benevolent Man, age 52, has much to recommend him. Still, there are rogues and knaves all over the board, from the Thoughtless Boy, a ten-year-old, to the Troublesome Companion, at eighty-one. Every age has its folly.
The New Game of Human Life borrowed its board and rules from the Royal Game of Goose, invented in Florence in the sixteenth century, and one of a class called “spiral race games.” The oldest spiral race game may be the Hyena Game, played for centuries by Arabs in Sudan, in a groove traced in the sand with a stick. It involves a race between pebbles represent- ing the players’ mothers, who leave their village and head to a well at the spiral’s center, where they must wash their clothes and return home before a hyena catches them. (A similar game, from ancient Egypt, is known as Hounds and Jackal.)17 Wallis adapted the spiral race game to the idea that life is a voyage in which travelers are buffeted between vice and virtue. It was this allegory that gave the New Game of Human Life its “UTILITY and MORAL TENDENCY.” Parents were instructed to play with their childre...
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