Jill Lepore’s The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death (Vintage Books, $16) should really be called “The History of Everything.” She moves digression to the realm of art. These essays, many appearing first on the pages of The New Yorker, provide an interesting and exhilarating journey for the reader who dares to follow Lepore’s blazing trail of prose through the meanderings of human history and experience.
“This book is a history of ideas about life and death from before the cradle to beyond the grave,” Lepore writes in her Preface. We should forgive the cliché. It may be history, but the book also has a free-associative quality that keeps surprising the reader at every turn. There are intricate connections and themes that link figures and events, and Lepore obviously finds joy in her work because it is present on every page. Her prose is often humorous and barbed as she explores her subjects. She is a story teller, and therefore, the best kind of teacher. In fact, it is her stated mission to make history an argument with story; story, history, argument: a trinity well worth its weight in gold.
Lepore begins with The Checkered Game of Life. Literally, she examines board games, many created by entrepreneur Milton Bradley. Through games like Life and chess, players “learn foresight, circumspection, caution and perseverance,” she writes. She tells the fascinating history of Bradley’s ancestors, probably the best stories in the book. Indians murdered Daniel Bradley. The wife of Daniel’s son was kidnapped twice, forcing her husband to travel hundreds of miles to ransom her from the Indians. “To be rescued from captivity was to be redeemed,” Lapore writes. Joseph’s wife was no wallflower when it came to her own redemption. While eight months’ pregnant, she scalded one attacker and killed him with boiling water. On her trek with her kidnappers, “she lived on nuts, bark, and wild onions.” When she gave birth, she squatted and expelled the child in the snow right there on the trail. The Indians killed the infant. After two stints as a prisoner, the next Indian who came to her door faced an angry woman with a blazing gun barrel. “She lived to be ninety,” writes Lepore.
The book has a loose-limbed structure tied to the rambling framework of life and death. She tells us about the human discovery of our own origins, linking Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson’s iconic pictures in Life magazine to the work of William Harvey and later, to the film-maker Stanley Kubrick. She dissects the art and history of breastfeeding. In another chapter, we follow the odyssey of E.B. White as he writes and publishes Stuart Little. White is antagonized by the woman who invented the children’s section in the public library, Anne Carroll Moore, according to Lepore. Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood, and forced sterilization take center stage in another chapter. Lepore ends her book in a warehouse of cryogenically frozen human popsicles hanging upside down in sleeping bags floating in tanks of liquid nitrogen at 320 degrees below zero. They are waiting to be defrosted and resurrected somewhere beyond the horizon of history in a time not yet made. Heady stuff, and that’s only a pie slice of Lepore’s scope in the book.
Endings of chapters offer a kick to the gut; Lepore excels at tying disparate subjects together in a hangman’s noose—deadly and decisive. At the end of “All About Erections,” her son asks if one needs a “conundrum” for oral sex,” obviously mistaking one word for another. “I put down my newspaper,” Lepore tells us, “And then, carrying on an ancient and honorable family tradition, I whiffed the bejeezus out of that one.” There is no corner too dark, a subject too ribald or character too eccentric for Lepore’s laser analysis and observation. In her chapter on birth control, she bemoans that a century after Sanger, “in the United States, one set of ideas about parenthood [exists] for the poor and another for the wealthy.”
Jill Lepore ends her book by circling back to the beginning. “I have come to believe that what people make of the relationship between life and death has got a good deal to do with how they think about the present and the past,” she writes. “If history is the art of making an argument by telling a story about the dead, which is how I see it, the dead never die; they are merely forgotten or, especially if they are loved, remembered, quick as ever.” She reaffirms, on the pages of The Mansion of Happiness, that the past tells us what the present means, and if we pay attention, what the future holds far away beyond the curve of the horizon in a time to come.