New history books (June 2012 edition)

Posted in American, Books, Culture by Alex L. on July 24, 2012

History off the Book header

U.S. intellectual history

Mansion-of-HappinessWell-written books about intellectual history are rare, but I had high expectations of Jill Lepore’s new work, The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death. Lepore is not only an academic historian (she is the Chair of the History and Literature Program at Harvard) but also a regular writer for The New Yorker. Her latest book is a collection of her essays about how American ideals about life and death have changed over the past several hundred years. “[M]y argument,” Lepore writes in the Preface, “is that the age of discovery, Darwin, and the space age turned ideas about life on earth topsy-turvy” (xi).

Of all the essays in the collection, the ones that stuck with me the most were her first and last. She begins the book with a blunt and powerful metaphor: life (the board game, that is). LIFE was part of my childhood collection of pixel-less games, which also included Stratego, Risk, Clue, Parcheesi, Thin Ice, and Go to the Head of the Class (all of which have recently been rescued from a mildewy corner of the crawl space in my parents’ house). But LIFE has a much more extensive genealogy than I realized before reading Lepore’s book.

The first board game of life in America was called The New Game of Human Life, and enjoyed popularity during the Revolutionary period. It reflected a much different view of living than the game that I played as a boy. “The [New Game of Human Life],” writes Lepore, “is a creed: life is a voyage that begins at birth and ends at death, God is at the helm, fate is cruel, and your reward lies beyond the grave. Nevertheless, to Puritans, who considered gambling the work of the devil, playing a game of life was, itself, an immoral pursuit” (xxi).

It took Milton Bradley, who came of age in the mid-nineteenth century, to create a game of life that reflected the new optimism and individualism of America. Bradley studied at the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard at the same time that Jacob Bigelow, who coined the modern usage of the word “technology,” taught there. Milton started a lithography business but it nearly failed when, in 1860, he put out a lithograph of newly-elected President Abraham Lincoln with a clean-shaven face when concurrently the president first grew out his trademark beard.

Bradley, Lepore describes, got the idea to create and print a new board game after a friend of his brought one over one night to lift Bradley’s spirits. Bradley pitched his invention to a manager of a stationery store in New York by describing it “[as a] highly moral game, may I say, that encourages children to lead exemplary lives and entertains both old and young with the spirit of friendly competition” (xxvii). The Checkered Game of Life, as Bradley called it, placed a premium on individual choice – especially in the realm of morality – in order to win. The squares of the game board read like a list of virtues, vices, temptations, and milestones: Idleness, Honor, Intemperance, Prison, Perseverance, Matrimony, Industry, and Happy Old Age.

Milton Bradley’s game-of-life franchise would undergo several different iterations to reflect the changing ideals of American society. The game that I played growing up, LIFE, still glorified individual decision-making but along the narrow trajectory of a middle-class lifestyle: what career will the player follow (for some reasons, I always preferred “Travel Agent”) and how much money will he accumulate before retirement? The board game, superimposed over a wooded lawn, reminded me of a golf course. I liked playing LIFE, but my friends and I preferred Risk and Stratego.

In her last essay, “Resurrection,” Lepore follows the life of Robert Ettinger, whom she interviewed shortly before his death. Ettinger was one of the founders of the cryonics movement and executive of the Cryonics Institute, a warehouse of frozen human bodies awaiting the promise of reanimation in a future age when science has caught up to human imagination and hopes for perpetual life. Lepore’s insight into the amateurish practices of cryonics (“In 2002, when Red Sox baseball great Ted Williams died, his head was sawed off and frozen” (177)) and its similarity to faulty arguments used sometimes by Christians is insightful. “The MIT professor Marvin Minsky, who will await resurrection at Alcor,” writes Lepore, “emailed me, in lieu of an explanation, this helpful chart:

Cryonics It Works It Doesn’t Work
Sign up Live Die, lost life insurance
Do nothing Die Die

“Which looks a lot like this chart:

God Exists Doesn’t Exist
Pray hard Live Die
Do nothing Die Die

“And which, while altogether different from faith, is another way of trying to cover all the bases” (178).

I think Lepore has mostly succeeded in several of these essays to do what in my humble opinion the intellectual historian does best: deepen our understanding of a commonplace idea or sentiment by following the thread of its genealogy back to a less familiar time. I also immensely enjoyed the chapter titled “Happiness Minutes” which was enlightening on the topic of the origins of scientific management and business schools.

I like Lepore’s book, but it is not without its flaws. I think Lepore is at her best when she treats the historical characters she writes about with sympathy. Sometimes she lapses into a judgmental tone which for me took the air out of the (otherwise immersive) narrative, leaving some of her essays to wheeze along to a flat concluding note. So the chapters in her book – many of which were originally published as articles in The New Yorker – for me are like a bag of Halloween candy: there are the licorice and coconut treats I’d leave in the bag for some later date but also the rich and gooey chocolates I’d gobble up on the first pass.

Notable mentions

book-iconVictory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution. Linda Hirshman. Like other civil rights struggles, the recent history of the LGBT community is not just a story about legal battles. It’s also one of challenging many Americans to become more empathetic.

book-iconChina Airborne. James Fallows. Westerners – some of whom were fighter pilots in WWI – introduced aviation to China a hundred years ago. Now China today has the ambitious goal of becoming the world’s leading manufacturer of airplanes.

book-iconMan of War: My Adventures in the World of Historical Reenactment. Charlie Schroeder. Sometimes just studying history is not enough: one wants to take part in it. This book is about people who have this urge and take it to the next level.

book-iconThe Second World War. Antony Beevor. There have been several one-volume histories of WWII published in the past year, including Inferno and Storm of War. Author of the excellent work Stalingrad takes a shot at this in his new book.

book-iconStalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov. Geoffrey Roberts. General Zhukov was as influential a general during WWII as Eisenhower or Guderian. Roberts’s work is a lengthy biography of Zhukov, while Robert Forczyk published a much shorter one in March.

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