Jill Lepore, David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History and New Yorker staffer, investigates the drift toward polarization in American thinking about life and death in her new book, “The Mansion of Happiness.”

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Arts & Culture

From cradle to grave, through history

5 min read

Lepore’s ‘Mansion’ chronicles American views toward stages of life

This is the latest installment in the Gazette’s summer series showcasing recent books by Harvard authors.

It took a while for Jill Lepore to realize she was writing a full-blown book about the ways Americans view the stages of life.

The evidence accumulated slowly: piles of notes and primary sources, essays she’d written here and there for The New Yorker on topics such as breast pumps and cryogenic freezing — even old board games of life, a newfound fascination.

“I didn’t set out to write a book about life and death,” says Lepore, David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History. Then, with the arrival of a $6,000 overdue notice from Widener Library, came her expensive epiphany — the seemingly disparate books she’d been turning to in her research weren’t, actually. (Luckily, most of the fine was later forgiven.)

“I realized, Oh, I guess everything I’m writing is related,” she recalls. “There’s a theme here.”

That theme became “The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death,” in which Lepore shows, with equal parts wit and wisdom, that anxieties about how to define stages of life have plagued Americans from the outset.

“That’s me trying to talk down my own anxiety,” she says with a laugh. “I find a lot of comfort in realizing that very few problems are actually new.”

What is new, she argues, is how politicized matters of life and death have become. Lepore, no stranger to controversial topics in her work as a staff writer for The New Yorker, says she wanted to offer some historical context in the debate over issues like abortion and the right to die.

“It’s not that there’s not a lot at stake or that these issues are not morally troubling,” she says. “It’s that the terms of the debate have been made to seem both timeless and two-sided. This is the problem with mapping really complicated moral questions onto a two-party political system, in which every issue has only two sides. Either it’s right or it’s wrong, it’s good or it’s evil, it’s murder or it’s freedom.

“The party system is probably the worst possible place to work these ideas out,” she says.

“The Mansion of Happiness” — a journey through American cultural history, stuffed with perfectly selected anecdotes, historical coincidences, and a colorful cast of dreamers, visionaries, and hucksters  — offers a respite from partisan rhetoric.

In Lepore’s hands, the smallest cultural artifacts become entry points for meditations on existential questions. Take those board games: The book draws its title from a popular 19th-century game of life that instructed its players in how to be morally upright. (“The Mansion of Happiness is not fun to play. But it is funny,” she says of the game’s heavy-handed punishments for Sabbath-breaking and other wrongdoings.) In comparing the Mansion of Happiness with Milton Bradley’s 1860 Checkered Game of Life, with its emphasis on productivity, and with the latest iteration of Bradley’s game, which gives its players no set goals at all, Lepore shows how our ideas of what it means to live a good life have changed.

Indeed, she argues, much like the games, our idea of the life cycle has evolved, with a linear path, start to finish, replacing a circular process. That idea, which has been articulated by other scholars of modernity, had a profoundly personal resonance for Lepore, whose best friend died of cancer within hours of Lepore delivering her first child. (“It’ll be like the baby and I will be waving at each other, passing along the existential highway,” she recalls her friend saying.)

“I think that, looking back, questions about life and death have been on my mind since that moment,” Lepore says. “I’m sure that I thought a lot about the relationship between birth and death before then, but, from that moment on, I didn’t think about it while sitting in a quiet room in a library, staring out the window and musing, Emersonian. I thought about it while changing diapers and crying over someone I would never see again and who never got to hold this baby.”

Writing “Mansion,” a hybrid of more traditional scholarship and magazine writing, was a change of pace from her normal work, Lepore says. She’ll follow it up with a book of essays in October, “The Story of America: Essays on Origins,” a collection of New Yorker pieces exploring American democracy’s long-standing relationship with the printed word. Next year she’ll publish a biography of Jane Franklin, Benjamin’s sister, a project she began in 2008. It’s natural to wonder where she finds the energy, let alone the inspiration, for such prolific output.

“Before I worked for The New Yorker, I just wrote a ton of stuff and stuffed it in a drawer,” she says. “I write all the time; I always have. It’s just what I do. I am never not writing.”

But even for a self-described “maniacally efficient person,” the juggling act of a scholar-journalist — not to mention Harvard professor and mother of three boys — isn’t as easy as she makes it look.

“I don’t actually know how to do all those things at once,” she says. “I’ve had to stagger them.” It helps that she finds writing for a general audience just as gratifying as publishing for her academic peers.

“I’m not really sold on the distinction between writing for the academy and writing for the public,” she says. “Some kinds of writing can be both. Some kinds of writing should be both.”

To read an excerpt from “The Mansion of Happiness” (Random House), click here.