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They Who Would Be Immortal!

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Jason Andrew/Getty Images
A Tea Party rally in Clinton Township, Michigan, April 2010

Jill Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard and a staff writer on The New Yorker, has been astonishingly productive. In 1999, not long out of graduate school, she won the Bancroft Prize for The Name of War, an account of the hideous King Philip’s War of 1675–1676 between the Narragansett Indians and the Puritan settlers with whom they had lived at peace for many years, as well as a reflection on war and writing about war, and on the impact of the war and histories of it on American identity.1 In the past seven years, she has published not only the two books reviewed here, but New York Burning (2005), about a panic over an imagined slave revolt in New York City in 1741, which was a Pulitzer finalist; a novel, Blindspot (2008), written jointly with her colleague Jane Kamensky; and The Whites of Their Eyes (2010), a critical account of the Tea Party movement that was widely praised, and sometimes criticized quite sharply by readers other than Tea Party supporters.2 Who, needless to say, just hated it. Next year she will be publishing a biography of Benjamin Franklin’s youngest sister.

Both of Lepore’s new books follow a pattern that suits this talented essayist’s strengths. The Story of America consists of twenty pieces on topics from King Philip’s War to the abuse of the Constitution in contemporary politics, and from Cotton Mather by way of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Noah Webster to Chang Apana, the Hawaiian Chinese detective who provided the model for Hollywood’s Charlie Chan.

The subtitle Essays on Origins hardly does justice to their range; they include a not wholly persuasive essay arguing that Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” is an antislavery ballad—Longfellow himself never explicitly said it was—and an entirely persuasive essay on the impossibility of writing a biography of George Washington. What ties the essays together is the thought that the United States itself is a series of stories; they focus on stories and storytellers, from historians to poets to publicists and fabulists.

The Mansion of Happiness is described as “a history of life and death,” but as Lepore notes, its individual chapters, too, can stand alone as commentaries on the fads and follies, utopian hopes and frustrated ambitions of the advocates of birth control, marriage counseling, breast-feeding, having ourselves stored postmortem in a deep freeze in Michigan in the hope of making death obsolete, and a good deal more. Like the essays that make up The Story of America, they began life in The New Yorker. The chapters begin with embryology and end on the quest for cryonic immortality. The extensive endnotes offer insights into the frustrating business of tracking down sources, which, as Lepore observes in The Story of America, is still central to the work of real historians. Internet searches can work only after someone has found the physical documents to be digitized; they must first be located, which requires both luck and legwork.

The title of The Mansion of Happiness comes from a nineteenth-century board game. “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.” It was included in a package of games for Civil War soldiers and became hugely successful, and the Milton Bradley company went on making board games until it was taken over by Hasbro in 1984. The game had predecessors; one was The Mansion of Happiness, an English game created around 1800, sold in the United States from 1806, modified for American tastes in 1843, and popular for the rest of the century. The common ancestor of all such games is Indian or generically South Asian. Players advance their pieces on a checkerboard according to the throw of a die or the spin of a top, some squares bringing good fortune, others bad.

The Asian games seem to have been created purely for amusement, but these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century games were promoted for their moral benefits. Parents who purchased The New Game of Life, another early-nineteenth-century import from Britain, were urged to play it with their children and explain the moral implicit in the square on which the child’s counter landed. It may not have been very effective: Lepore reports that her six-year-old son was deeply unimpressed when he discovered that “the Docile Boy” was one who did whatever his mother asked. Still, she much prefers the nineteenth century’s view of life to the view embodied in later games that the purpose of life is to be richer than anyone else. The Mansion of Happiness borrows its structure from the idea that we land on successive squares of the checkerboard from conception to death, although the game that gives the book its title envisaged a happy old age as its terminus, rather than storage in a freezer.

Jill Lepore has a thesis, less about life and death than about how we think of them. Once, human life was seen in a circular fashion: dust to dust. The wheel of fate turned, and we entered the world as helpless infants; the fortunate survived to a healthy maturity, then came old age, a second childhood, helplessness, and death. Now, she says, we have a linear view of life, and although lines come to an end as circles do not, we do our best to stretch out the line as far as science allows.

As to the other end, we now know, as nobody really did until the nineteenth century, how the process of human conception works. Aristotle thought human beings were generated by the mingling of the male seed with female menstrual blood; William Harvey, the seventeenth-century discoverer of the circulation of the blood, seems to have been the first to suggest that human beings were the result of a process which began with the fertilization of an egg, a conjecture that many contemporaries thought insane, and that was impossible to verify directly until much later because mammals, from the mouse to the elephant, produce eggs of much the same, minute size. Many observers who thought they had found the elusive ovum had found something else entirely, including ovaries.

Lepore’s strength is social criticism; she argues that a more scientific understanding of life and death has resulted in quackery, superstition, and excuses for bullying one another, quite as much as the amelioration of the ordinary hazards of existence. On its face, the record is one of astonishing progress:

In 1800, the fertility rate in the United States was over seven births per woman, the average age of the population was sixteen, and life expectancy was under forty. By 2010, the fertility rate had fallen to barely two, the average age of the population had risen to thirty-seven, and the average American could expect to live to nearly eighty.

Our ability to make moral and political sense of this extended existence shows no such improvement.

The center of Lepore’s interest lies in what American popular culture and politics make of the stages of life, including death. The science of embryology prompted all manner of fantasies, from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which human beings are created in “hatcheries” and genetically engineered to fit into the social slots they will occupy in due course, to Lennart Nilsson’s photographs of fetuses that filled the cover and a seven-page spread of Life in April 1965, and finally the image at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, a fetus apparently floating in space inside an egg.

The Mansion of Happiness is often tart, but its victims are largely left to reveal their own follies and absurdities, or have them catalogued by other critics, with only occasional acerbic observations from the author. Kubrick’s 2001 made a lot of money at the box office, but Lepore is plainly sympathetic to Arthur Schlesinger’s description of the film as “morally pretentious, intellectually obsure, and inordinately long,” although the best critique of Kubrick’s grip on the reality of space exploration may have been provided by Kubrick himself when he asked Lloyd’s “to price an insurance policy against Martians being discovered before the release of his film.”

Lepore’s claim that we have moved from a circular to a linear view of life and death is not very plausible. Although the rise of medical science means that most of us are born in a maternity unit and two thirds of us die in a hospital, Shakespeare’s seven ages have been stretched out, not abolished; we are still born “mewling and puking,” and for many people the final months of life are a second childhood of incontinent helplessness and dependence. Nor is it clear how “circular” the circular view was. The Christian view of life is as linear as circular; Saint Augustine himself might be invoked on behalf of the claim that we are peregrini, strangers in this vale of tears, heading for Life Eternal and hoping to avoid the alternative.

One aspect of Lepore’s belief that we have moved from a circular to a linear world is that she shares the British philosopher John Gray’s view that our obsession with the preservation of life at all costs is distinctively modern. The Darwinian revolution established that human beings are animals much like other animals, “gene machines” in Richard Dawkins’s phrase, and the urge to “defeat death” and turn ourselves into perpetual motion machines became overwhelming. There is plainly something to this view, if only because we are less helpless in the face of disease than our forebears were.

But the idea that Darwinism has much to do with our anxiety about defeating death is hard to square with the fact that European countries, where there is none of the hostility to evolutionary theory so common in the United States, are less bothered about the life-and-death issues that roil American politics: abortion rights, the withdrawal of life support from patients in a persistent vegetative state, doctor-assisted suicide, and the like, although Europeans fear genetically modified foods in ways Americans do not. And if one effect of learning more and more about the scientific basis of human life is to imagine ways of prolonging our lives indefinitely, another is that many of us will live to the point where we conclude that enough is enough. Not all societies have thought highly of immortality, let alone of prolonging the process of dying.

Here, Lepore retells the story of Karen Ann Quinlan, the unfortunate young woman from New Jersey who fell into a coma in 1975 after taking drugs at a party. When her parents sought to have her ventilator removed, she became the center of legal battles that have hardly been resolved yet, as the 2005 case of Terri Schiavo demonstrated. Karen Quinlan’s case was extraordinary for more than one reason; when the New Jersey Supreme Court gave the hospital permission to withdraw her ventilator, she astonished everyone by breathing unaided, and surviving for almost a decade before dying of pneumonia in 1985. Her father visited her every day until she died. As many of us know, caring for the dying, however unresponsive they may be, is something we do more for ourselves than for them, and Lepore tells a painful story with a very delicate touch.

  1. 1

    Reviewed in these pages by Gordon S. Wood, April 9, 1998. 

  2. 2

    See Gordon S. Wood, “ No Thanks for the Memories,” The New York Review, January 13, 2011. 

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