Excerpt of The Mansion of Happiness by Jill Lepore
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In 1860, Bradley started a lithography business and brought out an immensely popular election-year lithograph of a clean-shaven Abraham Lincoln. But then, just when it seemed the young striver had finally crawled his way to Success, he nearly sank into Ruin: Lincoln grew a beard, making Bradley's inventory worthless. One evening, a friend came over to cheer him up, bringing with him a board game; from descriptions, it sounds as though this must have been the Mansion of Bliss or a near knockoff. Brad- ley loved it. He decided to invent his own game, with materials he had near to hand: a chessboard and wooden men.
He always claimed to have invented the Checkered Game of Life from scratch, but that's not strictly true. Most of its ideas were, by then, hackneyed. "Life is a kind of chess," Benjamin Franklin once wrote. By playing chess, you could learn foresight, circumspection, caution, and persever- ance.37 An 1834 engraving called The Chess Players; Or, The Game of Life, by the German artist Moritz Retzsch, depicted life as a game of chess between Man and Satan, held in the nave of a Gothic cathedral. Americans reenacted Retzsch's engraving in tableaux vivants. It inspired short stories, novels, and plays. In 1848, one abolitionist complained about com- promises with slaveholding states by arguing, "The North is as unequally matched with the South in this Game of Life as the youth in Retzsch's chess-players, with his Satanic adversary."38
In Bradley's game, you don't play against the devil; you play against other men. And you don't play for your soul; you play for success. Bradley found more in Franklin than in Retzsch. Born in Boston in 1706 into a family much like Hannah Bradley's, Franklin grew up listening to Cotton Mather's sermons. But the story of his life, as he told it, wasn't the story of dry bones quickening; it was the story of a voyage "from the Poverty and Obscurity in which I was born and bred, to a state of Affluence and some degree of Reputation in the World." It was the story of "the way to wealth."
This, then, was the genius of Milton Bradley's invention: he took a game imported from India and made it into the story of America. He turned a game of knowledge into the path to prosperity. He wrote a set of rules and lithographed a board. After he had manufactured enough boxes to make a sales trip, he took a train to New York, walked into a stationery store, and said to the manager, "How do you do, sir. I am Milton Bradley of the Milton Bradley Company of Springfield. I have come to New York with some samples of a new and most amazing game, sir. 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. May I demonstrate how it is played?" He sold out his stock, went back to Springfield, and, with a pocketful of cash, got engaged. He was married later that year. He was twenty-four.
The Checkered Game of Life is deceptively simple. Twirl the teetotum, a numbered, six-sided top, and move your wooden man around the board, collecting points by landing on any of the eight point-value squares. Whoever earns 100 points first wins. Some squares help you along, little lithographed hands pointing the way, as when Perseverance leads you to Success, worth 5 points. (Very Franklinian, that.) Spinning a 2 from the red square between Ruin and Fat Office forces you to land on Suicide, where, ignominiously, you die, but almost any spin from nearly every other square involves a decision, a choice among as many as eight possible moves. Unlike The New Game of Human Life or the Mansion of Happiness, the Checkered Game of Life requires you to make decisions, lots of them. Nothing is in God's hands. It's best to have a plan.
Excerpted from The Mansion of Happiness by Jill Lepore. Copyright © 2012 by Jill Lepore. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.