Excerpt from The Mansion of Happiness by Jill Lepore, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Mansion of Happiness

A History of Life and Death

by Jill Lepore

The Mansion of Happiness by Jill Lepore
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2012, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2013, 320 pages

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Elizabeth Whitmore Funk

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The secularization of progress and the rise of individualism had a great deal to do with another transformation: the shape of a life was changing. Life used to begin where it ended; it ended where it began. A lot of other things used to be circular, too. Everything went round and round: day and night, the seasons, the crops in the field, fate. In an unraveling that had begun even before Daniel Bradley sailed to Salem, all those circles were turning into lines. The sun still set at the end of every day, but now you could turn on the lights and day would never end. The very idea of history came to a kind of close. The world of tomorrow was infinitely more interesting than the world of yesterday. Novelty replaced redemption.

While his father worked in the mills, Milton Bradley attended Lowell's grammar and high schools. Then he went to the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard, where he likely studied with Jacob Bigelow, Harvard's Rumford Professor of Physical and Mathematical Science. In a widely read treatise called Elements of Technology, Bigelow used the word "technology" to describe "the application of the sciences to the useful arts." (Before that, technology was something you made by hand. Bigelow's usage soon found a place in the name of a new school: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.) Technology, Bigelow said, was "promoting the progress and happiness of our race." That's neither what Bunyan meant by progress nor Milton by bliss. No machine can take you into the mansion of happiness or even to the gate of heaven.

Lewis Bradley did not find happiness shackled to a new and improved loom. He left Lowell for Hartford, in search of better work, which meant that his son had to drop out of school. Here, though, was yet another novelty: the Bradleys could travel from Lowell to Hartford by train. At the time, the locomotive was the symbol of progress, pictured, in prints and paintings, chugging across the continent, conquering nature, unstoppable. You could measure it: each mile of railroad track was another mile of progress. In the 1840s, train tracks reached across Massachusetts, much to the distress of Henry David Thoreau, who had built on the banks of a pond in Concord a very different mansion of happiness: a cabin in the woods. While the train to Fitchburg rode by, its whistle screeching, its smokestack puffing, Thoreau wrote that all those machines were merely "improved means to an unimproved end": "We boast that we belong to the nineteenth century and are making the most rapid strides of any nation," but that, he believed, was humbug. "We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us."

Thoreau planted a hill of beans and spent his time hoeing, reading, writing, picking huckleberries, and listening to bullfrogs trumping, hawks screaming, and whip-poor-wills singing vespers. "Mr. Thoreau is thus at war with the political economy of the age," one reviewer of Walden complained in 1854. But Thoreau wasn't so much battling progress as dodging it. He had the idea "not to live in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century, but stand or sit thoughtfully while it goes by." No one can manage that. Ralph Waldo Emerson drafted a letter, never sent: "My dear Henry, A frog was made to live in a swamp, but a man was not made to live in a swamp. Yours ever, R."

Milton Bradley, no frog he, did not sit out the restless, nervous, bustling, trivial nineteenth century. He kept striving. He left Hartford. By 1856, he had made his way to Springfield, Massachusetts, where, two years later, he opened his own business: "MILTON BRADLEY Mechanical Draftsman & Patent Solicitor." In an age of machines, he would write not poems or prayers but patents. The next year, when Sa‘id Pasha, the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, hired a Springfield firm to build a $300,000 railroad train on which he might travel the newly laid tracks between Cairo and Alexandria, it was Milton Bradley who designed and supervised the construction of a rosewood-and-mahogany observation car, from sketches supplied by an Egyptian artist.

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.

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