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
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2012, 320 pages
    Mar 2013, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elizabeth Whitmore Funk

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Most players, I find, try to go to School, and then to College (worth 5 points), heading slowly toward the top of the board and Happy Old Age, on worth a whopping 50 points. But your chances of going to School are not good: from your starting position, at Infancy, you have to spin either a 3 or a 6. You're quite likely to end up at Poverty instead. Despair not. "It will be seen that poverty lies near the cradle," Bradley wrote in the rules of the game, explaining why he had placed Poverty just two squares from Infancy. But because "in starting life, it is not necessarily a fact that poverty will be a disadvantage, so in the game it causes the player no loss." Even if you skip School altogether, you may be rewarded by landing on Honesty, and sent from there directly to Happiness.

It's possible to win the Checkered Game of Life without ever reaching Happy Old Age - after all, people do die young - but it's not easy. And, as Bradley warned, "Happy Old Age is surrounded by many difficulties": land on Idleness, and you'll be sent to Disgrace, at the very bottom of the board, which means that you have to climb back up all over again. Ignore Bradley's warning at your peril. Here's another word of advice: don't enter Politics, if you can possibly avoid it. You'll go to Congress and earn 5 points, but you'll be carried away from Happy Old Age and you'll woefully increase your chances of landing on Crime and ending up in Prison, where you lose a turn, "for any person who is sent to prison is interrupted in his pursuit of happiness."

When Bradley brought out his Checkered Game of Life, in 1860, parents, apparently, greeted it as merely "a new form of the game dear to children as The Mansion of Happiness." In his patent application, Bradley himself insisted that his game was "intended to forcibly impress upon the minds of youth the great moral principles of virtue and vice." But the Checkered Game of Life is vastly darker and more ruthless than its predecessors. In the Mansion of Happiness, landing on Truth - which you can't avoid, if a spin of the teetotum sends you there - advances you six squares; in the Checkered Game of Life, Truth exists, and you can choose to seek it out, but it has no value whatsoever. (Thoreau would not have approved: "Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.") Bradley's game rewards only those virtues that lead to Wealth and Success, like Industry and Perseverance. It has no use for Patience or Charity, which aren't even on the board. By 1866, the game even promoted betting on the stock market, on a square called Speculation. In sixty-four squares, Bradley's game both celebrated and made possible his own rags-to-riches rise. The Checkered Game of Life isn't a race to heaven; it's a series of calculations about the best route to collect the most points, fastest. Accumulate or fail.

Bradley accumulated. He sold forty thousand copies of his game in its first year, and made his fortune when he decided to sell Games for Soldiers, a portable box of games (the Checkered Game of Life, backgammon, checkers, and chess), just as the Civil War broke out. The Checkered Game of Life found a place in the knapsack of nearly every Union soldier. Poverty ... Industry ... Perseverance ... Success.

Not long afterward, Mark Twain wrote a piece for the New York Tribune called "The Revised Catechism":

What is the chief end of man?
A. To get rich.

In what way?
A. Dishonestly if we can, honestly if we must.

A. Money is God....

Do we progress?
A. You bet your life.

And that, in nineteenth-century America, was how you played the checkered game.

"You could never in a million years sell it today," Mel Taft told me. Taft used to be vice president of research and development at the Milton Bradley Company. In 1959, when Taft and his colleagues were preparing for the company's centennial, they - wisely - never considered reviving Bradley's original game. It was quaint; it was old-fashioned; good grief, it even had a square for Intemperance. They decided, instead, to hire a California company that had started the hula hoop craze to develop a new game of life. When Taft first saw what they'd come up with, he knew it was a doozy: "It looked like a million bucks."

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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