In her new book The Mansion of Happiness, the historian Jill Lepore claims that the debates Americans have over issues like abortion, stem cell research and end-of-life care, usually understood as having to do with science and religion alone, must also be understood historically. She means that these debates get nasty when people forget that ideas about life and death have a history of their own—that they aren’t “eternal.” Yet The Mansion of Happiness suffers from many of the same deficiencies Lepore associates with the scientific or religious views of life she implicitly criticizes: it is too simple, too narrow, too mechanistic, too sure of its own sufficiency. Lepore believes in the importance of history, but only insofar as it can help people avoid making bad arguments based on false information. She identifies sweeping transformations, but without seeing that their results often grow in different, even conflicting directions, like two stems branching out from the same root. Like a lot of other supposedly intellectual books that dot our bestseller lists, Lepore’s recent work supplies some good cocktail anecdotes—but hardly anything heavy enough to last through dinner.
The middle of the twentieth century has become near mythical for American historians, representing a time when well-regarded scholars still had some presence in the public sphere. Lepore, at least on the surface, would seem to come closest to occupying the position formerly held by the likes of Richard Hofstadter. Since she started writing for The New Yorker in 2005, Lepore has branched out from book reviews to wide-ranging essays that investigate the historical background of whatever is in the news—epidemics, elections, the Supreme Court, Planned Parenthood. She writes well; she’s funny and accessible; she often has something surprising to say. Her arguments generally fit well with my politics. But in the last few years I have started to wonder: Is this all that popular history can be?
Consider The Whites of Their Eyes (2010), in which Lepore attempts to explain the emergence of the Tea Party movement—a phenomenon crying out for an able historian in the Hofstadter mold. The book, which examines especially the Tea Partiers’ claims about the American Revolution, turned out to be as condescending as it was simplistic. “Originalism looks like history,” Lepore argues, “but it’s not; it’s historical fundamentalism, which is to history what astrology is to astronomy, what alchemy is to chemistry, what creationism is to evolution.” As Gordon Wood documented in his lacerating review for the New York Review of Books, Lepore began by mocking the Tea Partiers for their misunderstanding of history, then proceeded to go one further and mock the idea that we ought to care about the Founding Fathers at all. For Lepore, the question of what the founders would do is “ill-considered” and “pointless” as regards contemporary debates: “No NASA scientist decides what to do about the Hubble by asking what Isaac Newton would make of it,” she writes.
The comparison tells much about the kind of endeavor Lepore considers herself to be involved in. As a social scientist engaged in objective analysis, Lepore assures her readers that they should feel good about themselves for having moved beyond the eighteenth century’s (and the Tea Party’s) problems and prejudices. But there’s also a deeper problem with the book, which is its assumption that a better understanding of history ought to clear up political debate. This is the historian’s fallacy: to think that by using history to show what really happened in the past, the dispassionate but benevolent historian can free the world from harmful delusions, allowing us to implement clear policies for an improved future.
The same idea crops up in Lepore’s latest book. A highly selective and idiosyncratic collection of previously published work, The Mansion of Happiness is presented as “a history of ideas about life and death from before the cradle to beyond the grave.” Lepore’s method is hardly systematic. Chapters cover disparate topics from eggs and sex-ed books to breast pumps and birth control, to children’s literature, marriage counseling, eugenics and cryonics. Behind this array of topics, though, lies a single, persistent question: How has the modern world changed the way we think about living and dying?
This is a huge and important topic, one with significant historical and personal interest—and one that invites a sweeping interpretation of past and present. After industrialization, medical advances and discoveries like natural selection had arrived in the nineteenth century, people in the early twentieth century began to look at their lives in an entirely new way. Darwin made people wonder whether their lives were just like those of other animals (was death just the end of the line?), and there emerged a new “science of human life,” dedicated to making people fitter, happier and more productive. Psychologists like G. Stanley Hall began to split life into new stages, such as adolescence and senescence; management gurus like Frederick Winslow Taylor devised ways to reduce wasted time at work. And so on.
At the outset, Lepore acknowledges that history can’t answer every question about the ways we think about life and death today, yet she immediately ignores her own advice when she turns to politics. The issues she is concerned with are, of course, political, but “matters of life and death are not, inherently, partisan,” Lepore claims—notingthat Progressivism was not originally a partisan movement but one that coursed through both major political parties at the time. Today, though, things are different, and Lepore is not happy about it. Lepore deplores the way Republicans in the past fifty years have turned matters of life and death to political ends while also turning political debates into matters of life and death.
Adapting Hofstadter’s famous thesis that there is a recurrent “paranoid style” in American politics, Lepore thinks we’re now seeing “a whole new sort of paranoia growing in America—not over a way of life, but over life itself.” She shows that the Republican stand against abortion, for instance, was devised by political strategists—led by a young Patrick Buchanan—in the early Seventies. A few years later, in 1975, the question of whether Karen Ann Quinlan’s family could ask doctors to remove the respirator from their comatose daughter garnered national media attention and comparisons to Nazi medicine. For Lepore, the Quinlan case marks the true turning point, after which “all manner of domestic policy issues were recast as matters of life and death.” Abortion, the “sanctity of life,” birth control and parenthood have now become heavily partisan issues, in a shift she says has “fundamentally altered American political culture” for the worse. “When politics turns on a right shrouded in the sacred,” Lepore explains, “political conversation is no longer civil, pluralist, and yielding.” Instead of the give and take of real debate, “there’s only one sort of impasse or another.”
The thrust of Lepore’s book, though Lepore disclaims it, is that excavating the history of our ideas about life and death will allow us to find our way through such “impasses,” as if a misunderstanding of history, rather than moral or religious concerns, were at the root of our differences. Eugenics, for example, “relied on a colossal misunderstanding of science and a savage misreading of history,” Lepore writes in an essay that draws a straight line from eugenicists to opponents of same-sex marriage. This is history as bludgeon. Of course, what I’m calling the historian’s fallacy might be especially tempting for historians intent on dealing with contemporary politics or it could be simply a matter of tone or emphasis—the difference between a scholarly style meant for the seminar room and the more pointed prose of the trade press. But these are unnecessary and, I think, irrelevant distinctions. The fallacy corresponds to a hypocrisy that is as obvious as it is widespread in Lepore’s brand of cultural history. Works in this vein expose older representations of the past, like histories, plays and monuments, as cultural artifacts molded by political and social pressures—but they’re unwilling to take the next step and acknowledge their own status as essentially the same sort of politically molded artifact. Why should Lepore think herself immune to the vicissitudes of culture and personal preference that seem to have marred earlier historical accounts?
The view of history which says that knowing the past should make the world a better place is essentially a social scientific one—and its core assumptions can be seen in Lepore’s comparison of herself to a NASA researcher building on the discoveries of her predecessors. The idea is similar to that of statistics-laden fields like economics or political science, which accumulate data on the past and present in order to influence future policy. And this view, whether inflected with liberalism or conservatism, is fundamentally progressive, in that it argues implicitly for some change that promises positive results, like a line on a graph sloping steadily upward.
This idea of linear progress is closely related to the main concerns of The Mansion of Happiness. Ideas of progress once revolved around religion—The Pilgrim’s Progress appeared in 1678. But by the first half of the nineteenth century, progress no longer referred to the steps toward salvation and people began to talk about “technology” in new ways. One Harvard professor thought “the application of the sciences to the useful arts” was “promoting the progress and happiness of our race.” Progress now meant wealth and success; its symbol was a railroad chugging across the continent. Lepore’s book charts how this idea of progress has been applied, sometimes narrowly, to human life. “Linear, scientific narratives of progress promise a different sort of eternity—humanity, undying—right up to the vague and halfhearted notion that one day, when the earth dies, humans will simply move to outer space.
It’s clear to us now, of course, that a railroad chugging across the continent is not a wholly positive thing: that same railroad exploits workers, destroys Indians, concentrates wealth and brings pollution in its wake. The same can be said of the changes that science and technology have wrought on human life. Lepore writes of “the artificiality” of a modern world where breast-pump companies claim that their products “work less like a pump and more like a baby,” and where the father of freezing, Robert Ettinger, can believe that when the frozen are resuscitated, they “will be not merely revived and cured, but enlarged and improved.” Humans have been made into machines, with little regard for the non-physical aspects of life, Lepore complains, and they have forgotten that death is the end:
The more secular ideas about immortality have become, the less well anyone, including and maybe especially doctors and scientists, has accepted dying, or even growing old. Freezing the dead, like living forever in another galaxy, is cockamamie, but it’s not so far from anti-aging cream as you might suppose.
Lepore is willing to take the step from anti-aging cream to cryogenic freezing, but her anger and cynicism about what she calls “the aimless, endless game of secular, liberal modernity” blinds her to other, more revealing connections. To be fair to Lepore, she acknowledges along the way that the application of science to human life has led directly to better nutrition and medical care, contraception, vaccinations and safer abortions. The trouble is that she doesn’t recognize, or acknowledge, how dystopian visions, creature comforts, and life-saving medical advances all spring from the same root.
The ideas that make labor saving machines possible and desirable also have a tendency to reduce humans to mere machines; historical change is never a one-way street. Those aspects of the world which we admire or enjoy—for Lepore birth control, legal abortion, modern medicine and so forth—are often bound up with, or give birth to, precisely what we feel we should oppose—eugenics, cryonics, machines that milk women like cows. Which is, unfortunately, just the kind of nuanced truth that historians like Lepore are never quite satisfied to leave us with.