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Talking with Jill Lepore about 'Mansion of Happiness'

Jill Lepore , author of

Jill Lepore , author of "The Mansion of Happiness" (Alfred A. Knopf. June 2012) Credit: Rose Lincoln

Jill Lepore ends almost every sentence on a rising inflection, as if it might be a question. This seems an odd speech trait for a Harvard history professor, winner of the Bancroft Prize (for "The Name of War") and a Pulitzer Prize finalist (for "New York Burning"). But Lepore is also a New Yorker staff writer who likes to ground her essays in unexpected questions about contemporary issues -- the financial crisis, the abortion debate, sex education -- that general readers wouldn't necessarily know have deep historical roots. "The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death" (Alfred A. Knopf, $27.95) contains many of those essays, which surprised her by cohering around a theme, as she explained in a recent conversation.

Most of these chapters originally appeared in The New Yorker. Were they always intended to be part of a book?

I realized after a while that a lot of what I was writing for the magazine was about life and death and the stages of life, and so I began to think about them as parts of a book in which each chapter is a different stage of life.

You write, "When thinking about life and death moved from the library to the laboratory, the light of history dimmed." Can you explain?

There's been a massive change in our orientation from looking for answers in the past to looking for answers in the future. We subscribe to this scientific, linear narrative of progress: Whatever is difficult about growing older, or dying, or raising children, will be solved at some future point. We subscribe to this notion so wholly that we forget this way of thinking is new. I try to pull back and show what's lost when we don't look backward; I think there is wisdom to be found in the study of how people long before us wrestled with these questions.

I chiefly work in the 17th and 18th centuries, so I often find modern life baffling. When I'm pumping breast milk into an electric-powered machine, I wonder: What are the intellectual origins of my willingness to hook myself up to this machine? I bring the quizzical perspective of a historian to how we live now. Wondering why breast pumps were marketed so heavily by corporations to their employees and supported by government tax incentives, I investigated and came to think that corporations are very happy to give you a $300 breast pump because then they don't have to give you six months maternity leave.

That seems like a political point.

I wasn't saying we should do this or that, but it's worth suggesting that this does arise from a set of historical circumstances that are not obvious to us; breast pumps sell more in the U.S. than anywhere else, because other industrialized countries have better maternity leaves. I have no interest in preaching about how things ought to be; I see my job as a historian to shake up people's assumptions about the past by revealing evidence and experiences that may be invisible to them. The book is meant to be entertaining, to pull back from some of the political pieties of our time and illuminate them in a way that is welcoming and curious, but not polemical.

Is that difficult to do?

It's something I worked on really hard. There's a chapter in the book on the right-to-die case of Karen Ann Quinlan. I was raised in a very devout Catholic family, and we talked a lot and prayed a lot about that case when I was a kid. When the piece came out in The New Yorker, my mother called me to say she thought it was very fair. I thought that if it could pass muster with my very devout mother with regard to respect for both the Church and the people who disagree with it, then I was OK.

Is it important to you to write for general readers as well as scholars?

One of the first things I did after I got tenure was to start an online magazine called "Common-place" to bring academic scholarship to a popular audience. That's something I have always been interested in doing, and I feel incredibly lucky to write for The New Yorker. I love the puzzle of it: Here's something that scholars know, and here's something the public is interested in -- how can I match up those two things? I love trying to figure that out, and it does feel, in some small way, important.

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