Having and Being Had, Eula Biss. New York: Riverhead Books, 2021.
Summary: A collection of essays on the occasion of the author and her husband buying their first house, considering the nature of capitalism, consumption, work, and class.
It was 1990. We had just moved to a new city, moving from an older, inner ring, blue collar suburb in one city to a three year old housing development on the very edge of our new city, with twice the square footage of house and lot. Shortly after moving, my wife and I were walking in the neighborhood, and she asked me, “did we sell out?”
It is questions like these that Eula Biss explores in this new collection of essays under similar circumstances. If you are familiar with her earlier writings, she lived something of a hand-to-mouth existence at one time. Now she and her husband hold a teaching positions, she at a major university where she earns $20,000 more than her husband at another school, for doing the same work. She has won various literary words and the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship–a grant affording her the support to write instead of teach. And they have moved out of their apartment and purchased their first house.
In the course of buying furniture, repairing a chimney, purchasing a gravy boat for their first Thanksgiving, and watching her son buy a valuable Pokemon card only to give it away to a lonely child, she asks questions about capitalism, consumption, work, class, and more. She wrestles with discussions she has with her institution’s investment counsellor who pushes her to invest in stocks that will create her a nice nest egg in years to come.
Many of the essays recur to one of these themes. For example, she asks a number of different economists and others about the meaning of capitalism. As you might expect, the answers are all over the map. She explores the questions of the place of art in a culture, even as she describes purchasing a membership at the Art Institute of Chicago. She wrestles with the fact that she now pays people to care for her children and to clean her house. She goes on literary excurses through the lives of Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson and Karl Marx and the people around them who enabled their writing lives.
One of the recurring themes is work. What constitutes good work? What distinguishes work, labor, and toil? How ought she feel about the grant coming from capitalist successes that make it possible for her not to work to pursue the writing she loves, that she admits at one point is her play. She explores the phenomenon of people who reach a certain level of success who feel the need to keep up the appearance of working when they really don’t want to.
The challenge I had reading this work was whether this was commendable self-reflection on the ways we are implicated in the capitalist system, or was rather the condemnable self-indulgence of one privileged enough to have the time and means to ask these questions. Other reviewers of this book have reached both of these conclusions.
At first I was inclined to the latter conclusion, until I remembered the questions we asked back in 1990. It seems to me that the greater danger to our souls would have been not to ask the questions, to simply conclude that we had worked hard and deserved what we (and the bank) owned. But it was hardly that simple. The home represented the help of family in a variety of ways and the support of friends. It was a combination of both unearned privileges and our own efforts. The greater danger, it seems to me would have been unreflective self-satisfaction. To know oneself blessed carries with it the responsibility of using that well for the common good.
I think of the work that brought me to this city, work that, with some differences, I am still engaged in. I think it would have been interesting for Biss to explore the nature of vocation or calling. Under the rubric of work, what she describes is a calling as a writer. She touches on this when she describes the greater satisfaction of janitorial staff in a hospital when they see themselves as caring for patients. Callings go beyond what we earn money doing. How fortunate when we are compensated at whatever amount for pursuing them! Biss, herself, knows both sides–of having to work to pursue an unremunerative calling, and to have achieved success in that pursuit. I sense the struggle with this as a guilty pleasure. I wonder if gratitude is a better response, and avoiding any presumptions that it will last.
And now it is 32 years later in the same house. It’s funny how things change. For many, our neighborhood is “starter” homes as the suburbs have extended further out from the city. I wonder what some of the young couples pushing strollers are thinking? Eula Biss makes me reflect anew on what I ought think. Her honesty about money (she names amounts) invites me to a similar kind of honesty about an area we often don’t like to talk about and how all of us are implicated in the economic system of our country.