Review: Having and Being Had

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.

Review: Notes from No Man’s Land

Notes from No Man’s Land, Eula Biss. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2009.

Summary: A collection of American essays connected to four places the author lived, all exploring the realities of race in which we all are implicated.

Telephone poles. An essay on the introduction of (and resistance to) telephone poles on the landscape becomes an essay on lynching. It turns out that telephone poles were used to hang many black men. Biss writes of how she once thought the “arc and swoop” of phone lines a thing of beauty. Now she comments, “they do not look the same to me. Nothing is innocent, my sister reminds me. But nothing, I would like to think, remains unrepentant.”

This striking comment captures a theme running through this book. Wherever we go in America, if our eyes are open, we recognize that we are implicated in our nation’s racial history. Nothing is innocent. And yet what also comes through in these essays is that Biss is not resigned to this state of affairs–repentance, a turning, is yet possible.

In her essays we follow Biss from New York to San Diego (and trips into Mexico), Iowa City, and the Rogers Park neighborhood of north Chicago. She describes locking kids into a Harlem school where she is teaching on 9/11 and how New York depleted her. In an essay sharing the title of Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” she speaks of how “New York took everything I had” and like Didion, she left, but unlike Didion, she has not returned, and questions how Didion tolerated so many myths about the city.

She moves to San Diego, working for an African-American newspaper. One of her most telling essays describes Eve Johnson’s struggle with Child Protective Services to gain custody of her own grandchildren, and the repeated barriers she encounters because she is “too black” and her persistence. She notes that she never saw such stories in the New York Times.

Her next move is to Iowa City. She writes about her research into the Black company town of Buxton, no longer in existence that seemed idyllic. There was a fabric of community organizations and a strong sense of identity and self-respect among the black residents. She dares to wonder about the kind of “integration” in which Blacks are a small minority in a sea of white, as was the case with dissatisfied Black students at the University of Iowa. Is such integration really a form of assimilation rather than an affirmation of identity? She also discusses the race blindness she encounters as people decry “looting” after Katrina, but downplay thefts by students after a tornado tore through their city.

The title essay, “No Man’s Land” is set in Rogers Park, a neighborhood on the north side of Chicago, bordering Evanston. It was originally called No Man’s Land because of its location. It is also highly integrated with no racial majority, yet she writes both of the racial fears that persist among whites like her in this diverse community and of her husband’s hope that “more white people don’t move here.”

Her concluding essay is titled “All Apologies” and explores the meaning of apologies both in personal life and in our racial history. Amid this is her telling observation: “Some apologies are unspeakable. Like the one we owe our parents.”

Biss dares to explore both our implicatedness in racism, and the ambiguities of living among one another with all that history. She recognizes the ambiguity in her own family, the mixed racial ancestry that gives her a cousin able to move between white and black communities, even while on the basis of appearance, she cannot. Her essays reveal a very different version of our national character from what many would have the textbook versions to be. She sees both the beauty and value of people and cultures, and the blindness, the hardness, and the obfuscations that sustain these disparate versions of America. In her spare, reflective prose she does not offer answers but invites us to sit with her and see.

Review: On Immunity

On Immunity–An Inoculation, Eula Biss. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014.

Summary: A collection of essays about vaccines, immunity, fears, risks, and related concerns about environmental pollutants and other dangers faced by the human community.

A few caveats at the beginning of this review. One is that this book was published in 2014. So it was not written in the context of our current polemics about vaccines to combat COVID-19. Also, the author is not a scientist but a talented writer who has won a number of literary awards and is currently an Artist in Residence at Northwestern University. She is the daughter of an oncolgist. She is also the mother of a child suffering many allergies.

The essays in this work reflect her background as an academic, writer, child of a doctor, and a mother. It is evident that she extensively researched this work. She explores the history of vaccination from which we learn that the term comes from the Latin name for the cowpox virus, from which the vaccinated developed immunity to smallpox. She explores how the understanding of immunity developed over the years, earlier issues with the safety of vaccination, and contemporary research and reporting systems that confirm the high level of safety and rarity of risks.

She makes an important point that the effectiveness of vaccines isn’t simply for individuals but for the communities within which they live and travel. Vaccines limit or eliminate infections when a large portion of the population is vaccinated. At one point she challenges the flawed reasoning that one doesn’t need to get vaccinated because others are. This only works when very few think that way, and an ethic that you can’t commend universally runs afoul of Kant’s categorical imperative. She observes, “Immunity is a shared space—a garden we tend together.”

But she is also a mom who wants to do the right thing for her child. Her personal concerns lead her to a sympathetic examination of the fears of others, the sources of reports about autism, and various contaminants in vaccines. She both acknowledge the continuing influence of these reports and how extensive research studies have refuted all of them. She explores the question of risk, and how highly unlikely risks, like a rare side effect that may be attributed to a vaccine, and the much more prevalent and often more serious risks of the disease vaccines are meant to prevent. In the end, she comes down on the side of vaccination–but hardly in an unthinking, “sheeple” fashion. She gently challenges being more afraid of inoculation than disease, and the luxury of entertaining fears that most of the world can’t afford.

She considers other chemicals in our environment from triclosan in our liquid soaps to plastics in our foods, drink bottles, and mattresses. She comes to recognize that there is no absolute immunity we can confer on ourselves or our children from all that could render harm. She experiences this herself when she required transfusion after nearly dying from an inverted uterus during childbirth, and has to trust the safety of the blood she is given. She balances this sense of our vulnerability with our amazing immune system, that can handle multiple vaccines at once because it responds to thousands of threats every day. She asks hard questions, reviews research and doesn’t simply accept authority, but also acts on the best evidence of the science.

The book wanders a bit. It is a collection of essays, not strictly a scientific or history piece. But it is also a human piece, rather than a clinical account or research paper. Biss does what we all need to do–listen, ask questions, be the parent, and learn to discern between flawed and reliable information, and make the best decisions one can. In many ways, this may be a helpful read for those with concerns about vaccines. It challenges us to make decisions not from a place of narcissism but enlightened self interest that also considers the common good. It is written from outside the current polemics, but reflects the concerns so many of us have.