Little Sally was eating lunch with her family when her parents ask her if she learned anything in Sunday School that morning. Sally nodded and smiled. "Teacher says we are to go forth and spread the gossip."
It seems these days that gossip has indeed become our gospel, though that word means specifically "good news," whereas good news in our day really amounts to no news at all. We much prefer the "bad news," the scandals, the foolish antics of our fellow beings, so long as we ourselves are omitted from the roll call.
Although countless authors down through the ages have issued admonitions against gossip and rumor-mongering — the Book of Proverbs, for example, bulges with warnings against those whose "lips talk of mischief" — gossip has not only retained its allure but has in the last century mushroomed from a cottage industry to a skyscraper whose shadow touches us all. Our intense interest in the self, our therapeutic age, and our revelry in revelation have combined with our technology — television and the internet for spreading the secrets of our celebrities, Facebook and Twitter for the rest of us — to create a near-perfect breeding ground for gossip. A host of websites and television shows exist solely to sift through the dirt in other peoples' lives, and so long as we ourselves are not among the unwashed, many of us find such muckraking a splendid source of entertainment.
Often the lives of family, friends and acquaintances provide an equivalent show, and we follow these particular dramas and comedies with the avidity of an opera buff. When we hear that Uncle Fred, a deacon in his church, is spending his money on women half his age or that our model of temperance, Aunt Agnes, has been arrested for driving NASCAR-style after a few too many martinis, we cluck our tongues at their peccadilloes and express our empathy even while we find ourselves secretly delighted to hear this latest bit of juicy news. "How awful," we say, and in the next breath ask: "And then what happened?"
In his newest book, Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit (ISBN 978-0-618-72194-8, $25), Joseph Epstein, one of the best American essayists of this or any other age, turns his discerning eye on gossip. He was attracted to this subject, he tells us, both because gossip can be a "species of truth ... beguiling truth" and because he himself has taken great pleasure in receiving gossip over his long lifetime.
These two-fold explanations for his interest in gossip lead to that fine blend of the personal and the public which is the hallmark of Epstein's writing. In the public sphere, Epstein ranges in his analysis from what he calls "the Great Gossips of the Western World," men like Suetonius, the Duc de Saint-Simon, Truman Capote, and women like Tina Brown and Barbara Walters, to the lesser-known gossip columnists of the last hundred years. One fascinating feature of his examination is the way in which these people achieved their fame from reporting the fame of others, how they "achieved celebrity by interviewing celebrity." His sketch of Barbara Walters, for example, an amusing mini-biography of praise and put-down, seems precisely on the mark. Epstein notes her fierce ambitions and her crassness, writing that "this vulgar streak, asking the questions that are on the mass mind, is her bread and caviar." Epstein ends his look at Walters by writing:
"Give Barbara her due: week after week, year after year, she has created gossip through the simple agency of asking the most tasteless questions of famous people, who were themselves tasteless enough to answer her. Not just anyone could have brought it off. Yet to her it all seems to have come so naturally."
To these portraits of famous gossips Epstein adds accounts of his own gossiping and the interest he takes in the foibles of his familiars. A university professor, once editor of The American Scholar and board member of the National Council of the National Endowments for the Arts, Epstein confesses that he has taken great pleasure in hearing gossip about the famous and the not-so-famous. In a section at the end of most of the book's chapters, titled "Diary," Epstein shares with us glimpses of his forays into tale-telling and rumors. He recounts a pleasant evening spent with Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne, then chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities; his encounters with Mortimer Adler; his accounts, gathered from others, of the eating habits of Orson Welles and the wit of playwright Lillian Hellman.
One story which Epstein includes has to do with his mother. She was an ebullient woman who, like her husband, "looked out at the world and saw only admirable or less than admirable behavior." Her father died when she was young by his own hand, a fact Epstein learned from his own father when his mother was dying. Not only had his mother never told Epstein about this episode, she had never told her husband either, who had learned of it from her sister. After reflecting on this silence from his mother's point of view, Epstein applauds the nobility of her silence:
"Why rehash it? What was to be gained? Nothing, evidently, that she could see. Reticence about the matter was more dignified, made more sense. And I find I love my mother all the more for her ability to live without the need to drag her sadness out into the open."
Epstein ends Gossip by wondering whether the rest of us have become too caught up in the ways of rumor. He points out gossip's negative effects on our national news and on our view of the world, and wonders whether our penchant for gossip has resulted in a dumbing down of cultural life. He concludes that gossip, which Matt Drudge calls "unedited information," is here to stay and that we will continue to indulge ourselves because we delight in the sordid and the strange.
Yet it is the story of Epstein's mother which sticks in the mind. Epstein is correct: there is a nobility to her silence. We can keep our secrets and the secrets of others. For those of us who aren't celebrities, who don't make a billion dollars a year or act in blockbuster movies, reticence is still an option. No one shoves a microphone at us, no one asks us revealing questions below the bright lights of a television studio, no one forces us to reveal confidences or spread rumors.
We have a choice. And for those who still value privacy, mum's the word.
Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit by Joseph Epstein. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. 256 pages.