Robert Fulford's column about gossip & the NY intellectuals

(The National Post, July 18, 2000)

Elizabeth Hardwick, a talented essayist who has been among the queens of the New York intellectual world for decades, once remarked in an interview that she didn't much like talking about herself. In general, she said, she would rather talk about other people. To put it plainly, she preferred gossip: "Gossip, or, as we gossips like to say, character analysis."

Yes! Character analysis! That's a fine excuse for gossip, and, of course, an excuse is what we gossipmongers always need, to defend ourselves against killjoy Puritans who consider gossip sinful. "Social history" is a pretty nice explanation too, but "the desire to understand one's fellow humans in all their complexity" is probably the best: It nicely mixes intellectual ambition, sympathy and utter pomposity.

For gossips, the good news from the academic world is that recent scholarly papers have provided still more justifications for gossip. It has lately become, in fact, an academic subject with some cachet.

As a New York intellectual, Hardwick was expected to gossip. In that world, gossip has traditionally been more important than money or politics, and almost as important as literature. Gossip peeps through the dozens of histories and memoirs written in the last two decades about the great days of the New York intellectuals, but it's usually placed on the margins of the story. David Laskin, however, has moved it to centre stage. In his entertaining (and scholarly) new book Partisans: Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals (Simon & Schuster) gossip asserts itself and shoves aside history, poetry, philosophy etc.

Laskin's inspired idea is to reconfigure the entire period as a kind of gossip festival, and his method is to organize his material around the major women involved, including Hardwick, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt and Jean Stafford. This tilts his book toward the personal, because the involvement of those women with the male writers and editors frequently raised issues of sex, adultery and sexual jealousy.

Mary McCarthy wrote novels based on gossip, loved exchanging gossip, and in her life produced enough material to fuel decades of conversation. In the summer of 1942 she spent weekends at Wellfleet, Mass., with her son and her husband, Edmund Wilson, but lived in a New York apartment during the week. This made it possible for her to keep appointments with her psychiatrist and her several lovers, notably Clement Greenberg, who was then on his way to becoming the most influential art critic of the century. Apparently, she didn't much like Greenberg, but she may have warmed to him because he was the sworn enemy of her former lover, Philip Rahv, whom she had left for Wilson.

At the time, few spoke of such matters in public, and it was only after the painful McCarthy-Wilson divorce that knowledge of her sexual adventures began to spread beyond her circle. Today it would be impossible to discuss McCarthy's work without describing her erotic involvements; it would be like avoiding the subject of alcohol while analyzing the career of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Gossip grows more respectable as it ages, and eventually it turns into essential history. That's the persuasive argument made by Chris Wickham, a professor of history at the University of Birmingham, in his article "Gossip and resistance among the medieval peasantry" in Past & Present magazine. "I aim," he writes, "to offer a defence of the study of gossip in medieval (and not only medieval) history."

He analyzes the gossip that comes down to us in sagas, chronicles and the records of legal or religious hearings in medieval Iceland, Tuscany and the French Pyrenees. Through these documents, Wickham points out, we can discover the concerns of the people, and understand how they were expressing resentment of their governors.

Wickham notes that by long tradition gossip is considered idle and trivial, and this may be why "the sociology of gossip is extremely ill-developed." Gossiping remains relatively unstudied, marginalized and devalued. As a result, we misunderstand its essential role in society. We fail to see its transactional nature -- the way it establishes and structures relationships between people, and the way it defines group identity.

Groups construct themselves, Wickham explains, by talking: "The group is actually constituted by who has the right to gossip about outsiders -- or even absent insiders." Gossip reinforces the group's values, because it almost always has a moral edge to it. Should you wish to know the boundaries of everyday morality in any social group, listen to its gossip.

This is also the argument of Robert Darnton, a historian whose subject is 18th-century France. Most spoken gossip vanishes into the air, but over the years Darnton has discovered ways of learning what people were talking about in Paris in the decades leading up to the revolution of 1789. To his delight, he learned some time ago that for years, French police posted spies in cafés, public gardens and other nerve centres, just to find out what was being said. The spies wrote detailed accounts of conversations, which went into the archives and waited for Darnton.

In the Old Regime, gossip was a major source of news, since the press was heavily censored. Darnton has found spy reports on conversations held in 40 cafés beginning around 1730, some of them apparently written in verbatim dialogue. Reading them now, you can feel the reputation of the monarchy falling under the onslaught of gossip. It was relentless, uncontrollable private talk that prepared the people for their eventual assault on the regime.

The French learned to comprehend their society, however imperfectly, through conversation. Today, we are involved in much the same process. Academic understanding of how this works has gradually reached the point where the lack of gossip can be depicted as a serious problem. Ralph Rosnow, a psychology professor at Temple University and the co-author of Rumor and Gossip: The Social Psychology of Hearsay, has argued: "If people aren't talking about other people, it's a signal that something is wrong -- that we feel socially alienated or indifferent." It is a way of making us understand what is allowable: "Gossip shepherds the herd. It says: These are the boundaries."

Those who require justification for loose-tongued conversation need hardly look further. Obviously, we are engaged in essential and even commendable activity. But if we are challenged nevertheless, we should remember the words that explain this practice in detail: "He's a vicious gossip, you're a charming storyteller, I'm a ... social historian."

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