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It seems strange that, in all the long list of brilliant dissertations
on every subject under the sun, no English essayist should have yielded
a word under the seductive title of "Gossip." Even Leigh Hunt, who wrote
vivaciously and exquisitely on so many light topics, was not attracted
by the enticing possibilities of this subject to which both the learned
and the unlearned are ready at all times to bestow a willing ear or eye.
One usually conceives gossip as something to which one lends only one's
ear, and never one's eye; but what are "Plutarch's Lives" but the right
sort of gossip? That so many literary men and women have vaguely
suspected the alluring tone-color of the word "gossip" is proved by: A
Gossip in Romance, Robert Louis Stevenson; Gossip in a Library,
Edmund William Gosse; Gossip of the Caribbees, William R. H.
Trowbridge, Jr.; Gossip from Paris During the Second Empire, Anthony
North Peet; Gossip in the First Decade of Victoria's Reign, Jane West;
Gossip of the Century, Julia Clara Byrne; Gossiping Guide to Wales,
Askew Roberts and Edward Woodall; Gossip with Girls and Maidens
Betrothed and Free, Blanche St. John Bellairs. Yet no one has ever
thought of writing about gossip for its own sweet sake.
Among every-day words perhaps the word "gossip" is more to be reckoned
with than any other in our language. The child who runs confidingly to
mother to report his grievance is a gossip; he is also an historian.
Certainly gossip is in its tone familiar and personal; it is the
familiar and personal touch which makes Plutarch's Lives interesting.
At the root of the word "gossip," say etymologists, there lies an honest
Saxon meaning, "God's sib"--"of one kindred under God."
It would be only a misanthrope who would assert that he has no interest
in his fellows. He is invariably a selfish person who shuns personality
in talk and refuses to know anything about people; who says: "What is it
to me whether this person has heard Slezak in Tannhaeuser; what do I
care whether Mrs. So-and-So has visited the French play; what concern is
it of mine if Mr. Millions of eighty marries Miss Beautiful of eighteen;
what is it to me whether you have watched the agonies of a furnishing
party at Marshall Field's and have observed the bridegroom of tender
years victimized by his wife and mother-in-law with their appeals to his
excellent taste; of what interest to me are the accounts of the
dissolute excesses which interspersed the wild outbreaks of religious
fanaticism of Henry the Third of France?" This selfish person is also
very stupid, for nothing so augments conversation as a normal interest
in other people.
"I shook him well from side to side
Until his face was blue.
Come, tell me how you live, I cried,
And what it is you do."
This plan of Alice's Through the Looking Glass ballad singer for
shaking conversation out of people, tho somewhat too strenuous, is less
fatiguing than Sherlock Holmes's inductive methods. Like Sherlock
without his excuse, the kind and generous must confess to a colossal
interest in the affairs of others. Gossip is the dialog of the drama of
mankind; and we have a right to introduce any innocent and graceful
means of thawing their stories from the actors, and of unraveling
dramatic knots. People with keen judgment of men and things gather the
harvest of a quiet eye; they see in the little world of private life
histories as wonderful and issues as great as those that get our
attention in literature, or in the theater, or in public life. Personal
gossip in its intellectual form has a charm not unhealthy; and it gives
new lights on character more often favorable than unfavorable.
There is no difference, between enjoying this personal talk and enjoying
The Mill on the Floss or books of biography. Boswell, in his Life of
Johnson, and Mrs. Thrale, in her Letters, were inveterate gossips
about the great man. And what an incomparable little tattler was Fanny
Burney--Madame d'Arblay! Lord William Lennox, in his Drafts on My
Memory, is full of irrepressible and fascinating memorabilia, from
the story of General Bullard's salad-dressing to important dramatic
history connected with the theater of his time. The Spectator was the
quintessence of gossip in an age of gossip and good conversation. We
could go a great deal further back to the gossips of Theocritus, who are
as living and life-like as if we had just met them in the park. All
biography is a putting together of trifles which in the aggregate make
up the engrossing life-stories of men and women of former and
contemporary preeminence. It is to the gossips of all ages that we owe
much of value in literary history.
Without the personal interest in the affairs of others which makes
gossip possible, there would be no fellowship or warmth in life; social
intercourse and conversation would be inhuman and lifeless. Mr. Benson
in his essay "Conversation" tells us that an impersonal talker is likely
to be a dull dog. Mr. Henry van Dyke says that the quality of
talkability does not mark a distinction among things; that it denotes a
difference among people. And Chateaubriand, in his Memoirs
d'Outre-tombe, confides to us that he has heard some very pleasant
reports become irksome and malicious in the mouths of ill-disposed
One can interest one's self in the dramatic incidents in the lives of
one's acquaintances without ventilating or vilifying their character.
Gossip is capable of a more genial purpose than traducing people. It is
the malignity which turns gossip into scandal against which temperate
conversationalists revolt; the sort of thing which Sheridan gibbeted in
his celebrated play, The School for Scandal:
"Give me the papers, (lisp)--how bold and free!
Last night Lord L. was caught with Lady D.!
. . . . . . . .
"So strong, so swift, the monster there's no gagging:
Cut scandal's head off, still the tongue is wagging."
But this is scandal, not gossip, and scandal comes from people incapable
of anything better either in mind or conversation. Among those who
understand the art of conversation, libelous talk is rarely heard; with
those who cultivate it to perfection, never. It is the first commandment
of the slanderer to repeat promptly all the vitriolic talk he hears, but
to keep strictly to himself all pleasant words or kindly gossip. Those
who draw no distinction between scandal and gossip should reflect that
gossip may be good-natured and commendatory as well as hostile and
adverse. In the published letters of the late James Russell Lowell is an
account of his meeting Professor Mahaffy of Trinity College, Dublin, who
is known to be one of the most agreeable of men. They met at the house
of a friend in Birmingham, England, and when Lowell took leave of Mr.
Mahaffy he said to his host: "Well, that's one of the most delightful
fellows I ever met, and I don't mind if you tell him so!" When Lowell's
remark was repeated to Mr. Mahaffy, he exclaimed, "Poor Lowell! to think
that he can never have met an Irishman before!" And this was gossip as
surely as the inimical prattle about Lord and Lady Byron was gossip. No,
indeed, slander and libelous talk are not necessary ingredients of
gossip. People who take malicious pleasure in using speech for malign
purposes suffer from a mental disorder which does not come under the
scope of conversation.
Regarding the mental deficiencies of those who love to wallow in the
mire of salacious news about others, the psychologists have come to some
interesting conclusions. To them it seems that there is an essential
identity between the gossip and the genius. In both, the mental
processes work with the same tendency to reproduce every fragment of
past experience, because both think by what is known as "total recall."
From the thought of one thing their minds pass to all sorts of remote
connections, sane and silly, rational and grotesque, relevant and
irrelevant. The essential difference between the gossip mind and the
genius mind is the power of genius to distinguish between the worthy and
the unworthy, the trivial and the relevant, the true and the false. The
thoughts of the gossip, so the psychologists tell us, have connection
but not coherence; the thoughts of the genius have coherence and
likewise connection and unity. Thus we discover that scandal-mongers are
at fault in the mind more than in the heart; and that it behooves people
who do not wish to have themselves voted mentally defective to draw a
distinction between scandal and innocent gossip. As I have already said,
there is nothing so interesting as the dramatic incidents in the lives
of human beings. Despite the nature-study enthusiasts who seem to refuse
mankind a place in nature, "the proper study of mankind is man" and will
forever remain so. But this does not mean that mental weaklings should
be allowed to discover and talk about only salacious episodes in the
history of their acquaintances. The vicious scandal-monger who defames
another, or hears him defamed or scandalized, and then runs to him with
enlarged and considerably colored tales of what was said about him, is
the poison of the serpent and should not be tolerated in society. A
sanitarium for mental delinquents is the only proper place for such a
And let me add that the apocryphal slanderer, the person who never says
but hints all sorts of malicious things, is the worst sort of
scandal-monger. The cultivated conversationalist who talks gossip in its
intellectual form does not indulge in oblique hints and insinuations. He
says what he has to say intrepidly because he says it discriminatingly.
Keen judgment which discovers the fundamental distinction between
scandal and suitable personality in talk raises gossip to the perfection
of an art and the dignity of a science. Undiscriminating people,
therefore, had better leave personalities alone and stick to the more
general and less resilient topics of conversation. Good gossip is
attainable only by minds that are capable of much higher talk than
gossip. Cultivated, well-poised, well-disposed persons need never be
afraid of indulging their conversation to a certain extent with gossip,
because they indulge it in the right way. And provided their personal
and familiar talk is listened to by equally cultivated, well-poised, and
well-disposed people, their gossip need not necessarily be limited to
the mention of only pleasant and complimentary history; no more, indeed,
than Plutarch found it necessary to tell of the glory of Demosthenes
without mention that there were those who whispered graft and bribery in
connection with his name. There are a few very good and very dull people
who try to stop all adverse criticism. All raillery strikes them as
cruel. They would like to see every parody murdered by the common
hangman. Even the best of comedy is constitutionally repellent to them.
They want only highly colored characters from which every mellow shade
of fault has been obliterated. One cannot say that they have a real love
of human nature, because they do not know what human nature is. They are
ready to take up arms with it at every turn. Such people cannot see that
ridicule, or gossip, can be either innocent or malignant; that history
can be either prejudiced or unbiased.
With many, refusing to hear adverse criticism is a mere pose, while with
others it is cynicism. In intercourse with the uneducated, any well-bred
person is properly shocked by their pleasure in detraction and in bad
news of all sorts. But the detestable people who seek every occasion to
vilify, and who wish to hear only harm of the world, are so exceptional
as to be negligible. These rare villains are eliminated when one speaks
of inability to distinguish between detraction and adverse criticism.
Those who can praise well are always adepts at criticizing adversely.
They never carry their criticism too far, nor give purposely an acrid
touch to it.
There is a grim tradition that a person should never say anything behind
another's back which he would not say before his face. This is all very
well so far as it relates to venomous tales repeated purposely to
injure; but how colorless are the people who never have critical
opinions on anything or anybody; or people who, having them, never
express them! Criticism and cavil are two very different things. Absence
of criticism is absence of the power of distinction. This age of science
has taught people to look truth straight in the face and learn to
discriminate. That person to whom everything is sweet does not know what
sweet is. The sophisticated world, unlike the unsophisticated, is not
afraid of "passing remarks." There is no doubt that criticism, whether
it comes directly or roundabout, adds a terror to life as soon as one
goes below a certain level of cultivation. The uneducated are frightened
at the mere thought of criticism; the cultivated are not. Perhaps the
reason for this difference is that ordinary people have a brutal and
entirely uncritical criticism to fear. In that society sensitiveness is
not very common. They are not dishonorable; they are merely hardy and
can see no distinctions. It is not given to these people to praise
rationally and to censure discriminatingly. Vilifying remarks are made
and repeated among them which clever people would be incapable of
uttering. The educated not only use a softened mode of speech, but they
avoid repeating remarks, unless with a discerning wish to be helpful to
others. The cultivated who have brought life to a far higher point than
the uncultivated have protected their liberty by a social rule. They say
what they like, and it does not get to the ears of the person about whom
they have said it. And if it did it wouldn't much matter. Criticism
which is critically given is usually critically received. The
maliciousness of adverse criticism seldom lies in the person who voices
it, but in the person who carries a tale. The moment sophisticated
people learn that one among them has venomously repeated an adversely
critical remark, they immediately know that that person is not to the
manner born. There is no surer proof.
If the born advocate is not always a saint, the born critic is not
always a sinner. Robert Louis Stevenson understood the importance of
the personal touch in conversation when he wrote: "So far as
conversational subjects are truly talkable, more than half of them may
be reduced to three: that I am I, that you are you, and that there are
other people dimly understood to be not quite the same as either." So,
also, did Mr. J. M. Barrie, when he told us that his beloved Margaret
Ogilvy, in spite of no personal interest in Gladstone, "had a profound
faith in him as an aid to conversation. If there were silent men in the
company, she would give him to them to talk about precisely as she would
divide a cake among children."
It is often hinted by men that women are made good conversationalists by
a sense of irresponsibility. But I am inclined to think that a little
gossip now and then is relished by the best of men as well as women.
The tendency to gossip with which men constantly credit women, and in
which tendency the men themselves keep pace, helps both men and women
very effectually to good conversation. "It is more important," says
Stevenson again, "that a person should be a good gossip and talk
pleasantly and smartly of common friends and the thousand and one
nothings of the day and hour, than speak with the tongues of men and
angels.... Talk is the creature of the street and market-place, feeding
on gossip; and its last resort is still in a discussion on morals. That
is the heroic form of gossip; heroic in virtue of its high pretensions;
but still gossip because it turns on personalities."
Gossip, we must admit, has a perennial interest for all of us. Personal
chat is the current coin of conversational capital. Society lives by
gossip as it lives by bread. The most absurd rule in the world is to
avoid personalities in conversation. To annihilate gossip would be to
cut conversational topics in half. There is musical gossip, art gossip,
theatrical gossip, literary gossip, and court gossip; there is political
gossip, and fashionable gossip, and military gossip; there is mercantile
gossip and commercial gossip of all kinds; there is physicians' gossip
and professional gossip of every sort; there is scientists' gossip; and
there is the gossip of the schools indulged in by masters and students
all over the educational world. Of all the gossip in the world the most
prodigious and prolific is religious gossip. Archbishops, bishops,
deans, rectors, and curates are discussed unreservedly; and the
questions put and answered are not whether they are apostolic teachers,
but whether they are high, low, broad, or no church; whether they wear
scarlet or black, intone or read, say "shibboleth" or "sibboleth."
The roots of gossip are deep in human interest; and, despite the nearly
universal opinion of moralists, great reputations are more often built
out of gossip than destroyed by it. Discriminating people do not create
enemies by personalities, nor separate friends, because they gossip with
a heart full of love, with charity for all, and with malice toward none.
Gossip as a legitimate part of conversation is defended by one of the
greatest of present-day scholars; and I cannot do better than to quote,
in closing, what Mr. Mahaffy has said about it: "The topic which ought
to be always interesting is the discussion of human character and human
motives. If the novel be so popular a form of literature, how can the
novel in real life fail to interest an intelligent company? People of
serious temper and philosophic habit will be able to confine themselves
to large ethical views and the general dealings of men; but to average
people, both men and women, and perhaps most of all to busy men who
desire to find in society relaxation from their toil, that lighter and
more personal kind of criticism on human affairs will prevail which is
known as gossip. It is idle to deny that there is no kind of
conversation more fascinating than this. But its immorality may easily
become such as to shock honest minds, and the man who indulges in it too
freely at the expense of others will probably have to pay the cost of it
himself in the long run; for those who hear him will fear him, and will
retire into themselves in his presence. On the other hand, nothing is
more honorable than to stand forth as the defender or the palliator of
the faults imputed to others, and nothing is easier than to expand such
a defense into general considerations as to the purity of human motives,
which will raise the conversation from its unwholesome grounds into the
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