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

verbal historians.

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

upper air."

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