GOSSIP by Patricia Meyer Spacks
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Illuminating reflections, not on trivial or vicious chatter, but on ""narratives about others, transmitted in intimate context, made the object of interpretation."" (i.e., gossip as oral literature, and--more to the point--various forms of literature as gossip.) Gossip, of course, has gotten a very bad press down through the ages, especially from moralists and philosophers (many of whom have accused women of having a special penchant for it); and so Spacks (English, Yale) begins by redefining and rehabilitating it. She points out that in condemning gossip, Kierkegaard and Heidegger ""deny the moral possibilities of trivia,"" the potential of concrete personal details for revealing the inner truth of character. Gossip can obviously be destructive; but, as Walter Benjamin argues, it comes into existence ""only because people do not wish to be misunderstood."" Hence its affinities with such genres as collected and published letters, biography, and, above all, the novel. In a series of shrewd but rather dense readings Spacks maintains that in Restoration and 18th-century comedy, Fanny Burney's Evelina, as well as the fiction of Edith Wharton, Trollope, George Eliot, Thackeray, Henry James, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, gossip serves as ""the voice of the world,"" which blasts those who diverge from its narrow standards. This kind of gossip can't be fought against and must be feared; it represents society as naturally hostile to ""freedom, individuality, privacy."" But in writers like Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Zora Neale Hurston, community gossip--though not without its threat to the individual--humanizes the world in the only way possible: by telling stories about it in a privileged state of intimacy. Gossip, then, has two faces, befitting its location on the threshold between public and private worlds. Its structures reflect--and generate--""narrative exchange,"" making it a key to literary analysis. Gossip, Spacks concludes, ""surveys the field through a peephole, but it sees a great deal."" Original, stimulating, sophisticated scholarship.

Pub Date: June 14th, 1985
Publisher: Knopf