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The Way We Live Now

Joseph Epstein on the ever expanding roll gossip is playing in American public life.

By From the March 2012 issue

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Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit
By Joseph Epstein
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 242 pages, $25)

First impressions: A small book, hard cover but quality paperback size, with bibliographic apparatus stretching it out to just beyond 200 pages, packaged in a pink dust jacket with a description (a "dishy" book) written by a woman to appeal to women or wannabe women, and adorned with a pair of green eyes that might have been left over from the author's earlier book, Envy. A compact little pink book, chock full of gossip and gossipers, easily tucked into purses.

But despite the efforts of the people who produced the cover, giving gossip a very feminine face and thus a volume, on the face of it, that most men would hesitate to pick up in the bookstore, the cover belies its book. True, gossip may stereotypically be thought of—by women as well as men—as primarily a female pastime. Epstein quotes from Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook: "Molly was a woman much on the telephone. When it rang she just enquired: 'Well, what's the gossip?'" And imagine Molly today with a cell phone.

But as Mr. Epstein, who recently retired from teaching English at Northwestern, tells us, although gossip has been "viewed as an act engaged in chiefly by women who had nothing better to do with their time…people who have looked into the matter conclude that men gossip just as much as women, with the same frequency, intensity, and relish."

Epstein sets out to trace the growth of gossip as both diversion and social and political force, and does so deftly and with dispatch, only occasionally bogging down. There is an overly long chapter dedicated to a discussion of a "gossip historian," the Duc de Saint-Simon, a tiny French fop in red shoes who passed his days recording the doings of the competing dandies at the court of Louis XIV; and an excursion into what he quotes Roger Scruton as calling "the predatory and innuendo-filled air of the homosexual hothouse," where the nasty gossip of the gay literati—among them Wilde, Coward, Capote, Williams—is duly noted.

But for the most part, Epstein, much like learned men of an earlier generation a wide and eclectic reader, is familiar with the best—and wittiest—that has been thought and said, and folds it easily into the examples and anecdotes that shape this book. He's at his best when he writes of those people—literary, academic, showbiz, political—that a man coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s in America—and in Chicago—would be expected to mention, with the gossip involving them familiar to all who marinated through those years.

In a review of Snobbery, an earlier Epstein book, Bill Buckley called him "perhaps the wittiest writer (working in his genre) alive, the funniest since Randall Jarrell." Jarrell—Poet Laureate, essayist, literary critic, and author of a marvelous academic novel (Pictures From an Institution, published in 1954, the same year as Lucky Jim)—was one of our great forgotten writers, an original who wrote with great erudition and was funny to boot, in much the same ways that Kingsley Amis or the David Lodge of the academic novels was genuinely funny.

Like Jarrell, Epstein—witty, rather than funny, but an original—is one of that increasingly rare breed, an American man of letters, the author of 22 titles with subjects ranging from Fred Astaire to divorce in America. If he works in a genre, it might be described as the personal, occasional, and/or extended essay, with strong clear prose running down from Matthew Arnold through Lionel Trilling, touched by the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, both of whom Epstein singles out for mention ("Radical Chic" and "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold"), a Trollopean preference for manners, with a bow to Jane Austen, and featuring the controlled digressions that make his essays so readable.

In a section on politics and politicians, for instance, before widening the discussion, he begins by pointing to some of the more obvious sources of gossip. The Kennedy family, he writes, "has long been a cottage industry of gossip unto itself: all that free-floating fornication, drunkenness, drug abuse, uninvestigated manslaughter, and the rest." But what is perhaps less well known "is the role that gossip plays in the mechanics of politics—its role, that is, in…getting deals done or killed, ending electoral hopes, or forcing retirements from public life. I refer to leaks, which are little more than gossip turned to the service and ends of politics."

ACCORDING TO EPSTEIN'S "root definition," gossip is "one party telling another what a third party doesn't want known. A political leak qualifies here.…Not all but much gossip has the tincture of betrayal. And so do many leaks. A leak represents a disloyalty," he writes, "if not to those people whom the leak will damage…often to the code connected with the job one holds that put one in possession of the leaked material in the first place."

Epstein points to Mark Felt, the former FBI agent who as Deep Throat is said to have fed information to Woodward and Bernstein, whose Watergate stories for the Washington Post brought them fame, and at least in Woodward's case, fortune.

Felt, writes Epstein, "had to betray his agency's rule not to leak information in his possession," to feed Woodward and Bernstein; and one of the results of this betrayal was to elevate what passes for investigative journalism—or journalism by leak—as practiced by Woodward and Bernstein, the reporters who brought down a president, to "heroic status."

But for many of us—especially those who worked in the Nixon White House—that status is undeserved, and the sources of many of those Watergate leaks remain a mystery. During those days, a number of people were talking to Woodward and Bernstein, and the figure of Deep Throat was quite clearly a composite, with all the later show-biz apparatus—potted plants, parking garages, chain smoking—added for verisimilitude. And they pulled it off.

Yet despite the accolades, the books, the movies, there remained the lingering problem of the anonymous single source, Deep Throat, whose identity the reporters swore, for no good reason, never to reveal. There's always something fishy about single anonymous sources, especially one as apparently ubiquitous and over-informed as this one; and one suspects that had it not been the hated Richard Nixon being destroyed, there would have been some serious journalistic reservations expressed.

But even though it was Richard Nixon, the doubts never quite went away. And so, some believe, when Mark Felt fell deep into Alzheimer's, with little or no memory, and seemed to be reaching the end of the road, the opportunity to present him to a credulous press as the one and only Deep Throat proved irresistible. A monumental scam? Who knows? But no harm done. After all, it's just gossip.

AS ANOTHER GOSSIP REPORTER, Epstein singles out Seymour Hersh, the Pulitzer-winning reporter "who has lived off leaks." Hersh, he writes, "is a journalist…who without the benefit of leakers might just be out of business. His professional life has been based on the anonymous source…. Like any good gossip, Hersh prefers dramatic over staid stories. A good Hersh piece might have the U.S. government secretly financing an Arab terrorist group out of Henry Kissinger's Swiss bank account."

He chides the New York Times, a publication increasingly dependent on gossip, for its shabby election year front-page story about John McCain's imaginary relationship with an attractive lobbyist, based solely on leaks and gossip; and for its refusal to go ahead with a reliably sourced account of the despicable John Edwards's affair.

There are moments when Epstein speaks of the deep personal damage that gossip and the new media transmitting it can do. "Malice…is also too often an element of gossip, and the Internet…can be a powerful aid to malice, by spreading falsehoods-or even harmful truths—with a speed undreamed of by small-town-over-the-back-fence gossips."

Epstein, who taught English for two decades at Northwestern, and who knows that our campuses are among the nation's busiest gossip centers, says that he "is glad to have ceased teaching before the internet culture got going in a big-time way." This new culture, he continues, "has quickened, and much intensified, the harm that gossip can do to its victims."

But that's the way we live now. And in the end, Epstein concludes, "Once a secret vice, gossip threatens to become the chief way we obtain our information, and there doesn't appear much we can do about it…. 'Live with it,' as the kids say, and we may as well learn to do so, because living without the intrusions of gossip seems unlikely except in a Trappist monastery, and maybe, gossip has it, not even there."

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About the Author

John R. Coyne Jr. a former White House speech-writer, is co-author with Linda Bridges of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement (Wiley).