Politics, Source, Women's History

Can We Talk? Gossip in American History and Culture

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Rumor, hearsay, tittle-tattle, scuttlebutt, scandal, dirt. From mid-to-late 1600s colonial Virginia churchyards and New England courthouses to the early-twentieth-first-century blogosphere—and in many places and times in between—gossip has been called many things. It is one of the most common—and often condemned or dismissed—forms of communication.  Religious injunctions against gossip appear in Christian, Jewish, and Islamic texts.  The long association of gossip and women has strengthened such largely negative connotations.  Indeed, the late comedian, performer, entrepreneur Joan Rivers built a long, tumultuous, and ultimately wildly successful career on the persona of the simultaneously formidable and frivolous female gossip, whether she was doing a stand-up routine, exchanging barbs with Johnny Carson, or later hosting the popular and influential Fashion Police.   

Obit Joan Rivers

Joan Rivers

Gossip’s contradictory status as both frivolous and formidable has led some scholars to ask why, including in our new, edited collection When Private Talk Goes Public: Gossip in American History.  Those of us who study gossip want to reassess and redeem it as a common cultural practice: as noun, verb, adjective, and adverb.  And to underscore the relevance and legitimacy of gossip as evidence for understanding the world—past and present.  When Private Talk Goes Public provides a much-needed and systematic historical overview, identifying significant continuities as well as changes in the definition, form, and function of gossip in America over the last four centuries.  While history is our focus, our contributors come from and use the tools from a range of disciplines: history, women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, visual and media studies, cultural studies, mass communications and journalism, American Studies, law.

Gossip as a word originated around the twelfth century in Old English as a noun, “god-sibb,” meaning a godparent or other intimate at a christening.  The word evolved, taking on the broader, more secular meaning of close friend or neighbor.  By the 1600s, however, a new, gender-specific definition had emerged: a woman assisting at childbirth.  This transformation in meaning was driven by the rise of separate spheres: i.e., the identification of the public, political sphere with men and the private, domestic sphere with women in Anglo-American society.  Popular understandings of gossip continue this negative association with women’s talk, even though scholars have long since disproved this pejorative and gendered association.

Here’s how we are broadly defining gossip across this volume: information—more often about other people and things, but sometimes about the self—that might be positive or negative, accurate or not, which can be distributed in many ways: via face-to-face talk in the bedroom, backyard, churchyard, courtroom, embassies; via print culture; via the modern mass media.  The in-person exchanges that predominated in the colonial period persist even as mass-media platforms have proliferated over the last century.  Mass-media dissemination has highlighted a central function of gossip as a promotional tool in a market exchange—selling a media product, securing a job, defining a brand.  As a result, modern gossip purveyors have been greatly empowered and enriched—we need look no further than the multi-million dollar estate and cultural influence amassed by Rivers rooted in her embrace of the female gossip persona.

In When Private Talk Goes Public, we take gossip seriously for the cultural, political, social, and economic work it performs.  Gossip can provide personal enlightenment, pleasure, and pain; it can serve as a tool of the powerful, the disenfranchised and everyone in between.  Gossip can celebrate or condemn; it can include or exclude; it can build or undermine community.  From the New England witchcraft crisis to colonial and antebellum political and racial discourse to the Cold War lavender scare to modern diplomatic, legal, celebrity, media, and digital cultures, our authors explore the meaning and significance of gossip exchanges in shaping American political, cultural, social, and economic life.  When private talk goes public, the results can be history making.

 

Kathleen A. Feeley (c) September 2014

 

Kathleen A. Feeley is department chair and associate professor of history, University of Redlands, USA.  She is the author of Mary Pickford (forthcoming from Westview Press).

Jennifer Frost is associate professor of history, University of Auckland, New Zealand.  She is the author of Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism (2011) and “An Interracial Movement of the Poor”: Community Organizing and the New Left in the 1960s (2001).

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