November 16, 2011


Gossip plays a major role in much of literature. We find it in Dickens, Thackery, Tolstoy and Edith Wharton, Henry James… in fact, few novels exist without it and even fewer biographies. Let’s face it, we humans are curious about each other. 


In Hemingway’s case to know too much about his habits and peccadilloes can numb our interest and teach us not to care (blog: 10/11/11). But an excerpt by Joseph Epstein in the December issue of “Harper’s Magazine” provides revelations about some luminaries that can make us blush. For one thing, there seems to have been a lot of Biblical “begettings” among the gifted and talented. Guy De Maupassant turns out to be the illegitimate son of Gustave Flaubert, and Talleyrand is probably the son of Eugene Delacroix. But these accounts are mild compared to other dubious whisperings. Am I really obliged to know that Zola had an enlarged prostate which made it impossible for him to take long train rides, or that Samuel Johnson is rumored to have had a taste for masochistic sex? 

I admit that by recounting these morsels, I perpetuate gossip that deserves to be buried with these geniuses. But I do so to raise the question: do we need to know irrelevant and sometimes disquieting details about artists? Shakespeare had a genius for covering his biographical tracks. Does that make our reading of his works less enjoyable? Frankly, I shudder to think of the endless and useless bits of information we might have gathered about him he had lived in the electronic age.  Every stroke on his computer would have created a cookie on the World Wide Web.

Being human, I confess I relish a tidbit. After all, what is fiction if not an elegant form of gossip where we devour freely the intimate details of fictional lives? But should I be so rapacious about the real lives of celebrities? They do me the honor of delighting and educating me with their talent. Shouldn’t I repay them by declining to learn about their prostate problems?

I know… I know: we live in a world where privacy is passé but that outcome is largely of our making. I still hold the view that what counts is not the singer but the song.