Late nineteenth and early twentieth century US-American culture is characterized by crucial changes in the conception of celebrity and speculation, privacy and publicity, as well as gender and sexuality, many of which still influence our understanding of these terms today. This literary and cultural studies research project asserts that gossip, a hitherto neglected form of knowledge production and circulation, provides an insightful lens through which to address these issues.

By analyzing three distinct media formats – realist fiction, magazines, and private individuals’ life writing –, we seek to answer the questions:

    • what and how does gossip know?
    • what this knowledge is worth?

We focus on women in our research, since existing scholarship on the above-mentioned transformations has usually focussed on men as ideal citizens. (White) Women, in contrast, were at least ideologically associated with the secluded private sphere, and women’s legal status was often precarious. As private and economic sphere thus overlap for women, gossip – as the seed of rumor and scandal, and as a source of otherwise unavailable or unshareable knowledge – emerges as a prime commodity.

This project thus underscores gossip’s use as social speculation with financial stakes. It further specifies gossip’s epistemological status and potential for knowledge dissemination and connects these insights to realist fiction’s narratological strategies for dealing with new cultural contexts and aesthetic demands. Complimenting the analysis of gossip’s economy and epistemology in literature, our research project also looks for gossip’s traces in primary material at archives in the US (e.g. Library of Congress, New York Public Library). The ways in which auto/biographical writing (both published and private) is structured around the shiedling against as much as the profitting from gossip, intrigues us much as the rising presence of gossip in women’s magazines. By taking seriously this maligned form of supposedly unreliable and ephemeral communication, we hope to open new perspectives on women’s (individual and communal, secret and shared) strategies in dealing with socio-cultural forces of financial speculation, the re-evaluation of privacy, and new forms of participation in the public sphere.

What next?

To learn more about the project, our sources, and recent publications, have a look at our blog.

If you are curious about the exisiting scholarship on gossip, gender and sexuality in the nineteenth century, and shifting notions of privacy and publicity, our bibliography might be for you.

If you are interested in the archival material which we have collected for our research, please explore our collection-site.