Friday, September 24, 2010

A Not So Fond Farewell

I realize there's been something of a gap between my last post and this, and that I may have left my readers (if any there be) hanging. Plus, anyone who has gone looking for my article about Eliza Anderson in the summer issue of Maryland Historical Magazine will have been disappointed: despite the fact that it is no longer summer, the summer issue is still not out. (Of course, given that the temperature in DC today hit 96 degrees, I believe we can consider summer to have been given a de facto extension -- that's good news for Maryland Historical Magazine, bad news for the rest of us.)

Anyway, with all this unfinished business in the air, I feel it incumbent on me to wrap up, at last, the story of Eliza Anderson and the Observer. Those who have been following this tale know that as the year 1807 wore on, Anderson began to feel more and more embattled. How embattled she really was -- and how much of the embattlement was due to her unusual status as a woman editor -- is difficult to determine at this point. But it is clear that Anderson attracted quite a bit of negative attention, and that the animus against her was at least intensified by the fact that she was a woman.

By December of 1807 -- after the public dispute with Mr. Webster in the pages of the Federal Gazette, the outrage that greeted the publication of Anderson's translation of Claire d'Albe, and the vendetta allegedly carried on against her by her former star columnist Benjamin Bickerstaff -- it appears that Anderson was reaching the end of her rope. In the December 19 issue of the Observer there appeared a lengthy installment of "Beatrice Ironside's Budget," beginning with a couple of quotations from La Fontaine (in the original French) indicating, basically, that no matter what you do, some people will be displeased. This was followed by a long anecdote about a miller, his son, and their ass, tending to the same moral: "who shall flatter themselves with the hope of having their conduct invariably approved by the multitude," Beatrice/Eliza concluded, "when the multitude is composed of such heterogeneous particles[?]"

She then embarks on a sort of eulogy for the Observer. It was, she says, founded as a "literary and political,and consequently as a critical, paper." Who would expect such a publication, therefore, to publish nothing but unqualified praise? Indeed, it was not until "some strokes of satire and criticism had given zest and interest to its pages" that the Observer attracted enough subscribers to support it.

So far Anderson's tone is fairly measured, and her claim is essentially that people have criticized the Observer because it criticized them. But now, turning to her nemesis Mr. Bickerstaff, she begins to spiral into the flights of savage rhetoric he unfailingly inspired in her. After quitting the Observer early in its existence, Anderson says, Bickerstaff was seized with the whim "to set his veto upon the Observer, and in quality of Grand Inquisitor of Baltimore to mark his prohibition of every idea which should not have originated in his own most sapient brain."

Anderson also now points to her gender, not the Observer's biting satire, as the real problem: "From this moment War was declared against the Observer, and every means, however underhand or contemptible, were resorted to in the hope of destroying it. It was a Woman who was its Editor, this was all that was necessary to render its enemies BRAVE, and this was enough to embolden the most pusillanimous Wight to assume the garb of the Lion."

Although Anderson refers to "enemies" in the plural, it's fairly clear that she's really zeroing in on Bickerstaff; this dispute is personal. It seems to be Bickerstaff she's referring to when she says, "Could a scholar, so profound as to know the whole Greek Alphabet by heart, allow that a Woman should know her own language? could he endure that she should venture to think and judge for herself, and what is much more sacrilegious, that she should presume to enter those lists of which he deemed himself in the whole Western Hemisphere the only able and redoubtable champion!!!"

Obviously, there's a history here, one that we in the 21st century will never know in its entirety. But, while Anderson reserved her most venomous prose for Bickerstaff, it's clear -- both from the Observer itself and the feuding that spilled over into the Federal Gazette -- that others were attacking the Observer as well. In this same column of December 19, Anderson complained (undoubtedly with some hyperbole) that "many literary works" had been undertaken in the previous six months "with the express view of sinking the Observer.

Whether that was literally true or not (and Anderson claimed that at least she had the satisfaction of seeing all these publications "fall dead born from the press"), Anderson had had enough. Since, she writes, "to continue in such a pursuit is in every sense of the word to act the part of a DUPE, Mistress Ironside is resolved to abandon a task as laborious as she finds it thankless and painful, & which she undertook only in the hope of being useful."

There is, however, a hint of another reason Anderson is choosing to cease publication of the Observer: in a final paragraph that appears in small print, Anderson chastises the "vast proportion of her Subscribers" who have not paid for their subscriptions--"those pitiful Beings who have sought in mean subterfuge to evade compliance with their small and just engagements." Even allowing for Anderson's characteristic exaggeration, the Observer was probably losing money at a rapid clip.

In the next and final issue, there is a hint that it was really Anderson's father, Dr. John Crawford, who pulled the plug. (There is also a final installment of "Beatrice Ironside's Budget," containing a few more vicious swipes at Bickerstaff.) Dr. Crawford had been writing a series of articles about his medical theories (including one that anticipated germ theory and was, of course, ridiculed), but he announces that unfortunately he won't be able to continue it as he had planned: "After having pursued this plan as far as number 22, I clearly ascertained the impossibility of carrying on the Observer farther than the engagement with the subscribers rendered indispensable, and therefore was obliged to relinquish my design." Given that Anderson was, as a married woman, prohibited from entering into any contracts in her own name, it's quite possible that Dr. Crawford was the financially responsible party.

So it seems that the demise of the Observer was due to a confluence of factors: reaction against its biting satire, reaction against its editor being a woman, that editor's exhaustion and disillusionment, and the failure of many subscribers to pay up. But for a year at least, it no doubt amused a good part of the literate population of Baltimore, and it led its detractors a merry chase. Not to mention that it appears to have been the first American magazine edited by a woman.

In her penultimate column, Anderson at one point predicted that the "reflections and observations" printed in the Observer would "one day be more fairly appreciated." Well, yes and no; some of them, like Anderson's criticism of the self-taught artist Francis Guy, now celebrated as a true American original, sound elitist and repellent to the modern ear. But what has stood the test of time is Anderson's own vigorous and witty writing style and her feisty spirit. One thing that has come to be "fairly appreciated," as it was not in 1807, is the right of a woman to enter the intellectual fray on equal terms with any man. It's too bad Anderson isn't around to take advantage of that. She'd have a field day.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Scandal, Fictional and Otherwise

In my last post, I hinted that in 1807 Eliza Anderson may have been up to something--something that led observers to speculate that her translation of the scandalous novel Clara d'Albe was actually autobiographical. (Of course, as Eliza pointed out, if it was a translation, how could it be autobiographical?)

At some point in late 1806 or 1807, Eliza met a French artist and architect living in Baltimore named Maximilian Godefroy. Godefroy's early history is cloaked in some mystery (he gave conflicting accounts), but it appears that he escaped from France after getting into trouble with Napoleon and eventually secured a job in Baltimore teaching drawing at St. Mary's College, a boys' school run by French priests. Godefroy apparently cut quite a dashing figure: he had pretensions to nobility (on some occasions he's referred to as "Count St. Maur" or "Count La Mard"), and he attracted favorable attention after designing a Gothic chapel for the Sulpician friars of St. Mary's in 1806--a structure that has been called the first Gothic-style building on American shores. In the summer of 1807, the Baltimore Library exhibited his massive drawing, "The Battle of Pultowa," which had a romantic backstory: supposedly Godefroy fashioned it while imprisoned in the Chateau d'If, using only bits of paper that came to hand--120 in all--along with the "stump of a pen" and ink made from the soot of his stove.

How Godefroy and Eliza first met isn't clear--although he does record being treated by her doctor father in October 1806--but by July 1807 he had become a contributor to the Observer. That magazine, edited by Eliza, published in three installments a work by Godefroy entitled “Military considerations on the mode of defence best adapted, for the United States, under its present circumstances.” (With a background as both a soldier and an architect, Godefroy apparently felt he had some expertise in military fortifications.) In October this work appeared in pamphlet form, with the translator identified as Eliza Anderson.

So far, nothing scandalous here. But at some point the relationship between Godefroy and Eliza became romantic. They were married in December of 1808--after Eliza had, the previous June, gone to Trenton, New Jersey, to obtain a divorce.

That's right: Eliza was already married. (Why she went to Trenton to get the divorce is a mystery to me.) In 1799, when she was 19 years old, she'd married a Baltimore merchant named Henry Anderson. They had a child the following year, but shortly thereafter Anderson disappeared: he's no longer listed in the Baltimore city directory of 1801. For the previous six years, then, Eliza had been an abandoned wife. But of course that, under the mores of the era, didn't give her license to fool around with another man.

So, in October 1807--when both Clara d'Albe and the translation of Godefroy's pamphlet appeared--there may have been talk of some hanky-panky between Eliza and Godefroy, and that may have fueled the odd rumor that Clara d'Albe was somehow based on Eliza's own experience. Eliza was surely right to protest that she was merely the translator, but isn't it possible that a certain similarity between Clara's plight and her own may have drawn her to the novel and helped her to overcome any scruples she might have had about translating a work that was so racy? After all, both Clara and Eliza had found true love, and all that was standing in their way were some pesky marriage vows.

Whether there was actually gossip about Eliza and Godefroy in 1807 I don't know, but there was certainly talk by June of 1808, when Eliza was seeking her divorce in Trenton. "As for what the Town says of me and much I hear they say," she wrote to her friend Betsy Bonaparte, "I care not. Absurd & ridiculous monsters in whose hands no fame can go unsullied--if Godefroy had wished or proposed anything dishonourable to me, would it be by honourably proposing to my Father to make me his wife & share the good or bad fortune that befalls him that he'd prove it? Why should I be at the trouble of getting a divorce & overcoming the difficulties that attended getting the means to do it--if I had already sacrificed honor? Truly I might have continued as I was--their malice is too glaringly absurd, for it to cost one a single sigh."

And yet, she's not quite as cavalier about the gossip as she makes out; the next sentence is, "Tell me if you have heard anything of their infernal reports--God help me, a spanish Island or any other Island, with some one to knock out the brains of any who insult me, will be blessed Elysium."

It certainly sounds like Eliza maintained her "honor" in 1807. But someone--perhaps one of the many Baltimoreans Eliza had managed to antagonize--was apparently spreading rumors to the contrary.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A "Lady" Translator

Let's say you're the editor of a magazine in Baltimore in 1807. Now, to complicate things a bit, let's say you're a woman--which is to say you've taken on a position that perhaps no other woman in the United States has assumed before (editing a magazine, that is), and you've noticed you've already come in for some abuse on that score. And let's say you've recently been criticized for--among other things--running a serialized translation of a racy French novel that caused such an uproar you've had to discontinue it.

What would a good career move be at this point? How about publishing, in book form, a translation of an even racier French novel--one that, according to a modern scholar, "contains what may be the first depiction of female orgasm in polite fiction"?

You do have to wonder what Eliza Anderson was thinking when she decided to translate Claire d'Albe--the story of a young woman who has an adulterous affair with her husband's adopted 19-year-old son, not exactly the kind of tale designed to curry favor with Baltimore's strait-laced elite. True, it was ostensibly published anonymously--the title page identifies the translator only as "A Lady of Baltimore"--but, just as everyone knew who "Beatrice Ironside" was, everyone was apparently well aware of the Lady's true identity.

Judging from the generally favorable review of the translation that appeared in Eliza's own magazine, the Observer, in Eliza's mind the scandalous nature of the plot was outweighed by the book's other attributes: its "simple, flowing, and elegant" language, and the ultimate moral correctness of its sentiments--since the two adulterous lovers eventually come to a bad end. (The Observer review did express the opinion, common during this era, that reading novels was a waste of time, but sighed that "since it was in vain to aim at changing general taste," it was better to read something like Clara d'Albe, as the translation was referred to, instead of the other "miserable trash" that was being consumed with "untiring avidity.")

Plus, Eliza did have the modesty to omit several of the more rapturous sentences that appear in the original French version of the orgasm scene, and to soften some of its language (for instance, Eliza rendered "She has stained her husband's bed!" as the somewhat less graphic, "She has sullied the honor of her husband!").

But clearly, that kind of tinkering wasn't going to be enough to appease the scandalized citizens of Baltimore. Shortly after the translation appeared in September, it was apparently criticized in a magazine called Spectacles--a magazine with which the Observer was already at war. And, according to Eliza, the Baltimore Federal Gazette had "inveigh[ed] against [the translation], as being vile and contaminating."

The Federal Gazette--Baltimore's leading newspaper--did run an ad for Clara d'Albe. But on October 12 the editor ran a notice headed "Mistress E.A."--as close as he would come to publicly identifying Eliza Anderson. The editor avowed that he would never be "forced into a newspaper controversy with any person," but that when the "assailant is a WOMAN, he can wage no possible war except that of defense."

The "attack" he's defending himself against is apparently Eliza's reference to the Federal Gazette's criticism of the novel, quoted above. The editor says that all he did was to refuse to publish an essay "intended to sell" the book, "which we thought unfit for female perusal... This, and only this, is what has armed against us the fierce FURY who edits the `Observer.'" In other words, he's saying that he never even criticized the novel in print--but he then proceeds to do just that. It's an "infamous tale," and that scene in the garden (the orgasm scene) is one that no "`lady,' of any tolerable delicacy, can read without being filled with disgust." He then describes the scene as best he can, given his own delicate sensibilities:

"A once lovely woman, reduced to a mere skeleton, is offering up orisons at the tomb of her father; a barbarian rushes upon her--seizes the trembling dying Clara and ................ Shame! shame! ................. let the `lady' of delicate taste and refined feeling, who has offered it to the females of Baltimore, tell the rest. We cannot defile these columns by publishing a chapter, for censuring which we have incurred the high displeasure of the phenomenon in Hanover-street." (Eliza lived at the corner of Hanover and German.)

All of this was transpiring in the pages of the Federal Gazette at the same time as the Webster debacle was unfolding there (see previous blog post). Webster, while professing not to know who had written the letter refuting his accusations against Eliza, tipped his hand: he referred to the letter-writer sarcastically as "the delicate and immaculate Translator of Clara d'Albe."

It's quite possible that if a man had translated Clara d'Albe, he too would have come in for some outraged criticism. But the language used by both the editor of the Gazette and by Webster indicates that the outrage was intensified because the translator was female. It's telling that the editor refers to Eliza as a "lady," in quotation marks. Ladies are supposed to be delicate and refined; they're not supposed to be translating graphic sex scenes (or what passed for graphic in 1807) that would clearly only disgust other ladies--the real ladies, that is.

There was something else going on here as well, although it's difficult to parse it out at this remove. But it appears that some people--whoever was writing about Clara d'Albe in Spectacles, for example--were saying that Eliza was actually writing about events in her own life. (Alas, only one issue of Spectacles has survived, and it's not the one that discusses Clara d'Albe.) Indignant, Eliza countered that "every page stamps it as a translation," and directed readers to "Mr. Hill's Book-store," where they could find the original, and thus judge "the degree of reliance to be placed on the veracity of the Spectacles."

But in a way, Spectacles was on to something. Eliza certainly wasn't having an adulterous affair with her husband's adopted son, but, subconsciously, she may have found herself identifying with poor tormented Clara. In her own way, Eliza was also transgressing boundaries ordained by society--and, as we'll see, not just by assuming what had been a traditionally male journalistic role.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Spat With Mr. Webster

As I mentioned in my last post, Eliza's mockery of poor Mr. Webster--the singer whose grimaces had given him the appearance of someone "labouring under the operation of a strong Emetic"--was to come back to haunt her.

Actually, it was some renewed mockery that started the trouble. In October--some months after his performance at Mr. Nenninger's concert--Mr. Webster had the temerity to perform again. In a review of this second performance in the Observer, Eliza proved herself no more impressed than she'd been in June. "When he sings," she wrote, "his face and figure remind one of the melancholy spectacle of a creature in the agonies of convulsion." His voice was actually not bad, she allowed; "but ... when with his hideous grimaces he treats us to the wretched caricature of an ape ... it is impossible ... to listen to him without disgust."

This ridicule proved too much for Webster to bear with equanimity. Three days later, what was apparently a paid notice ran in the Federal Gazette and Baltimore Daily Advertiser, signed W.H. Webster. Headed "To the Public," the notice accused "Beatrice Ironside" (Eliza's pen name) of attempting to extort money from him in exchange for a favorable review. Webster claimed that he'd received a letter, signed by "Beatrice," warning him that "in the course of the theatrical season many attempts will be made to injure you, by means of newspaper criticisms." The letter suggested that "a weekly publication"--unnamed, but its address given as the same as that of the Observer's printer--might be helpful in this connection by defending Webster against any such attacks. The alleged letter ended, according to Webster, with the words "`The subscription is five dollars a year; the paper is circulated all over the continent,' &c &c."

I say "alleged" because, although Webster purported to quote from the letter, he had, to his great regret, "mislaid" it. He explained this oversight by saying that it "was impossible to foresee that an accomplished lady ... could have behaved thus," but he offered to swear out an affidavit for anyone who doubted his word. (Webster's notice also sheds light on what an open secret Beatrice Ironside's identity was: Webster says that when he first heard about the review, "I inquired who wrote it? and was answered Mrs. A___." Actually, not even Beatrice's name appeared on the review, which was unsigned. But apparently everyone--everyone but Webster--knew exactly who had written it.)

Two days later the Gazette ran another notice, this one headed "Mr. Webster," and unsigned. Referring to "Beatrice"in the third person, this notice vigorously denied that she had ever "solicited, personally or by letter [anyone] to become a subscriber." The author expressed mock surprise that so "singular an application" as the alleged letter addressed to Webster "should not have been thought worth preserving." This is all the more remarkable, she says, considering that "Mistress Beatrice" had already trashed Webster's singing style in that review back in June--a review which she now took occasion to quote from liberally. She concluded, "That the known and acknowledged writer of these remarks should offer to become the champion of the gentleman who was their object, is so original a circumstance that it is really a matter of surprize Mr. Webster should have been so careless in preserving its proof."

This notice ran for two more days, and on the third day was accompanied by a response from Webster. He had seen a "contradiction of his assertion" about the editor of the Observer in the paper, he said; "but as it is anonymous, I shall certainly not make the slightest reply to it." Webster's response was, to say the least, disingenuous; the following sentence indicates that he knew very well who had written it. (I'll explain in another post what that remark was.)

Eliza, not to be outdone, ran her own notice for a fourth day--this time signed "BEATRICE IRONSIDE." Webster, as far as I can tell, was not heard from again--at least not in print.

What to make of this unedifying dispute? Certainly Eliza was unkind in her criticism of Webster's singing style, but it's the prerogative of critics to be unkind. And apparently she wasn't alone in her distaste for Webster: in his notice in the newspaper, he remarks that "Beatrice is not sorry I did not subscribe; for no doubt she has made more by her scurrilous stuff than the five dollars she applied for--as all my enemies (with whom she seems to be so well acquainted) if not already, will soon become subscribers to the `Observer.'" Webster has a point: no doubt this public contretemps, like others occasioned by Eliza's sometimes vicious satire, was good for business.

And, while it's possible that Eliza really did solicit a subscription from Webster, Webster here makes a pretty good argument against that possibility: why should she care so much about one subscription when she could probably do better by continuing to lambaste Webster? Not to mention Eliza's own suggestion that, given her previous criticism of him, it seems unlikely that she would have offered to refute attacks on Webster by others. At the very least, such a defense would have looked a little suspicious.

But one thing that's interesting to note here are the little digs at Eliza's unladylike behavior--which I'll allude to more in my next post. Ultimately Eliza came to believe that much of the animus against her was motivated by those who found the idea of a woman editor outrageous. As this episode illustrates, that's certainly not the whole story: the mockery and scorn she expressed in print would probably have also led to conflicts had they been offered up by a male editor. But the fact that she was a woman does appear to have intensified the reaction against her. And, as we shall see, her scandalous extracurricular activities definitely didn't help.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Mr. Neninnger's Concert

In her arts criticism for the magazine she edited in Baltimore in 1807--the Observer--Eliza Anderson frequently sounded two themes: the superior taste and appreciation for the arts exhibited in Europe, and the inferiority of homegrown, often amateur, artists. Neither of these themes enhanced her popularity with her fellow Baltimoreans.

In a review of a concert published in the Observer in early May 1807, Anderson praises a violinist from Germany--a Mr. Neninnger--but laments that his skill “will be buried like that of so many other Europeans, who vegetate here already, to our shame and our detriment, whilst every where else, in ordinary times, it would have been not only welcomed but purchased at the highest price, by governments, and nations, who would have been jealous of doing honour to their age, by these elegant and agreeable ameliorations."

Baltimore, Anderson complained, had "neither large theatres; nor church choirs; nor subscription concerts; nor military music; nor national academies, where exiled talent, might be kept alive by emulation, might receive those honors which are the vital principles of genius, and find resource against indigence and want!” Poor Neninnger would no doubt be reduced to "the hateful, the killing task, which is death to all genius, of teaching brats without ear or attention: E, F, G, A, B, C, D!” The attitude of Baltimoreans on this subject was nothing more than "Vandalism," rendering the city "the very Siberia of the arts."

But there was a glimmer of hope on the bleak horizon: Mr. Neninnger was to give a concert on May 26, assisted by "the distinguished musicians of our city." On June 6 we learn, from Anderson, that the concert has been postponed--owing, she says, to "opposition and delay" and some "little intrigues which retarded it." But these setbacks have had the happy effect of stirring up interest in the concert: there have been "some articles in the papers, which have piqued the curiosity of some, and the self love of others." A "great number of tickets" had been sold.

This very fact was then used by another journalist to refute Anderson's "Siberia" claim: if that many tickets had been sold, could Baltimore really be a cultural wasteland? Yes indeed, Anderson answered--with, if anything, increased vehemence. She seems to be arguing that one concert does not a cultural connoisseur make. But then she embarks on a flight of antidemocratic rhetoric that seems to have only a vague connection to the matter at hand, denouncing those who would accord equal merit to "artists" and "mechanics" (the latter presumably being more prevalent in Baltimore than the former). In a passage quoted in part in Gordon Wood's Empire of Liberty, Anderson writes, “We regret ... to announce to these levellers, who would place in the same rank, the engineer with the labourer who carries the mortar, and the poet with the manufacturer of the paper on which he writes the productions of his genius, that in Parnassus, this equality, which can only reign in taverns on electioneering days, but at no other time, does not exist–the Muses are rather saucy, and do not admit workmen to their levees.”

At last the date of the much anticipated concert arrives--and needless to say, Anderson reviews it in the pages of the Observer. Mr. Neninnger, the German violinist, did not disappoint, and Anderson praised both the professional musicians who performed and the "ablest amateurs of our city." But, not surprisingly, she found much to criticize as well. The orchestra's attempt at military marches only demonstrated "how truly we are pacific. A kettle on one side, a pair of tongs on another; these were the substitutes they were obliged to use, to serve as kettle drums, cymbals, and the triangle!"

But Anderson's most biting criticism was reserved for the unfortunate "Mr. Webster," an amateur singer. While Anderson praised his voice, she was less taken with his demeanor: "...[I]t is really to be desired that he would not distort his features with the horrible grimaces he makes whilst singing ... and that in his trills he would not assume the appearance of gargling his throat with his notes ... in viewing the contortions of his body, and the contraction of his muscles ... our imagination has always presented us the agreeable idea, of a man labouring under the operation of a strong emetic."

Anderson then turns to the subject of painting--discussing the relative merits of the artists Guy and Groombridge, which I mentioned in a previous post. Again she bemoans the lack of appreciation for the arts in Baltimore.

Shortly after this article appeared, another writer took up the same theme in the Baltimore Federal Gazette. While essentially echoing Anderson's point about Baltimore's cultural failings--and even extending that point to the entire country--the author also took pains to distance himself (or possibly herself) from some of Anderson's more vehement statements: “Do not misunderstand me, sir," the author writes to the newspaper's editor. "I am not about to join in the ungracious attempt to stigmatise my dear Columbia, as hostile to the arts. I will not call her sons Vandals, nor denounce this terrtory [sic] as a cold Sibera [sic], where the best plants sicken and die. No, I value the intelligence of [her] citizens at a higher rate, and I esteem her climate and her soil, as of a kinder nature.”

Despite the fact that the letter-writer essentially agreed with her, Anderson devoted four pages of the next issue of the Observer to ridiculing and attacking him (and let's assume, since it was probably true, that the author was a "him"). She particularly objected to the letter-writer signing himself "An American," which she took as a dig at her own patriotism. Does he mean, she asked rhetorically, “that all those, who do not take Philadelphia for London, New-York for Paris, Washington for Rome, and Baltimore for Athens, are unpatriotic citizens, and stigmatisers of Columbia?" (At the end of this diatribe Anderson says, perhaps a bit disingenuously, that she didn't mean to "say any thing unpleasant to the author" of the letter.)

The following week--July 4, no less--Anderson gleefully takes up the gauntlet once again. This time one "C," whom she describes as a "Grub-street critic," has launched against her what she describes as a "virulent attack." Alas, the attack itself has not survived, but apparently "C" took issue with Anderson's criticism of the orchestra at Mr. Neninnger's concert. Taking her sarcasm literally, "C" has pointed out that in fact the kettle drums were not kettles, but actual drums, and so on. An exasperated Anderson explains that she had been speaking metaphorically: the kettle drum was cracked, and the cymbals and triangle didn't emit the desired silvery sound. She defends her right to employ ridicule, which, she says, "alone ... corrects mankind, because self-love speaks much more forcibly to the mind that either right or reason."

Ah but, she then says with her usual dramatic flourish, if she must recant she will--and then launches into a mock celebration of American culture quite similar to the one she had embarked on a week before, adding, "Shall I praise the yellow fever too; for this is also a production of the Country..."

As always, it's hard to tell where the mockery--and the desire to sell copies of the Observer--leaves off and where the genuine outrage begins. But what is clear is that Anderson's critiques touched a nerve. The United States was still an infant country and very much aware that it was looked down upon by Europeans.

Now, in this era of American cultural supremacy, it can be difficult to understand what a sensitive issue this was in the early 19th century. Yes, even nowadays every once in a while some highbrow in France or England may make a disparaging remark about American culture, but given the dominance of American pop music, movies, and even "high culture," nobody really takes it too seriously. (And the French, with their love of Mickey Mouse and Jerry Lewis, don't really have a leg to stand on in critiquing American culture.) But in the late 18th and early 19th century, there was enough truth to the criticism that these would have been fighting words. America, and perhaps especially Baltimore, was a rough, raw, new society that was more concerned with getting and spending than with cultivating or appreciating the arts.

From what I've seen in contemporary (and some secondary) sources, this led to something of a schizoid reaction. There were those, like Eliza Anderson, who responded with scorn for all things (or many things) American and veneration for all (or most) things European. Baltimore's wealthy families yearned to marry their daughters off to European aristocrats--and some of them succeeded. Baltimoreans traveling in Europe were besieged with requests from people back home for fine fabrics and china (complete with European-style family crests) that were considered superior to what could be obtained on this side of the Atlantic. Anderson's letters, and those of many of her friends and contemporaries (particularly Betsy Bonaparte) are scathing in their ridicule of what passed for sophistication and entertainment in early Baltimore. Despite the fact that we'd only recently fought a revolution that rejected aristocracy, anyone with a "title"--no matter how idiotic or impoverished--commanded instant respect from this crowd.

But there were others who responded with a fierce pride in what they saw as American genuineness and lack of affectation. For these observers, Europe was corrupt and decadent, and America's very rawness was a virtue. And while Anderson may have had her supporters in the first crowd, it was this second group that was riled by her criticism--although, it seems, not always quite as riled as Anderson portrayed them.

But Anderson's criticism of poor Mr. Webster--the grimacing singer at Mr. Neninnger's concert--was soon to lead to an even more vitriolic, and personal, dispute.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Siberia of the Arts

As I mentioned in my last post, one reason Eliza Anderson undertook the editorship of a weekly publication in Baltimore was to raise the level of culture in her hometown, which she appears to have considered a backwater of tackiness and bad taste. (I'm not even going to speculate on what she would think of John Waters!)

So here we have one of those paradoxes that history often presents us with: On the one hand, Anderson is a feminist pioneer, probably the first woman in the United States to edit a magazine. But on the other hand, she's a reactionary defender of "high culture," ridiculing the nouveau riche merchants who don't know their Corinthian columns from their Ionic. As I've discovered in the course of researching other historical figures, actions that we moderns consider "progressive" don't always go hand-in-hand with opinions we ourselves would embrace. The past is complicated, and the people who lived there have to be seen in the context of their times--not through the prism of our 21st-century assumptions.

Anderson's efforts to raise Baltimore's cultural tone, heavily laced with her acid brand of sarcasm, frequently got her in trouble. She started out optimistically enough, writing in the February 7, 1807, issue of The Observer that she planned to "awaken taste ... convinced that our sensible readers will welcome instruction though in the garb of severity." Uh huh.

A couple of weeks later, she's ridiculing a Baltimore builder who admired the new Gothic chapel built by St. Mary's College (and designed by Anderson's future husband) and said that he planned to build one just like it, "but that he would not have pointed windows." (For those who never took art history, pointed windows are a hallmark of the Gothic style.)This solecism was still bothering her in November, when she brought it up again. But, she laments in another column, such things are only to be expected in a place like Baltimore, where "you see columns placed in niches like statues" and "fine houses with steps like a hay loft."

The sins of the tasteless nouveau riche were perhaps most evident in architecture, but Anderson carried her culture crusade into other branches of the arts as well. In June she weighed in on the relative merits of two artists who were having a sort of joint exhibition in Baltimore. While she bemoaned the fact that both artists had been reduced to the indignity of selling their paintings by lottery (one of her frequent themes was the lack of support for starving artists in Baltimore), she made it clear that she thought William Groombridge, who had been formally trained, was far superior to Francis Guy, a self-taught working man whose background was as a tailor and dyer. Anderson lamented that Guy “from want of encouragement reduced to the necessity of making coats and pantaloons ... has not had it in his power to cultivate his talent, nor has he made a single striking step in the art.” Whereas Groombridge, she thought, was a true artist. In fact, the judgment of history has been quite the opposite: Groombridge has been forgotten, while Guy has been praised for his vigorous American primitivism--his paintings of Brooklyn were the subject of a special exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum a few years ago.

But Anderson was, as I have hinted, something of an elitist. Indeed, Anderson's scoffing at Guy and those of his ilk has earned her the dubious honor of a mention in Gordon Wood's magisterial new history of the early Republic, Empire of Liberty. "Anderson," writes Wood, "could not get over the American tendency to believe that mere artisans--tailors and carpenters--could pretend to a taste in painting." Quoting something Anderson wrote in the leading Baltimore newspaper of the time, Wood ridicules her short-sightedness: "Apollo is somewhat aristocratic," Wood has her claiming, "and does not permit of perfect equality in his court ... The Muses are rather saucy, and do not admit of workmen to their levees." Guy, she wrote, should return to his "soul-inspiring avocation of making pantaloons." And just to top things off, Anderson referred to Baltimore as "the Siberia of the arts." (Wood mentions that Anderson was "a female editor," but doesn't seem to find anything remarkable about that fact.)

As we shall see, that "Siberia" remark raised the hackles of some Baltimoreans (or should I say,as Anderson might, "Baltimorons"?)--as did Anderson's scathing criticism of some local musical performances.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Torn in Pieces by Merciless Hounds

Should any reader of this blog want to read the story of Eliza Anderson and "The Observer" in a less staccato--and more scholarly--format, I'd like to announce that an article I wrote about her will be published in the Summer 2010 issue of Maryland Historical Magazine, a publication of the Maryland Historical Society. Alas, while back issues are online, current issues are available online only to subscribers. But I imagine interested non-subscribers could procure a hard copy version. And if you wait long enough, even you non-subscribers should be able to see it online.

So, where were we? Ah yes, Eliza has recently come out of the closet as a female editor, albeit under the pseudonym "Beatrice Ironside." Towards the beginning of her year-long tenure as editor of "The Observer," Anderson treats the issue of her gender lightly, and she seems to expect her readers to do so as well. In her February 28, 1807 column, which she uses as an opportunity to introduce some of her regular contributors--all pseudonymous, of course, and some probably entirely fictional--she describes one of the functions to be filled by a "Reverend Mr. Supple" in the following terms: “That a little Latin and Greek, now and then giving dignity to our lucubrations, may not alarm the bucks and bloods, who abhor learned women, we will inform them, that all such scraps are supplied by our able coadjutor, the Rev. Mr. Supple.” In fact, a little Latin did find its way into "Beatrice Ironside's Budget" on occasion--so it's possible that Anderson was simply being satirical here, as was her wont. Still, the tone is jocular. And who knows, perhaps the Reverend Mr. Supple was actually none other than Anderson herself.

But by April 4, we begin to hear an edge in Anderson's tone: "In a community like this," she writes, as Beatrice, "where the nobler sex are almost entirely engrossed, by parchments, pulses, or price currents, the attempt of a female to promote the cause of taste, literature and morals, by undertaking the arduous employment of editor to a weekly paper, would it should seem, have been cherished with respect, and forwarded with assistance and encouragement... Such were the expectations of Beatrice, such the flattering prospect with which she entered on her new avocation..."

But NO... "Alas! luckless dame, not long were the illusions of thy fancy to deceive thee ... not long e'er the futility of thy hopes was demonstrated, and vexation usurped their empire in thy spirit."

Given the flowery nature of the prose here--even more flowery than usual for "Beatrice"--we can probably safely assume that this is still meant to be somewhat comical. But I detect more than a grain of sincere resentment here. After all, she's been working her tail off, for--as she sees it--the benefit of the citizenry. Whether or not she actually expected to be "cherished with respect," she apparently expected better than what she's getting.

And what is that, exactly? Well, given the passage of time--and the disappearance of contemporary rival publications that may or may not have contained vicious attacks on Anderson--it's hard to tell. Apparently Benjamin Bickerstaff--her erstwhile star columnist, who went off in a huff shortly after the inception of the publication when Eliza, tired of waiting for his copy, ran a different column under his byline--has launched a campaign against her. To hear her tell it, she is being "torn in pieces by ... merciless hounds," who have been egged on, or perhaps led, by Bickerstaff. Now, she says, he has not only given up writing for "The Observer," he has pronounced its doom.

Interestingly, given that Anderson herself is a woman, Bickerstaff--at least according to Anderson--had a good deal of female support. As observant readers will recall, the column that set off Bickerstaff's departure--which was ostensibly written by one "Tabitha Simple," but which was almost certainly penned by Anderson herself--included some remarks critical of Baltimore's female population, singling out certain ones, although not by name. Bickerstaff, in his response, leapt to the defense of these women, who he thought he could identify. Now Anderson describes him sardonically as "the gallant, the benevolent, the magnanimous Benjamin, the oracle of half the little Misses of the city."

But it's clear even from reading Anderson's April 4 column that her gender isn't the only issue inspiring the attacks against her. It's also her penchant for satire, evident even in her description of Baltimore's merchant princes ("the nobler sex") as being "almost entirely engrossed" in grubby monetary pursuits--leaving her, a female, to try to save Baltimore's cultural soul. There's more than a little snobbery evident in Anderson's attitude towards her fellow residents of Baltimore--then a fast-growing mercantile city that, compared to older urban centers such as New York and Philadelphia, was lacking in both landed gentry and the resident artist class that might have been supported by them. As we'll see, in some ways Anderson was fighting against the tide, seemingly nostalgic for an almost feudal time, when the idle rich had what she considered taste and breeding, as well as a sense of their cultural obligations. Or, to put it more sympathetically, she decried the wretched excesses of the nouveau riche and championed the cause of "true," and usually impoverished, artists.

In her column Anderson recognizes that her acid tongue, and not just her gender, is part of the basis for the opposition she sees arrayed against her. But she remains defiant. Sure,she says, she could have published nothing but boring "dissertations on morality"--and gone out of business. She makes it clear that she'd rather publish a lively paper that employs ridicule to combat what she sees as folly, even if she ends up being "torn in pieces" (at least figuratively) as a result. She seems to have believed, as some journalists may today, that it's better to offend people and attract readers than to be careful and polite--and ignored.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

O Brave New Editors

Is there any headier experience than running your own publication when you're still in your twenties? Perhaps it isn't everyone's cup of tea, but for those of us bitten by the journalism bug, it may well be the best time of our lives. And having been on both ends of the journalism transaction--writer and editor--I know that it's way more fun to be in the driver's seat than to be the hitch-hiker by the side of the road watching the cars fly past.

When I was in college, I wasn't exactly running a publication, but I did have responsibility for filling the features page three times a week--and that was plenty of responsibility, as far as I was concerned. I got to think up story ideas, assign them to others or (more often than I planned) write them myself, come up with clever headlines and graphics, design the layout ... in short, wield journalistic power. Of course, there were frequent crises: writers that were MIA as deadlines approached, stories that came in with serious problems, photos that got lost somewhere in the darkroom (yes, in those days we had a darkroom) ... whatever. But even the crises were exhilarating. And the cameraderie born of sharing all this joy and angst with my colleagues was--while temporary and situational--genuine and memorable.

My son (who is the most faithful, if not the only, reader of this blog) has just come off what I presume is a similar experience editing his own college publication--where, as editor-in-chief, he had way more responsibility than I did, and was far more innovative and thoughtful in his approach. He may well go far in journalism, which, despite the fact that the industry seems to be imploding, is his chosen field of endeavor, at least for now. But I wonder if he'll ever have as much fun again. (Sam: I know it wasn't ALL fun, but believe, me, it will seem more and more like nonstop fun as the years go by.)

So I think I (and perhaps my son) can relate to the enthusiasm with which Eliza Anderson, at the age of 26, must have approached her new post as editor of a fledgling magazine in 1807. We don't know exactly how her rise to this position came about, but she probably started out by submitting articles, under pseudonyms of course, to a publication called the Companion. The editors of the Companion--all men, and all apparently busy with their studies or occupations and hard pressed to find the time to edit this magazine they'd launched--may well have recognized her talent (perhaps without recognizing her true gender) and begun publishing her submissions regularly. At some point they appear to have taken advantage of her enthusiasm and availability and started transferring some editorial responsibilities to her, because she appears to have functioned as a sort of associate or deputy editor in the final months of the Companion's run.

Then, at last, she elbows her way out of the shadows--or, perhaps, the men who have been out in front of her all trickle away, distracted by other pursuits--and emerges as editor-in-chief of a new successor publication, one that conforms to her own ideas of what a magazine should be (that is: tart, satirical, and critical of absurdity, pretension and folly). A dream come true! And she takes a new pseudonym, one that is forthrightly female: Beatrice Ironside.

A few weeks after taking the helm of this new magazine, the Observer, she introduces herself under the heading, "Beatrice Ironside's Budget: Speak of Me As I Am." Acknowledging that "much curiosity [has] been excited to know, what manner of woman our female editor may be," she proceeds to describe herself. She seems to be trying to reassure her readers that she is not a creature of extremes, but rather will function as an understanding and moderating presence. She is, she says, "old enough to have set aside some of the levities of youth, and young enough to remember, that she has had her share of them," and she proclaims herself "neither a misanthrope nor an optimist." Nevertheless, her optimism--indeed, her exuberance--fairly leaps off the page.

What she doesn't dwell on, at least not explicitly, is the fact that she's female--perhaps the first female in the country to edit a publication of this sort. But, like the proverbial 800-pound gorilla, it's a fact that can't be entirely ignored. She apparently feels the need to describe her appearance, something a male editor might have chosen to omit ("neither ugly enough to frighten a fiery courser from his repast, nor handsome enough for the Parson of the Parish to turn aside from his discourse whilst he admires her beauty"). And she assures her readers that her particular experience renders her more qualified for this editorial position than most members of her sex: "Accident having thrown her much more in the busy throng, than generally falls to the lot of woman, she has thereby acquired a knowledge of human nature which will assist her much in prosecuting this her work."

But what she seems most intent on explaining is that her prime subject will be "the vices and follies that fall beneath her notice," which she intends to "lash with the utmost force of satire she can command." With the memory of the recent "Tabitha Simple" debacle still sharp in her mind--a contretemps that led to the departure of her star columnist--she protests that she won't be targeting any particular individuals, but she acknowledges that she may "touch a picture with such lively strokes, that folly perceives its likeness, and is enraged at the dexterity of the artist."

True dat, as they say these days (and having just penned a satirical novel myself, I'm well aware of the possibility of outrage). But Eliza--or "Beatrice"--claims that she couldn't care less how enraged people get: "She happens to have been so luckily constructed, that she can turn an iron-side to the proud man's contumely (or woman's either)."

As it turned out, Beatrice wasn't quite as iron-sided as she thought. But she was right about one thing: "Mistress Beatrice, if publicly attacked, will not fail to defend herself, and Porcupine-like, she will always have a quill [i.e., a pen] ready to dart at those who may assail her."

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Beatrice Ironside

The January 31, 1807 issue of the Observer--the one that carried Benjamin Bickerstaff's resignation and the riposte of the editor, Eliza Anderson--was also the first one to introduce the name "Beatrice Ironside." Like Benjamin Bickerstaff, this was a pseudonym--in this case, a pseudonym for Anderson herself. But in the January 31 issue, it appeared only as a name under the masthead, which for the first time carried the words "by Beatrice Ironside."

It wasn't until the following week that the pseudonym appeared in the body of the magazine, under an editorial note addressed to "Readers and Correspondents" (who were, in many cases, one and the same). In a way, this is Anderson coming out of the closet, so to speak: it's both a description of the magazine and an invitation to prospective contributors, something that you might expect to find in a magazine's first issue or prospectus. The fact that this editorial didn't appear until after Bickerstaff went off in a huff leads me to suspect that, although Anderson was referred to as editor while he was still there, he was actually exerting quite a bit of editorial control. In any event, the rift between the two was decidedly bitter, judging from some editorial jousting later in the year.

In the note, "Ironside" catalogued the subjects the Observer would touch on--and a pretty exhaustive catalogue it is: the fine arts, history, poetry, fiction, even politics (although "Ironside" says that she herself "has never so much attended to the subject of politics as to entitle her to an opinion," and makes it clear that the publication will be nonpartisan). In this eclecticism, the Observer was similar to other "literary miscellanies" of the day.

And like its contemporary periodicals, the Observer relied on submissions from unpaid contributors, many of which apparently came in over the transom. Aside from Bickerstaff, who had now departed, Anderson appears to have been the only writer on staff, as it were. In her note to readers and contributors, Anderson thanked some of those who had sent in articles and poems and encouraged them to write more. (This included a writer she names as "Judith O'Donnelly," but then refers to as "he"--an indication, perhaps, that she knew the pseudonym was being used by a man.) Other contributors, however, were actively discouraged, including one who had sent "two or three pages that must be the production of some moon-struck brain ... We beg this gentleman henceforth to address us only in his lucid intervals."

One problem was that contributors were sending their submissions with postage due--so that Anderson had to pay for the privilege of reading these offerings, some of which "immediately found their way from our fingers to the fire." This was, as she put it, very expensive fuel, and she announced that henceforth all submissions must arrive with their postage paid.

It wasn't until a couple of weeks later, though, that Anderson, in the guise of Beatrice Ironside, would undertake the task of satisfying public curiosity about, as she put it, "what manner of woman our female editor may be"--and explaining the derivation of her pseudonym.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Sister Editors

When I first came across the fact that Eliza Anderson had founded and edited a magazine at the age of 26 in 1807, I thought: hmmm, that seems unusual. But at that point I didn't realize how unusual it really was.

I started doing some research into the history of women editors and journalists, and I was startled to discover that (a) nobody knew about Eliza Anderson, and (b) the secondary sources that talked about 19th-century women editors identified another woman--a woman who came after Anderson--as the first women to edit a magazine. For example, an online database identifying 65 women who edited periodicals or served as printers before 1820 doesn't mention Anderson. And her name doesn't appear in a list of over 600 female editors of the 19th century that appears as an appendix to a book called Our Sister Editors, by Patricia Okker.

That book identifies a woman named Mary Clarke Carr as probably the first woman to edit a magazine in the United States, as does an amazing book about Clarke Carr called Dangerous to Know, by Susan Branson. (Clarke Carr was the ghostwriter for a scandalous memoir by a woman who tried to rescue her lover from the gallows and kidnapped the governor of Pennsylvania; Branson's book reads almost like a novel.) Clarke Carr began editing and publishing a women's magazine with the charming name of the Intellectual Regale, or Ladies Tea Tray, in Philadelphia in 1814.

Not to take anything away from Clarke Carr's achievement, but here's the thing: Clarke Carr, and almost all the women editors of the 19th century who came after her, edited magazines for women. These women editors embraced their peculiarly female role, preferring to call themselves "editresses" rather than editors. But not only did Anderson predate them, her magazine didn't confine itself to what were considered women's concerns (cooking, fashion, household advice--along with some fiction and poetry). On the contrary, Anderson clearly saw the Observer as a general-interest magazine, taking on any and all cultural issues of the day--and she never referred to herself as an editress. And while the Observer wasn't primarily political--politics being a preserve that was seen as exclusively male--it invited and sometimes published pieces that touched on political issues.

In her book Our Sister Editors, Okker mentions that a woman named Frances Wright edited a general-interest magazine called the New Harmony Gazette in 1825--possibly the next instance of this after Anderson's one-year stint as editor of the Observer. But New Harmony was a utopian socialist community in the wilds of Indiana--presumably a more receptive locale for this sort of thing than conservative, merchant-dominated Baltimore.

Okker does quote a woman who had an experience similar to Anderson's own: Jane Grey Swisshelm, who was the editor and publisher of an antislavery periodical in Pittsburgh in 1848. Characterizing a male editor's reaction to her undertaking, Swisshelm wrote: "A woman had started a political paper! A woman! Could he believe his eyes! A woman!”

As we'll see, forty-one years earlier Eliza Anderson was moved to voice sentiments that echoed--or should I say presaged--Swisshelm's almost word for word.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

An Openly Female Editor

It has been suggested by an astute reader of this blog that Eliza Anderson, confronted with Benjamin Bickerstaff's revelation in the pages of the Observer that its editor (Eliza herself) was a "she," could simply have edited out the indiscreet pronoun.

Indeed, she could have -- and one might have expected her to, given the effort to conceal her gender in the first few issues. But in fact, Anderson not only failed to edit out the pronoun, she actually used it herself in the very same issue in which Bickerstaff's swansong appeared, in a notice headed "To Readers and Correspondents." In keeping with the convention of the time, this unsigned editorial referred to the editor in the third person,and it's replete with instances of "her" and "she." Defending her decision to publish the "Tabitha Simple" letter that had appeared in the previous issue, for example, Anderson wrote that "the Editor, conscious of the innocence of her intentions, and persuaded as she still is, that the letter ... contained nothing that in the eye of impartiality could be deemed reprehensible, ... she ventured without hesitation to commit it to the hands of the printer."

What prompted Anderson to drop the mask at this point? I haven't found any explanation, but it's possible that everyone (or everyone who mattered) already knew who the editor of the Observer was anyway. Baltimore, despite being the third largest city in the country in 1807, was still in some ways a small town. The group of literati that was likely to be reading the Observer (some of whom were publishing their own magazines) was probably fairly ingrown. Certainly by October the editor's identity was an open secret -- there's an article in the local paper identifying her as "Mrs. E.A." Whether that was true in January, when the Tabitha Simple debacle occurred, isn't clear.

Another possibility is that Anderson didn't think revealing her gender would be such a big deal. While it doesn't seem to have been at first, within a few months things would change rather dramatically.

In any event, in Anderson's first foray as, shall we say, an openly female editor, she revealed many of the characteristics that would mark--for better or worse--her editorial tenure. Although she may well have been upset that Bickerstaff had been moved to announce his resignation from the Observer, she clearly wasn't about to grovel before him; the most she would admit was that publishing the letter, under his byline, without his prior approval "may possibly require apology." She defended herself with vigor and relish, a happy warrior--and defended "Tabitha" as well, who, it was now obvious, was none other than Anderson herself (she explained that she was taking up the cause because "Tabitha is prevented, by imperious circumstances, from appearing at present in her own defence").

But what really marked Anderson's editorial was her gleeful use of satire in order to skewer what she saw as folly and affectation. In an ostensible effort to mollify the young woman who had assumed she was the model for the writhing young lady who had been compared to an eel in the letter, Anderson only twisted the knife further. That young woman hadn't been her target, Anderson asserted: she had actually been thinking of another female who was in fact far superior, one to whom the mistaken young woman was no more than "as a twinkling star to a resplendent sun." Moreover,the woman she had actually been describing was now in "the cold and silent grave"--not an entirely plausible claim, since the letter published the week before had mentioned seeing her just "the other evening."

Obviously, Anderson wasn't too concerned about hurting people's feelings. This was a trait that would come back to haunt her in the months to come.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"The Lucubrations of Benjamin Bickerstaff"

It was a pretty extraordinary thing for a woman to found and edit a magazine in 1807. Hence, I suppose, the subterfuge masking the true sex of the editor of the Observer in its very early days. Benjamin Latrobe, who clearly knew he was writing for the magazine edited by "Mrs. Anderson," nevertheless addressed the editor as "my dear Sir." And a columnist known to us by the pseudonym "Benjamin Bickerstaff"--an allusion to "Isaac Bickerstaff," a pseudonym used by the writer Richard Steele in the 18th-century publication The Tatler--referred to his "friend" the editor as "he."

But it was a dispute with this very Bickerstaff that soon led to the surprisingly casual revelation that the editor was not a "he" but a "she"--perhaps the first "she" to edit a magazine in the United States. In what was only his second or third column--headed "The Lucubrations of Benjamin Bickerstaff"--Bickerstaff undertook to praise the females of Baltimore. The following week, under the same heading, there appeared an article that was clearly not written by Bickerstaff. It was signed "Tabitha Simple," and it purported to be a letter that took issue with some of Bickerstaff's praise. While Simple declared herself charmed by Bickerstaff's admiration for Baltimore girls, she suggested that they were just a tad affected. To prove her point, she zeroed in on "a lovely creature" she had seen "the other evening at the assembly," who had been so intent on "displaying the perfect symmetry of her form" that she had "writhed her person about like an eel in the ruthless grip of a cook."

The following week's issue carried an indignant response from Bickerstaff--who said that the Tabitha Simple letter had been printed, under his "byline," as it were, without any advance notice to him. (The editor admitted as much, but implied that the situation was desperate because Bickerstaff was late with his copy.) Apparently a number of young women in Baltimore had concluded that Tabitha Simple's criticism was directed at them, and the gallant Bickerstaff sprang to the defense of them all. He even went so far as to argue that Tabitha Simple could not really be a woman, because "no woman could have written such a letter."

In the course of defending the female population of Baltimore against this perceived attack, Bickerstaff--perhaps inadvertently--revealed that the editor of the Observer was in fact a member of that very population. "The subject of this lucubration," he wrote, "may probably be unpleasant to the editor of this miscellany, but I am compelled to declare, that I have suffered more pain than she can possibly experience." (I added the italics.)

So pained was he, in fact, that he declared that "nothing shall hereafter, appear in the Observer, EITHER FROM THE PEN OR UNDER THE NAME OF BENJAMIN BICKERSTAFF." (The italics--and the capital letters--are in the original.)

Which suddenly left our editor not only unmasked, at least in terms of her gender, but without her star writer ... What was she to do?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Above all, the friend of truth

So how did Baltimore react to this news of a female editor in 1806, at a time when such a thing was generally unheard of?

Initially, at least--as far as can be determined--there wasn't much of a reaction at all. But in the same editorial quoted in the previous post, the new female editor (later female editors would embrace the term "editress," but this one didn't) announced that there would soon be "alterations" in the "plan" of the Companion--alterations that were to include more assistance for the overworked editor. And, as it turned out, these alterations also entailed scrapping the Companion altogether and founding a new publication, to be called the Observer. The last issue of the Companion appeared at the end of October, and a prospectus for the Observer appeared towards the end of November. Although the first few issues of the Observer are either obscure or misleading about the editor's sex (the editor is sometimes referred to as "he"), it was soon revealed to be female--and,not surprisingly, to be the same female who had previously been editing the Companion.

Why start a new magazine? Apparently because the new editor wanted to inject more satire into the magazine than the philanthropist who had backed the Companion was willing to tolerate (at least, that's the explanation that appears later on). This new magazine was to be not only more satirical but, at times, downright acerbic, skewering various denizens of Baltimore who were thought to be wanting in culture or refinement. The change in tone was reflected in both the name change (from the Companion to the Observer)and the change in motto (from "A safe companion and an easy friend" to "The friend of Socrates, the friend of Plato, but above all, the friend of truth").

But here's the real question, at least for our purposes: who was this new female editor? Given the early 19th-century penchant for anonymity and pseudonyms, her real name appears nowhere in either publication (the pseudonym she eventually settled on was "Beatrice Ironside"). As anyone who has read previous postings of this blog might know, I have identified her as 26-year-old Eliza Anderson--the daughter of a Baltimore doctor, the abandoned wife of a ne'er-do-well merchant, and the mother of a now six-year-old girl--and the friend of a local celebrity, Betsy Patterson Bonaparte.

How do I know Eliza was the editor? The first clue comes from an early contributor to the Observer: Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the first professional architect in the United States, who oversaw the design and construction of the U.S. Capitol. (There was a terrific documentary about his life on PBS not long ago.) On October 28, 1806--just after the last issue of the Companion had appeared, and shortly before the Prospectus for the Observer would appear--Latrobe wrote a note on the flyleaf of a journal he kept: “'No. 1. Ideas on the encouragement of the Fine Arts in America’ written at the instance of some friends in Baltimore for the paper edited by Mrs. Anderson.” The essay that follows in Latrobe's journal corresponds exactly to an article that appeared in the Prospectus, signed "B." (A second installment appeared in the Observer's first issue.)

Conceivably there could have been some other "Mrs. Anderson" editing a magazine in Baltimore in 1806, but this seems unlikely. Especially when you add to Latrobe's note the evidence that was to come a year later in the form of impassioned denunciations of "Mrs. E.A., the fierce fury who edits the Observer," in Baltimore's newspaper.

But we're getting ahead of our story...

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Safe Companion and an Easy Friend

So, what of this early 19th-century magazine, the Companion? This much we know: It was founded in Baltimore towards the end of 1804 and continued to publish until October 1806--a fairly long run for a "literary miscellany" of the time (the Companion's full title was The Companion and Weekly Miscellany). Apparently these journals would often spring up and then vanish a few weeks or months later.

In 1811 another Baltimore publication attested to the genre's generally short lifespan: "In the City of Baltimore so many abortive attempts have been made to establish a Literary Miscellany, that Experiment and Disappointment have become synonymous terms." The author even mentioned the Companion by name, despite its relative success: "The weekly visits of the Companion were scarcely greeted by a civil salutation," the author lamented. (This was part of a series of puns on the names of various defunct publications: "the rays of Moonshine were speedily extinguished: no one could see through the Spectacles," etc.)

Just as 18th- and 19th-century newspapers bear little resemblance to what we now call a newspaper (their front pages were usually entirely taken up with ads, they freely mingled opinion and reportage, and their "news" was often weeks old), these magazines were rather different from their modern counterparts. For one thing, the "profession" of journalism hadn't really been invented yet. The editors and contributors were all unpaid amateurs, often pressed for time--which may explain the brief life of many of the publications. Many of the writers in a given city actually knew one another--which enabled them to see past the pseudonyms, a convention originally adopted because a gentleman wasn't supposed to be engaging in this sort of activity. A typical issue might include a column or two, often written in a humorous vein, an essay on a historical or philosophical topic, a poem, a review of a concert or an art exhibit, and perhaps a smattering of stale news from Europe. And the pages of these magazines reveal a number of lively ongoing dialogues: one issue might well contain a vigorous response to an article published in the same magazine the week before, or to something that had appeared in another local publication.

In some ways, though, these magazines seem strikingly modern. Think about it: a community of individuals, many of them more or less protected by pseudonyms, often engaging in heated written argument in a public venue--sometimes, indeed, "flaming" each other. Remind you of anything? Yes, the internet. And the give-and-take nature of these publications, with many readers doubling as contributors (or leaving "comments"), is reminiscent of an early version of a blog (not to mention the fact that the writers weren't actually getting paid--just like most bloggers). Of course, people weren't only using these magazines to argue with each other. Like the internet, the publications also fostered a sense of community among their readers. (My neighborhood listserv is an amazing example of this. Neighbors who may never have actually spoken to each other are constantly trading household tips, finding each others' lost pets, and arranging to shovel sidewalks for the elderly.)

It's hard to say who the first editors of the Companion were. The pseudonyms they used--Edward Easy, Nathan Scruple, etc.--generally obscured even more than their real names: they came with entire fictional personae. "Edward Easy," for example, was supposed to be an elderly Quaker gentleman from Pennsylvania, with a backstory too complicated to go into here. But it's clear from later issues of the Companion (whose motto was "A safe companion and an easy friend") that those who were involved were all fairly young. In one issue, after the magazine had gone through several editors and suffered some publication difficulties, the editor of the moment pleads with readers to attribute any mistakes to the editors' "youth and inexperience."

My best guess is that the founders were a group of young men who were students at, or possibly recent graduates of, St. Mary's College, an institution founded by French Catholic priests in Baltimore in 1791. (It still exists as a seminary--and in the 20th century produced the famously anti-war Berrigan brothers--but in its early days it provided a secular education as well.) Similar "circles" of young men in other cities sometimes produced publications as an outgrowth of their discussions of books, philosophy, and current events.

There may have been a few women involved as contributors--some of the articles carry female pseudonyms like "Flavia" and "Biddy Fidget." But when an editor is referred to, the pronoun is always "he."

Until the issue of October 4, 1806, that is. That issue carries an editorial ringing the familiar theme of apology for a dearth of lively material. Note, however, the pronouns used:

… But when it is considered that the entire arrangement of the Companion depends on one alone, and whether the editor is grave or gay, whether visions of hope and pleasure play before her imagination, or she is sunk into despondence and beset with a whole legion of blue devils, the printer, like her evil genius, still pursues her at the stated period, and the selections must be made, and the proofs corrected, and of consequence, “The Safe Companion and Easy Friend,” must sometimes as well as safe and easy be sad and soporific ...

Yes: not "him" and "he," but "her" and "she." Thus it was announced, without any particular fanfare, that the new (or perhaps not so new) editor of the Companion was a woman--quite possibly the first woman to edit a magazine in the United States.

How would Baltimore react to this anomaly?