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?