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?

1 comment:

  1. "Lucubrations"--there's a word that got lost somewhere in its journey through the ages. But couldn't the editor of the Observer have edited out Bickerstaff's mention of her gender if she so chose?