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.