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.

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