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.