Double Vision and Women’s History

Sometimes I feel very lucky to live in Washington—for instance, when I need some obscure book or magazine from the 18th or 19th century, the kind of thing maybe three people in the world are interested in, and I can just hop on the Metro and go read it at the Library of Congress.

Last Friday, I felt the same way about the National Portrait Gallery. Not only is it a terrific museum where I have spent many happy hours, but last Friday they organized a five-hour symposium on a subject I find of great interest: women’s history in the late 18th and early 19th century. Five different academics (all female—a “whole binder full of women,” as someone inevitably remarked) delivered papers in a well-appointed auditorium, and the whole thing was capped by a reception in the museum’s stunning atrium. And all of it was free (or at least, supported by our tax dollars—a fact I’m hesitant to point out, lest someone become indignant about it).

The symposium was tied to one of the museum’s current exhibits, entitled: “A Will of their Own: Judith Sargent Murray and Women of Achievement in the Early Republic.”

Who, you may ask, was Judith Sargent Murray? I had only a vague sense of who she was myself, and I’ve been researching a female contemporary of hers who shared many of her ideas—and yet never mentions Murray in her writings.

Murray was, like the woman I’ve been researching—Eliza Anderson, who edited a magazine in Baltimore in 1807—what one might call a proto-feminist. She lived from 1751 to 1820, and in 1790—two years before Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman—she published an essay entitled “On the Equality of the Sexes,” in which she argued that women were just as capable as men and that it was only their lack of education that held them back. She also believed that women should be independent, that they shouldn’t be required to marry (although she herself was married twice), that they were free to comment on any topic they chose, and even that they could lead nations and armies. All of this was pretty radical stuff at the time.

Anderson wasn’t quite as upfront about her feminism as Murray, and she didn’t write as much about women as Murray did. But as I listened to the speakers, I kept seeing parallels between Murray and Anderson. One of those parallels was that neither of them talked much about other American women. Murray listed a whole slew of “female worthies” in her essays, published under the pseudonym “The Gleaner,” but they were almost all women who lived in the past or in Europe. One of the things that puzzled me about Anderson was that, although she too vigorously defended women’s capabilities and stressed the importance of their education, she overlooked other accomplished women in America—including Murray. When she did hold up a woman as a paragon of accomplishment, it was Emilie Du Chatelet, a French mathematician, physicist, and author who died in 1749.

Murray’s biographer, Sheila Skemp, suggested that Murray’s failure to acknowledge the accomplishments of American women (with the exception of her friend, the historian Mercy Otis Warren) had to do with her elitism and her pride: coming from an important New England family, Murray considered most other American women beneath her. She also may not have wanted to promote potential rivals.

Anderson was also an elitist, and she certainly thought well of herself. But, while her father was a respected doctor, she didn’t come from a grand family. And she wasn’t celebrated enough in her own right to be worrying about promoting rivals. It seemed to me that her failure to acknowledge the achievements of American women stemmed more from her general disdain for all things American. While she desperately wanted to improve the cultural sophistication of her fellow citizens, she clearly felt that was an uphill struggle. For her, the real locus of civilization was not in the cultural backwater that was then the United States (and, in her view, Baltimore in particular), but in the past and in Europe. So it was natural for her to look to those sources when searching for an example of sophistication and intellectual accomplishment, whether male or female.

I asked Skemp whether that might have been part of what was going on in Murray’s mind, and she said yes, she thought it was. In an era when we in the United States feel like we’re living in the center of the universe, it’s hard to imagine how marginal existence here must have felt a couple of hundred years ago. We were the sideshow to the great pageant of Europe, the experiment that many doubted would last—the place where life was new and crude, with no great cultural institutions to boast about. These days, some of us may feel ashamed of our American-ness from time to time (I certainly did as a teenager touring Europe during the Vietnam era), but it’s a different kind of shame. Back then, it was probably equivalent to what someone from Kazakhstan may have felt during the “Borat” craze.

The other thing that struck me about Murray was that she, like Anderson, shrank from the logical conclusion of her arguments about women’s capabilities. After presenting her case that women were fit to lead nations and even armies (a pretty radical thought even for the 21st century), Murray pulled back. Just because women could do these things didn’t mean they should, she said. Rosemarie Zagarri, another historian who spoke at the symposium (and who I was thrilled to discover remembered me from the prenatal exercise class we took together 25 years ago), said that Murray didn’t want women to become too masculine or to encroach on their husbands’ prerogatives. Murray defended women’s traditional roles as wives and mothers, touting their virtues of amiability and tenderness. She didn’t even suggest that women should have the right to vote.

Neither did Anderson—nor did she remark upon the fact that the one state that had allowed women to vote since the Revolution, New Jersey, actually rescinded that right in the very year that Anderson was publishing her magazine, 1807. Like Murray, Anderson didn’t push for equal rights. Although she was crossing the generally accepted line between men’s and women’s roles by assuming the position of editor (she was apparently the first woman in this country to do so), she defended that transgression in terms that were in keeping with the notion of women as the softer, civilizing influence in society. Women, she argued, had the responsibility of promoting the cause of “taste, literature, and morals” in a town “where the nobler sex are almost entirely engrossed by parchments, pulses, or price currents.” She herself had no interest in “price currents,” and it’s not at all clear she thought women in general should have anything to do with them.

Zagarri suggested that Murray stepped back from her more radical positions because she was wary of the public reaction to her views on women. When I asked Zagarri what that public reaction had been, the answer was: there really wasn’t one, as far as we can tell. Zagarri pointed out, wisely, that the things we identify as important from our perspective weren’t necessarily the things that appeared important to contemporaries. Murray wrote about a lot of other things besides women’s rights, so her fame—to the extent she had some—may well have rested on the essays that today hold little interest for us. Who was to know that someday we would have female Secretaries of State, female Supreme Court Justices, and serious female candidates for the Presidency? Given what happened in New Jersey in 1807, it may well have looked like the tide was going the other way.

It’s always important, when looking at history, to maintain at least two points of view, as much as we can: the view from here (that is, the present), and the view from there (the time we’re looking at). People and ideas we now identify as significant and forward-looking may, in the eyes of contemporaries, have just appeared wacky. Or they may have been so obscure as to occasion little comment.

So why didn’t Eliza Anderson mention Judith Murray? One possibility is she’d never heard of her.

Pandering to the Masses, Then and Now

Journalism, it is said, is in decline. And one proof being offered is a trend towards deciding which stories to cover based not on what editors think is important, but rather on what readers want to read–which is to be determined by what they’re searching for online.

The subject came up in a recent, and rather testy, interview with Arianna Huffington that appeared in the Sunday Times Magazine. The interviewer asked Huffington about an internal AOL memo, leaked shortly before AOL acquired the Huffington Post, saying that AOL wanted “95 percent of stories to be written based on what people are searching for.” (Huffington protested that she shouldn’t have to defend a memo that predated AOL’s acquisition of her website, and said that the document was “very, very, very far away in terms of where the company is now.”)

Obviously, journalism based on what people are searching for can leave much to be desired. We could end up with, say, a bunch of stories about Lindsay Lohan’s latest escapades instead of a searching analysis of what’s going on at Guantanamo. Or a lot of media coverage about the supposed falsity of President Obama’s birth certificate instead of a serious examination of what to do about the economy. Oh, wait a minute: that IS what we’ve ended up with.

But say what you will about the state of American journalism (and there is indeed much to bemoan), this trend isn’t exactly new. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately paging through a magazine that was published in 1807 (I’m researching a novel based on the life of the woman who edited it), and–what do you know?–the same issue, more or less, existed some 200 years ago.

For example: the magazine, which was called The Observer, began serializing a translation of a French novel called Adelaide; Or, a Lesson for Lovers. I’m not sure what the “lesson” was supposed to be, but by the standards of 1807 the novel was pretty racy. It’s about a couple of horny teenagers who can’t wait for the sanction of matrimony (or perhaps there was parental opposition to the match–I haven’t read every word). They do what comes naturally, she gets pregnant … you get the idea. Not too spicy by modern standards, perhaps, but it apparently caused a good deal of outraged comment in Baltimore in 1807.

Somewhat belatedly, the magazine’s editor–Eliza Anderson–decided to stop the serialization. Once she had seen the novel in its entirety, she said, she realized it was “too glowing, too impure, to be presented by a female, to the chaste eye of female modesty.” But lo and behold, the public–or at least the segment of it that wasn’t outraged by the novel’s publication–was outraged by its discontinuation. “Whilst some extracts we have made, from the most valuable works, are passed by,” Anderson complained, “this love-tale excites the liveliest interest, and when its publication has been suspended for a week, the office door has not stood still a moment, for the constant, the continual enquiries that were made, to know when it would be continued.”

It’s hard to tell if Anderson herself was genuinely outraged by the “glowing” and “impure” nature of Adelaide. For one thing, later in 1807 she herself translated another French novel that may have been even racier–according to a modern scholar, it contained perhaps “the first depiction of female orgasm in polite fiction.”

For another, she was pretty sensitive to what kinds of articles sold magazines. In fact, she started The Observer because its predecessor publication, for which she also wrote, was too dull. Anderson thought satire was the way to go–partly because she thought that was the best way to reform and mold people, and partly because she thought it made for a livelier publication.

She was right about the liveliness, but she ended up alienating quite a few people through her satire. On the other hand, as she recognized, the journalistic feuds that were fought out in the pages of The Observer and other publications actually had a salutary effect on sales. She noted at one point that subscriptions reached a sustainable level only after “some strokes of satire and criticism had given zest and interest to our pages.”

But Anderson didn’t just publish what she thought the public wanted to hear–not by a long shot. She never lost sight of her original goal, which was to educate and elevate the reading public of Baltimore, whether they wanted to be educated and elevated or not. So, alongside Adelaide and other fluffier offerings there were dense biographical tracts on Marmontel and Lord Mansfield and analyses of the contemporary political scene in Europe–the very “valuable works,” no doubt, that avid readers of Adelaide were passing by. Not to mention a lot of digs at the follies and foibles of the Baltimore citizenry.

Perhaps the moral here, if there is one, is that successful journalism has always been some kind of balancing act between what readers want and what editors, and writers, think they should want. The Internet has obviously made it easier to identify readers’ less-than-elevated interests and pander to them, but the basic issue remains the same. The trick, it seems, is to somehow present serious, thoughtful journalism in a guise that will appeal to the masses.

Maybe in another 200 years someone will figure out how to do that.

Rip Van Winkle at the Library of Congress

There’s nothing like a trip to the Library of Congress to lift my spirits–and to induce me to ponder the upsides and downsides of modern technology.

For those who have never experienced its delights, let me explain that the Library of Congress–and in particular the august Main Reading Room–is a shrine to that now almost obsolete format (or should I say “platform”?), The Book. The high-domed reading room is adorned with such a profusion of ornate marble and imposing allegorical figures representing all things book-related that it can sometimes be hard to concentrate on the actual, usually rather modest-looking, book in front of you.

But the Library’s collection is far from modest. It’s basically everything that’s ever been published in this country, and a lot that’s been published outside it–plus unpublished letters, diaries, maps, drawings. You name it. All brought to you on a silver platter (metaphorically speaking) a mere 30 to 90 minutes after you fill out a call slip with one of those tiny eraserless pencils otherwise reserved for keeping score in miniature golf. And all this for free–or rather, paid for by tax dollars. For my money, it’s tax revenue well spent.

But as to technology: yesterday I had an experience in the Reading Room that illustrated the ways in which old-fashioned book-related research methods can lead to serendipitous discoveries. I had requested a scholarly article on the Baltimore Almshouse, which I thought might be relevant to the novel I’m now researching (one of my characters is based on an early 19th-century Baltimore doctor who tended to the poor). As it turned out, the article dealt with the wrong time period. But in the same bound volume of the scholarly magazine I found another article–on the Baltimore yellow fever epidemic of 1800–that I eagerly realized was right up my alley. I learned that the predicament of the poor during the epidemic led to the founding of the Baltimore Dispensary, where my doctor was a key player.

What does technology have to do with this? Well, if I’d looked at the Almshouse article online–in isolation rather than in a bound volume with other articles–I never would have come across the yellow fever article.

On the other hand … after reading the yellow fever article I made my way down the hall to the Microform Reading Room, which is something of a letdown after the Main Reading Room. The last time I was there, perhaps a year ago, it looked like a forgotten broom closet that for some reason had been stocked with recalcitrant, creaky microfilm readers. It still looks like a broom closet, but the old microfilm readers have now been banished to a back room (and the back room of a broom closet is a pretty ignominious place to be banished). In their place stood sleek little black models perched next to equally sleek computer screens.

A friendly librarian, noting my confusion, explained that the new microfilm readers were actually hooked up to the computers: you viewed the images on the monitors, where you could enlarge or darken them or rotate them with the click of a mouse. Not only that, she told me, you didn’t have to copy things the old way: by pressing a button that caused the image to be temporarily sucked into the bowels of the microfilm reader, only to emerge as an often illegible hard copy at twenty-five cents a pop. Now you could simply copy the images to a flash drive, take them back home, and insert them into your own computer.

Of course, being a female version of Rip Van Winkle, I hadn’t thought to bring a flash drive. But the gift shop stocks them, apparently for hapless souls like myself. I was happy to fork over the somewhat exorbitant price of fifteen bucks–not that bad, really, when you consider the flash drive is a lovely shade of blue and doubles as a souvenir, since it’s emblazoned with the words “Library of Congress.” After the librarian gave me a crash tutorial in using the newfangled equipment, I spent a few joyful hours stalking, and saving, my microfilmed quarry: The Observer, an obscure weekly magazine published in Baltimore during the year 1807 and edited by Eliza Anderson–the first woman to edit a magazine in the United States and one of the main characters in my novel.

How happy did this make me? I can’t even begin to tell you. When I started researching Eliza, I had to transport myself to the Maryland Historical Society library in Baltimore to read the magazine in bound volume form. Oh, they had it on microfilm, but the copier function had ceased working at some undetermined time in the past, and there was no money to fix it. I couldn’t even xerox the hard copy pages of the magazine because they were too fragile. Nor could I even use a pen to take notes, because only pencils were allowed in the library. So I spent many hours taking notes on the articles with an increasingly dull pencil (the library did provide an electronic sharpener, which would periodically pierce the silence), and sometimes copying them word for word. Let’s just say it was a bit tedious.

Imagine my joy when I discovered that the microfilm was also available just a Metro ride away from my house in Washington DC at the Library of Congress–where they had an actual working microfilm copier, albeit a cranky one. What I really dreamed of, though, was a way of having access to every page of every issue of the magazine at home, so that I could draw on them at leisure in writing the novel. It was hard to predict which pages I would need and therefore which I should copy, but it would have cost a fortune–and taken untold hours–to copy them all. And the idea of buying the reel of microfilm and a cranky microfilm reader of my own crossed my mind, but I quickly dismissed it as unrealistic. Clearly, there was no way my dream would ever come true.

Until now, that is–just a year later. It will take a while, but I can copy every single page of The Observer onto my flash drive and install them on my computer. I’m amazed. But my amazement is nothing compared to what Eliza Anderson would experience if she were to be revived and told that all 52 issues of her magazine–the publication she sweated and slaved over for many hours each week, the source of so much joy and angst, the means by which she made her minor mark on history–could be easily contained within a bright blue object that’s only two inches long.

Celebutantes of the 19th Century

I recently went to a fascinating lecture about the Caton sisters.

Who, I hear you ask? Is that like the Kardashian sisters? Well, yes, kind of.

The Caton sisters were beautiful and wealthy, and basically famous for being famous. They were, if you will, the celebutantes of their time. But–given that their time was the early 19th century–they were way more discreet. And their parents–unlike the parents of Kim, Kourtney, and Khloe–weren’t into alliteration. The Caton girls were named, rather boringly, Mary Ann, Elizabeth (or Betsey), and Louisa. (There was also a fourth one–Emily–but she never made it as a celebutante.)

Before I went to the lecture, almost everything I knew about the Caton sisters was filtered through the letters of the two women I’ve been researching for the past few years, Betsy Patterson Bonaparte and Eliza Anderson Godefroy. All five women grew up in the same elite social circle in late 18th- and early 19th-century Baltimore.

I knew enough to discount much of what Betsy Bonaparte said. Not only did she have a phenomenally venomous tongue, but she clearly saw the Caton girls as her rivals for the title of Belle of Baltimore. Beautiful and wealthy herself, Betsy was the first Baltimore girl to snare a royal title–well, sort of. She married Napoleon’s youngest brother in 1803, but her hopes of someday rising to the throne herself (or at least some kind of throne–I imagine a principality would have sufficed) were dashed by Napoleon’s vehement opposition to the marriage, which he had annulled. Imagine Betsy’s anguish when all three of the Caton sisters ended up with titles after marrying into the British aristocracy (including one, Mary Ann, whose first husband had been Betsy’s own brother).

But Betsy’s animosity toward the Catons started even before their famous 1816 trip to England, during which the sisters were feted as “the three Graces.” Shortly before their departure, Betsy was scolded by her friend Eliza Anderson Godefroy for badmouthing Betsey Caton at a New York boarding-house. After swearing Betsy B. to the strictest confidence (for Betsey C. had “charged me not to tell it to you”), Eliza reported the gossip retailed by two gentlemen in New York who were Betsy C.’s “devoted lovers.” According to them, Eliza told Betsy B., “at a public dinner at the Boarding House you abused her in the blackest & most infamous manner, & that they made it a point to tell her to put her on her Guard against you_ I told her I did not believe a word of it & that they must be dirty Fellows indeed who would take such a business upon their hands.”

Eliza pleaded with Betsy B. “not to open her lips” about Betsey C. in the future (so, despite her protestations, she obviously DID believe the report). Perhaps Betsy B. grew more discreet, but her hatred of the sisters continued to burn with a hard, gem-like flame. In her later years, Betsy B. apparently spent many hours going through her voluminous correspondence and annotating it, just for fun. In 1867–fifty years after Eliza wrote her that letter about the New York boarding house–she wrote on the bottom, “From Mrs. Anderson Godefroy about my old Enemies the Catons who hated & injured me in Europe in 1816 & were, out of the Patterson father & sons Robert John Joseph & Edward, the most pernicious foes of my life.” (The Patterson men referred to were Betsy’s own father and brothers, so you get some sense here of what her relationship with her own family was like. But that’s another story.)

I trusted Eliza’s observations a bit more, but she was ambiguous on the subject of the Catons, especially Betsey. In that 1816 letter to Betsy B., Eliza seems to be endorsing her friend’s own dim view of the Caton girl: “No matter what she may be,” she tells Betsy B., “you cannot but injure yourself by speaking of her. .. she will always make herself appear the unresisting victim to your unmerited dislike.”

But maybe Eliza was only saying what she knew Betsy B. would want to hear. Many years later–when Betsey Caton finally snared a titled husband at the age of 45–Eliza reminisced about her with considerably more warmth. “Betsey Caton had more heart and more head than all the rest of the family put together,” she told a correspondent on hearing of the marriage. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the rest of the clan, but still pretty favorable to Betsey.

Right after she says that, though, Eliza goes on to say: “… but nothing so wastes the heart, so deteriorates all elevation of mind, as the system of coquetry she and her sisters were taught to practice almost from their cradles. It has however succeeded perfectly well with them, for the end of life is to obtain the object of our Soul’s ambition, and rank and title was theirs.”

The lecture I went to–which was given by Mary Jeske at the Maryland Historical Society–provided a more complete portrait of these three women. They certainly don’t seem to have been the demons Betsy Bonaparte thought they were. On the other hand, Eliza’s judgment that rank and title were their “Soul’s ambition” may well have been correct (they certainly were Betsy B’s!). Such an objective may seem strange to us, in this day and age, but in the early 19th century an excellent marriage was the highest ambition that most women could aspire to. And on those terms, the Caton sisters succeeded spectacularly.

Before the lecture, I found the Caton sisters’ story reminiscent of all those tales about impoverished British landed gentry marrying American heiresses for their money–the most recent version being the addictive PBS series “Downtown Abbey.” But as I discovered, the Caton girls actually didn’t have any money–not of their own. Their grandfather, Charles Carroll of Carrollton (one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence) was indeed fabulously wealthy. But the sisters weren’t able to get a piece of that until Carroll died. And he lived to be 95, which was almost unheard of in those days.

After the first Caton sister married in 1817–not to an aristocrat, yet–it was rumored that her husband was shocked to discover, after the marriage, that she had no fortune. One of Betsy B.’s London correspondents wrote to tell her that no one was going to make THAT mistake again. No one, he said, would be taking Betsey Caton to the altar “unless the money is first paid down, or put into a Train that it will be forthcoming.”

It’s enough to make you feel sorry for Betsey Caton, whatever her ambition was in life. And it’s quite a tribute to the Caton sisters that they all managed to marry aristocrats–at least one of them, indeed, impoverished–even AFTER everyone knew they had no money. Can the Kardashians top that accomplishment?

On Sympathy and Literature

Do the protagonists of novels always have to be sympathetic?

Certainly there are examples in literature of protagonists who are hard to like, sometimes even repellent. Just look at Lolita: Humbert Humbert isn’t anyone’s idea of warm and fuzzy. And while Olive Kitteredge–the central figure in the eponymous Pulitzer-Prize-winning collection of stories–is no child molester, she’s pretty off-putting.

The artistry of those books is that their authors–Vladimir Nabokov and Elizabeth Strout, respectively–make us care about the protagonists despite their unsympathetic character traits. Humbert Humbert draws us in with his scathing wit; Olive Kitteridge eventually becomes irresistibly poignant in her clueless self-sabotage.

But let’s face it: it’s a lot easier to engage readers if they like your main character from the get-go. (This is something my agent has been drumming into me vis-a-vis the manuscript of mine that is currently in her hands.) And it’s not at all clear to me that I have the talents of a Nabokov or a Strout. So, while I’m not saying my protagonists have to come on like Shirley Temple, I think it behooves me to make sure my readers will basically be in their camp.

That’s not to say that a main character can’t be flawed. In fact, there may be nothing more unsympathetic than a character who is perfect in every way. Plus, your character needs room to develop and learn a few things–that’s what allows for a plot. So, generally speaking, you need to strike a balance with your main character: not too perfect, not too imperfect … just right.

The main problem I’ve identified with the historical figure I have in mind for my next novel, Eliza Anderson, is that she was, by our 21st-century lights, a raging cultural elitist who had little use for democracy. As I mentioned in my last blog post, her position may appear somewhat more understandable when you know what early 19th-century American society was like. Still, it’s a problem.

So that’s her flaw, or at least the main one (she had others too). It seems to me that I need to do at least three things to deal with it. First, I need to make other aspects of Eliza’s personality sufficiently sympathetic that readers will be willing to more or less overlook her elitism, at least for a while. Second, I need to establish the circumstances that led her to feel the way she did. And third, I need to make that aspect of her personality change over the course of the novel. She won’t become a raging democrat–that would be unrealistic–but she needs to at least begin to challenge her own assumptions.

Unfortunately, there’s no evidence of that happening in reality (in fact, there’s some evidence to the contrary). But that’s okay: this is fiction. True, I try to write historical fiction with a healthy respect for the historical record, but to me this is one area where it’s okay to turn my imagination loose a bit. I wouldn’t be contravening any known historical facts–something that William Styron once suggested to me as a guide in writing historical fiction, because you don’t want the reader pausing and saying, essentially, “Huh?” Beyond that, I think having Eliza change, or begin to change, in this way would allow me not only to create a more sympathetic protagonist but also to say something about what was going on in the United States in the days of the early Republic–that is, that the country was gradually moving to an acceptance of democracy as we know it.

So what will spark this change in Eliza? Since this is a novel, and novels hinge on relationships between individuals, it will have to be another individual. My ideas are still pretty inchoate, but I’m leaning towards giving her a female servant with artistic ambitions that mirror Eliza’s own literary ambitions. That would feed into a story-line that is rooted in the historical record: Eliza became embroiled in controversy for her dismissive remarks about mere “workmen” who attempt to present themselves as artists.

The idea of having large historical ideas–like the the tension between elitism and democracy–play out between individuals reminds me of a terrific play I saw last night. It’s called Return to Haifa, and it’s based on a novella written by a Palestinian author who was assassinated–possibly by the Israelis–in 1972. The play was adapted by an Israeli playwright and performed here in DC by an Israeli theater troupe, in Hebrew. The story is essentially this: A Palestinian couple is forced to leave their house in Haifa when the state of Israel is created in 1948 and, in the chaos, end up leaving their baby behind. A Jewish couple–Holocaust survivors who have lost their own child in the war–move into the house and adopt the baby. Twenty years later the Palestinian parents, having been prevented all this time from returning, show up to claim their child.

All the tensions between Palestinians and Israelis play out between the five main characters of the play. There’s plenty of anger, guilt, and recrimination. And yet, the play ends on a hopeful note. Why? Because the characters finally manage to relate to each other as individuals, each one expanding his or her imagination to encompass the experience of the other.

That’s what President Obama urged after the recent shootings in Tucson–that we “expand our moral imaginations,” that we “sharpen our instincts for empathy.” And that’s what literature–fiction or drama or poetry–does, at its best: it enables us to be “the other,” to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Arguably, that’s especially valuable when the character whose eyes we find ourselves looking through is someone we couldn’t have imagined finding sympathetic. Like Humbert Humbert, or (in my case) a member of the Tea Party. Or, in the case of some Israelis, a Palestinian. And vice-versa.

I’m not saying that if Benjamin Netanyahu sat down and watched this play with Mahmoud Abbas, we’d suddenly have a solution to the problems of the Middle East. But I do think it might be a start.

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.

Scandal, Fictional and Otherwise

In my last post, I hinted that in 1807 Eliza Anderson may have been up to something–something that led observers to speculate that her translation of the scandalous novel Clara d’Albe was actually autobiographical. (Of course, as Eliza pointed out, if it was a translation, how could it be autobiographical?)

At some point in late 1806 or 1807, Eliza met a French artist and architect living in Baltimore named Maximilian Godefroy. Godefroy’s early history is cloaked in some mystery (he gave conflicting accounts), but it appears that he escaped from France after getting into trouble with Napoleon and eventually secured a job in Baltimore teaching drawing at St. Mary’s College, a boys’ school run by French priests. Godefroy apparently cut quite a dashing figure: he had pretensions to nobility (on some occasions he’s referred to as “Count St. Maur” or “Count La Mard”), and he attracted favorable attention after designing a Gothic chapel for the Sulpician friars of St. Mary’s in 1806–a structure that has been called the first Gothic-style building on American shores. In the summer of 1807, the Baltimore Library exhibited his massive drawing, “The Battle of Pultowa,” which had a romantic backstory: supposedly Godefroy fashioned it while imprisoned in the Chateau d’If, using only bits of paper that came to hand–120 in all–along with the “stump of a pen” and ink made from the soot of his stove.

How Godefroy and Eliza first met isn’t clear–although he does record being treated by her doctor father in October 1806–but by July 1807 he had become a contributor to the Observer. That magazine, edited by Eliza, published in three installments a work by Godefroy entitled “Military considerations on the mode of defence best adapted, for the United States, under its present circumstances.” (With a background as both a soldier and an architect, Godefroy apparently felt he had some expertise in military fortifications.) In October this work appeared in pamphlet form, with the translator identified as Eliza Anderson.

So far, nothing scandalous here. But at some point the relationship between Godefroy and Eliza became romantic. They were married in December of 1808–after Eliza had, the previous June, gone to Trenton, New Jersey, to obtain a divorce.

That’s right: Eliza was already married. (Why she went to Trenton to get the divorce is a mystery to me.) In 1799, when she was 19 years old, she’d married a Baltimore merchant named Henry Anderson. They had a child the following year, but shortly thereafter Anderson disappeared: he’s no longer listed in the Baltimore city directory of 1801. For the previous six years, then, Eliza had been an abandoned wife. But of course that, under the mores of the era, didn’t give her license to fool around with another man.

So, in October 1807–when both Clara d’Albe and the translation of Godefroy’s pamphlet appeared–there may have been talk of some hanky-panky between Eliza and Godefroy, and that may have fueled the odd rumor that Clara d’Albe was somehow based on Eliza’s own experience. Eliza was surely right to protest that she was merely the translator, but isn’t it possible that a certain similarity between Clara’s plight and her own may have drawn her to the novel and helped her to overcome any scruples she might have had about translating a work that was so racy? After all, both Clara and Eliza had found true love, and all that was standing in their way were some pesky marriage vows.

Whether there was actually gossip about Eliza and Godefroy in 1807 I don’t know, but there was certainly talk by June of 1808, when Eliza was seeking her divorce in Trenton. “As for what the Town says of me and much I hear they say,” she wrote to her friend Betsy Bonaparte, “I care not. Absurd & ridiculous monsters in whose hands no fame can go unsullied–if Godefroy had wished or proposed anything dishonourable to me, would it be by honourably proposing to my Father to make me his wife & share the good or bad fortune that befalls him that he’d prove it? Why should I be at the trouble of getting a divorce & overcoming the difficulties that attended getting the means to do it–if I had already sacrificed honor? Truly I might have continued as I was–their malice is too glaringly absurd, for it to cost one a single sigh.”

And yet, she’s not quite as cavalier about the gossip as she makes out; the next sentence is, “Tell me if you have heard anything of their infernal reports–God help me, a spanish Island or any other Island, with some one to knock out the brains of any who insult me, will be blessed Elysium.”

It certainly sounds like Eliza maintained her “honor” in 1807. But someone–perhaps one of the many Baltimoreans Eliza had managed to antagonize–was apparently spreading rumors to the contrary.

A "Lady" Translator

Let’s say you’re the editor of a magazine in Baltimore in 1807. Now, to complicate things a bit, let’s say you’re a woman–which is to say you’ve taken on a position that perhaps no other woman in the United States has assumed before (editing a magazine, that is), and you’ve noticed you’ve already come in for some abuse on that score. And let’s say you’ve recently been criticized for–among other things–running a serialized translation of a racy French novel that caused such an uproar you’ve had to discontinue it.

What would a good career move be at this point? How about publishing, in book form, a translation of an even racier French novel–one that, according to a modern scholar, “contains what may be the first depiction of female orgasm in polite fiction”?

You do have to wonder what Eliza Anderson was thinking when she decided to translate Claire d’Albe–the story of a young woman who has an adulterous affair with her husband’s adopted 19-year-old son, not exactly the kind of tale designed to curry favor with Baltimore’s strait-laced elite. True, it was ostensibly published anonymously–the title page identifies the translator only as “A Lady of Baltimore”–but, just as everyone knew who “Beatrice Ironside” was, everyone was apparently well aware of the Lady’s true identity.

Judging from the generally favorable review of the translation that appeared in Eliza’s own magazine, the Observer, in Eliza’s mind the scandalous nature of the plot was outweighed by the book’s other attributes: its “simple, flowing, and elegant” language, and the ultimate moral correctness of its sentiments–since the two adulterous lovers eventually come to a bad end. (The Observer review did express the opinion, common during this era, that reading novels was a waste of time, but sighed that “since it was in vain to aim at changing general taste,” it was better to read something like Clara d’Albe, as the translation was referred to, instead of the other “miserable trash” that was being consumed with “untiring avidity.”)

Plus, Eliza did have the modesty to omit several of the more rapturous sentences that appear in the original French version of the orgasm scene, and to soften some of its language (for instance, Eliza rendered “She has stained her husband’s bed!” as the somewhat less graphic, “She has sullied the honor of her husband!”).

But clearly, that kind of tinkering wasn’t going to be enough to appease the scandalized citizens of Baltimore. Shortly after the translation appeared in September, it was apparently criticized in a magazine called Spectacles–a magazine with which the Observer was already at war. And, according to Eliza, the Baltimore Federal Gazette had “inveigh[ed] against [the translation], as being vile and contaminating.”

The Federal Gazette–Baltimore’s leading newspaper–did run an ad for Clara d’Albe. But on October 12 the editor ran a notice headed “Mistress E.A.”–as close as he would come to publicly identifying Eliza Anderson. The editor avowed that he would never be “forced into a newspaper controversy with any person,” but that when the “assailant is a WOMAN, he can wage no possible war except that of defense.”

The “attack” he’s defending himself against is apparently Eliza’s reference to the Federal Gazette‘s criticism of the novel, quoted above. The editor says that all he did was to refuse to publish an essay “intended to sell” the book, “which we thought unfit for female perusal… This, and only this, is what has armed against us the fierce FURY who edits the `Observer.’” In other words, he’s saying that he never even criticized the novel in print–but he then proceeds to do just that. It’s an “infamous tale,” and that scene in the garden (the orgasm scene) is one that no “`lady,’ of any tolerable delicacy, can read without being filled with disgust.” He then describes the scene as best he can, given his own delicate sensibilities:

“A once lovely woman, reduced to a mere skeleton, is offering up orisons at the tomb of her father; a barbarian rushes upon her–seizes the trembling dying Clara and ……………. Shame! shame! …………….. let the `lady’ of delicate taste and refined feeling, who has offered it to the females of Baltimore, tell the rest. We cannot defile these columns by publishing a chapter, for censuring which we have incurred the high displeasure of the phenomenon in Hanover-street.” (Eliza lived at the corner of Hanover and German.)

All of this was transpiring in the pages of the Federal Gazette at the same time as the Webster debacle was unfolding there (see previous blog post). Webster, while professing not to know who had written the letter refuting his accusations against Eliza, tipped his hand: he referred to the letter-writer sarcastically as “the delicate and immaculate Translator of Clara d’Albe.”

It’s quite possible that if a man had translated Clara d’Albe, he too would have come in for some outraged criticism. But the language used by both the editor of the Gazette and by Webster indicates that the outrage was intensified because the translator was female. It’s telling that the editor refers to Eliza as a “lady,” in quotation marks. Ladies are supposed to be delicate and refined; they’re not supposed to be translating graphic sex scenes (or what passed for graphic in 1807) that would clearly only disgust other ladies–the real ladies, that is.

There was something else going on here as well, although it’s difficult to parse it out at this remove. But it appears that some people–whoever was writing about Clara d’Albe in Spectacles, for example–were saying that Eliza was actually writing about events in her own life. (Alas, only one issue of Spectacles has survived, and it’s not the one that discusses Clara d’Albe.) Indignant, Eliza countered that “every page stamps it as a translation,” and directed readers to “Mr. Hill’s Book-store,” where they could find the original, and thus judge “the degree of reliance to be placed on the veracity of the Spectacles.”

But in a way, Spectacles was on to something. Eliza certainly wasn’t having an adulterous affair with her husband’s adopted son, but, subconsciously, she may have found herself identifying with poor tormented Clara. In her own way, Eliza was also transgressing boundaries ordained by society–and, as we’ll see, not just by assuming what had been a traditionally male journalistic role.

A Spat With Mr. Webster

As I mentioned in my last post, Eliza’s mockery of poor Mr. Webster–the singer whose grimaces had given him the appearance of someone “labouring under the operation of a strong Emetic”–was to come back to haunt her.

Actually, it was some renewed mockery that started the trouble. In October–some months after his performance at Mr. Nenninger’s concert–Mr. Webster had the temerity to perform again. In a review of this second performance in the Observer, Eliza proved herself no more impressed than she’d been in June. “When he sings,” she wrote, “his face and figure remind one of the melancholy spectacle of a creature in the agonies of convulsion.” His voice was actually not bad, she allowed; “but … when with his hideous grimaces he treats us to the wretched caricature of an ape … it is impossible … to listen to him without disgust.”

This ridicule proved too much for Webster to bear with equanimity. Three days later, what was apparently a paid notice ran in the Federal Gazette and Baltimore Daily Advertiser, signed W.H. Webster. Headed “To the Public,” the notice accused “Beatrice Ironside” (Eliza’s pen name) of attempting to extort money from him in exchange for a favorable review. Webster claimed that he’d received a letter, signed by “Beatrice,” warning him that “in the course of the theatrical season many attempts will be made to injure you, by means of newspaper criticisms.” The letter suggested that “a weekly publication”–unnamed, but its address given as the same as that of the Observer‘s printer–might be helpful in this connection by defending Webster against any such attacks. The alleged letter ended, according to Webster, with the words “`The subscription is five dollars a year; the paper is circulated all over the continent,’ &c &c.”

I say “alleged” because, although Webster purported to quote from the letter, he had, to his great regret, “mislaid” it. He explained this oversight by saying that it “was impossible to foresee that an accomplished lady … could have behaved thus,” but he offered to swear out an affidavit for anyone who doubted his word. (Webster’s notice also sheds light on what an open secret Beatrice Ironside’s identity was: Webster says that when he first heard about the review, “I inquired who wrote it? and was answered Mrs. A___.” Actually, not even Beatrice’s name appeared on the review, which was unsigned. But apparently everyone–everyone but Webster–knew exactly who had written it.)

Two days later the Gazette ran another notice, this one headed “Mr. Webster,” and unsigned. Referring to “Beatrice”in the third person, this notice vigorously denied that she had ever “solicited, personally or by letter [anyone] to become a subscriber.” The author expressed mock surprise that so “singular an application” as the alleged letter addressed to Webster “should not have been thought worth preserving.” This is all the more remarkable, she says, considering that “Mistress Beatrice” had already trashed Webster’s singing style in that review back in June–a review which she now took occasion to quote from liberally. She concluded, “That the known and acknowledged writer of these remarks should offer to become the champion of the gentleman who was their object, is so original a circumstance that it is really a matter of surprize Mr. Webster should have been so careless in preserving its proof.”

This notice ran for two more days, and on the third day was accompanied by a response from Webster. He had seen a “contradiction of his assertion” about the editor of the Observer in the paper, he said; “but as it is anonymous, I shall certainly not make the slightest reply to it.” Webster’s response was, to say the least, disingenuous; the following sentence indicates that he knew very well who had written it. (I’ll explain in another post what that remark was.)

Eliza, not to be outdone, ran her own notice for a fourth day–this time signed “BEATRICE IRONSIDE.” Webster, as far as I can tell, was not heard from again–at least not in print.

What to make of this unedifying dispute? Certainly Eliza was unkind in her criticism of Webster’s singing style, but it’s the prerogative of critics to be unkind. And apparently she wasn’t alone in her distaste for Webster: in his notice in the newspaper, he remarks that “Beatrice is not sorry I did not subscribe; for no doubt she has made more by her scurrilous stuff than the five dollars she applied for–as all my enemies (with whom she seems to be so well acquainted) if not already, will soon become subscribers to the `Observer.’” Webster has a point: no doubt this public contretemps, like others occasioned by Eliza’s sometimes vicious satire, was good for business.

And, while it’s possible that Eliza really did solicit a subscription from Webster, Webster here makes a pretty good argument against that possibility: why should she care so much about one subscription when she could probably do better by continuing to lambaste Webster? Not to mention Eliza’s own suggestion that, given her previous criticism of him, it seems unlikely that she would have offered to refute attacks on Webster by others. At the very least, such a defense would have looked a little suspicious.

But one thing that’s interesting to note here are the little digs at Eliza’s unladylike behavior–which I’ll allude to more in my next post. Ultimately Eliza came to believe that much of the animus against her was motivated by those who found the idea of a woman editor outrageous. As this episode illustrates, that’s certainly not the whole story: the mockery and scorn she expressed in print would probably have also led to conflicts had they been offered up by a male editor. But the fact that she was a woman does appear to have intensified the reaction against her. And, as we shall see, her scandalous extracurricular activities definitely didn’t help.

Mr. Neninnger’s Concert

In her arts criticism for the magazine she edited in Baltimore in 1807–the Observer–Eliza Anderson frequently sounded two themes: the superior taste and appreciation for the arts exhibited in Europe, and the inferiority of homegrown, often amateur, artists. Neither of these themes enhanced her popularity with her fellow Baltimoreans.

In a review of a concert published in the Observer in early May 1807, Anderson praises a violinist from Germany–a Mr. Neninnger–but laments that his skill “will be buried like that of so many other Europeans, who vegetate here already, to our shame and our detriment, whilst every where else, in ordinary times, it would have been not only welcomed but purchased at the highest price, by governments, and nations, who would have been jealous of doing honour to their age, by these elegant and agreeable ameliorations.”

Baltimore, Anderson complained, had “neither large theatres; nor church choirs; nor subscription concerts; nor military music; nor national academies, where exiled talent, might be kept alive by emulation, might receive those honors which are the vital principles of genius, and find resource against indigence and want!” Poor Neninnger would no doubt be reduced to “the hateful, the killing task, which is death to all genius, of teaching brats without ear or attention: E, F, G, A, B, C, D!” The attitude of Baltimoreans on this subject was nothing more than “Vandalism,” rendering the city “the very Siberia of the arts.”

But there was a glimmer of hope on the bleak horizon: Mr. Neninnger was to give a concert on May 26, assisted by “the distinguished musicians of our city.” On June 6 we learn, from Anderson, that the concert has been postponed–owing, she says, to “opposition and delay” and some “little intrigues which retarded it.” But these setbacks have had the happy effect of stirring up interest in the concert: there have been “some articles in the papers, which have piqued the curiosity of some, and the self love of others.” A “great number of tickets” had been sold.

This very fact was then used by another journalist to refute Anderson’s “Siberia” claim: if that many tickets had been sold, could Baltimore really be a cultural wasteland? Yes indeed, Anderson answered–with, if anything, increased vehemence. She seems to be arguing that one concert does not a cultural connoisseur make. But then she embarks on a flight of antidemocratic rhetoric that seems to have only a vague connection to the matter at hand, denouncing those who would accord equal merit to “artists” and “mechanics” (the latter presumably being more prevalent in Baltimore than the former). In a passage quoted in part in Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty, Anderson writes, “We regret … to announce to these levellers, who would place in the same rank, the engineer with the labourer who carries the mortar, and the poet with the manufacturer of the paper on which he writes the productions of his genius, that in Parnassus, this equality, which can only reign in taverns on electioneering days, but at no other time, does not exist–the Muses are rather saucy, and do not admit workmen to their levees.”

At last the date of the much anticipated concert arrives–and needless to say, Anderson reviews it in the pages of the Observer. Mr. Neninnger, the German violinist, did not disappoint, and Anderson praised both the professional musicians who performed and the “ablest amateurs of our city.” But, not surprisingly, she found much to criticize as well. The orchestra’s attempt at military marches only demonstrated “how truly we are pacific. A kettle on one side, a pair of tongs on another; these were the substitutes they were obliged to use, to serve as kettle drums, cymbals, and the triangle!”

But Anderson’s most biting criticism was reserved for the unfortunate “Mr. Webster,” an amateur singer. While Anderson praised his voice, she was less taken with his demeanor: “…[I]t is really to be desired that he would not distort his features with the horrible grimaces he makes whilst singing … and that in his trills he would not assume the appearance of gargling his throat with his notes … in viewing the contortions of his body, and the contraction of his muscles … our imagination has always presented us the agreeable idea, of a man labouring under the operation of a strong emetic.”

Anderson then turns to the subject of painting–discussing the relative merits of the artists Guy and Groombridge, which I mentioned in a previous post. Again she bemoans the lack of appreciation for the arts in Baltimore.

Shortly after this article appeared, another writer took up the same theme in the Baltimore Federal Gazette. While essentially echoing Anderson’s point about Baltimore’s cultural failings–and even extending that point to the entire country–the author also took pains to distance himself (or possibly herself) from some of Anderson’s more vehement statements: “Do not misunderstand me, sir,” the author writes to the newspaper’s editor. “I am not about to join in the ungracious attempt to stigmatise my dear Columbia, as hostile to the arts. I will not call her sons Vandals, nor denounce this terrtory [sic] as a cold Sibera [sic], where the best plants sicken and die. No, I value the intelligence of [her] citizens at a higher rate, and I esteem her climate and her soil, as of a kinder nature.”

Despite the fact that the letter-writer essentially agreed with her, Anderson devoted four pages of the next issue of the Observer to ridiculing and attacking him (and let’s assume, since it was probably true, that the author was a “him”). She particularly objected to the letter-writer signing himself “An American,” which she took as a dig at her own patriotism. Does he mean, she asked rhetorically, “that all those, who do not take Philadelphia for London, New-York for Paris, Washington for Rome, and Baltimore for Athens, are unpatriotic citizens, and stigmatisers of Columbia?” (At the end of this diatribe Anderson says, perhaps a bit disingenuously, that she didn’t mean to “say any thing unpleasant to the author” of the letter.)

The following week–July 4, no less–Anderson gleefully takes up the gauntlet once again. This time one “C,” whom she describes as a “Grub-street critic,” has launched against her what she describes as a “virulent attack.” Alas, the attack itself has not survived, but apparently “C” took issue with Anderson’s criticism of the orchestra at Mr. Neninnger’s concert. Taking her sarcasm literally, “C” has pointed out that in fact the kettle drums were not kettles, but actual drums, and so on. An exasperated Anderson explains that she had been speaking metaphorically: the kettle drum was cracked, and the cymbals and triangle didn’t emit the desired silvery sound. She defends her right to employ ridicule, which, she says, “alone … corrects mankind, because self-love speaks much more forcibly to the mind that either right or reason.”

Ah but, she then says with her usual dramatic flourish, if she must recant she will–and then launches into a mock celebration of American culture quite similar to the one she had embarked on a week before, adding, “Shall I praise the yellow fever too; for this is also a production of the Country…”

As always, it’s hard to tell where the mockery–and the desire to sell copies of the Observer–leaves off and where the genuine outrage begins. But what is clear is that Anderson’s critiques touched a nerve. The United States was still an infant country and very much aware that it was looked down upon by Europeans.

Now, in this era of American cultural supremacy, it can be difficult to understand what a sensitive issue this was in the early 19th century. Yes, even nowadays every once in a while some highbrow in France or England may make a disparaging remark about American culture, but given the dominance of American pop music, movies, and even “high culture,” nobody really takes it too seriously. (And the French, with their love of Mickey Mouse and Jerry Lewis, don’t really have a leg to stand on in critiquing American culture.) But in the late 18th and early 19th century, there was enough truth to the criticism that these would have been fighting words. America, and perhaps especially Baltimore, was a rough, raw, new society that was more concerned with getting and spending than with cultivating or appreciating the arts.

From what I’ve seen in contemporary (and some secondary) sources, this led to something of a schizoid reaction. There were those, like Eliza Anderson, who responded with scorn for all things (or many things) American and veneration for all (or most) things European. Baltimore’s wealthy families yearned to marry their daughters off to European aristocrats–and some of them succeeded. Baltimoreans traveling in Europe were besieged with requests from people back home for fine fabrics and china (complete with European-style family crests) that were considered superior to what could be obtained on this side of the Atlantic. Anderson’s letters, and those of many of her friends and contemporaries (particularly Betsy Bonaparte) are scathing in their ridicule of what passed for sophistication and entertainment in early Baltimore. Despite the fact that we’d only recently fought a revolution that rejected aristocracy, anyone with a “title”–no matter how idiotic or impoverished–commanded instant respect from this crowd.

But there were others who responded with a fierce pride in what they saw as American genuineness and lack of affectation. For these observers, Europe was corrupt and decadent, and America’s very rawness was a virtue. And while Anderson may have had her supporters in the first crowd, it was this second group that was riled by her criticism–although, it seems, not always quite as riled as Anderson portrayed them.

But Anderson’s criticism of poor Mr. Webster–the grimacing singer at Mr. Neninnger’s concert–was soon to lead to an even more vitriolic, and personal, dispute.