“Don’t you wish you were an editor?”

Lavinia Goodell, June 1862

From 1859 until 1865, Lavinia  Goodell’s father was the editor of the anti-slavery newspaper the Principia, and Lavinia worked alongside him in the paper’s offices in lower Manhattan. She started out writing short pieces, then graduated to longer stories, and eventually served as a co-editor. None of her pieces bear her full name. Many are signed with her initials and some with pseudonyms. We have been able to identify approximately fifty of Lavinia’s Principia pieces, and there are no doubt more – perhaps many more – since a letter written by Lavinia’s sister Maria recently came to light in which Maria said, “I don’t feel at all ashamed to have your articles attributed to me.” Lavinia sometimes wrote articles from a male point of view and relished the anonymity. She told her sister, “But then people generally won’t know it’s me, you know, and I think it is a fruitful theme. Young ladies are lectured to quite enough, and it is time the ‘opposition’ got a little.”

In a lengthy piece titled “A Day in the Life of an Editor” that appeared in the June 5, 1862 Principia, Lavinia adopted the persona of  a male editor. Introducing her protagonist as “William Henry Hartley, a man of thirty-five years, and tolerably good looks,” she took her readers along on a frenzied, roller coaster ride of a day at the helm of a busy newsroom. (Read the full story here).

While much of the piece was clearly written tongue in cheek, some elements were almost certainly somewhat autobiographical. Lavinia described Hartley swallowing his breakfast “hastily, in a gloriously absent-minded state” before “bolting for the ferry.” Perhaps Hartley, like the Goodells, lived in Brooklyn and took the ferry to work.

Much of an editor’s time is spent “proofing” copy. In Hartley’s words:

Do you know what “revise” is? Well, it is a proof of the proof, to be looked over, for the purpose of ascertaining whether your corrections have been duly observed. I need not assure you that mine had not: that typo still insisted on calling Senator Crittenden “Slavery Crittenden,” and “womanly,” “manly,” spelling Foote with three o’s, and putting a note in the wrong place; while commas, quotation marks, dashes and exclamation points had bestowed themselves in the most improper places, and the list of “Prices current” was in an appalling condition.

A bit later Hartley opens his mail and discovers a complaint from a regular contributor who “was exceedingly sensitive to such mistakes as you may imagine occasionally crept into his printed articles and I had more than once received letters from him in reference thereunto, written in a state of considerable mental excitement.” Perhaps Hartley’s lament was prompted by Lavinia’s sister complaining that she found several errors in an article she had submitted and  scolding, “I am sorry to see them.  It makes it sound foolish.”

Although the days could sometimes be long and the work frenetic, Lavinia seemed to relish the hectic pace of her job at the paper. She wrote her sister, “It has its sunny and shady sides, like everything else on this revolving sphere; for my part, though, I confess I prefer preparing mental aliment to physical, and like the stir and excitement of city surroundings.”

After numerous distractions and additional re-writes, Lavinia’s alter ego Hartley concluded the account of his day by saying:

Sources consulted: Maria Frost’s letters to Lavinia Goodell (February 20, 1860; November 8, 1862;); Lavinia Goodell’s letters to Maria Frost (April 9, 1860; November 12, 1862; March 18, 1863);  Lavinia Goodell, “A Day in the Life of an Editor,” (published in The Principia June 5, 1862)

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