Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking by Jessica Mitford | New York Review Books Classics | 274 pages, $15.95
The merry muckraker Jessica Mitford, who died in 1996, was among the sharpest British imports since Cheddar cheese. Sixteen years after publishing her lively 1963 exposé of the American funeral industry, The American Way of Death, Mitford compiled Poison Penmanship, a collection of investigative pieces devoted to probing swindles of all sorts, from overpriced weight-loss programs to slick tourist traps. Now reissued by New York Review Books Classics—that great raiser of the literary dead—the collection resounds as a love song to facts and fairness. And yet it isn’t a bit boring.
Nor was Mitford herself. One of six sisters collectively notorious for their talents, looks, and radical politics, she moved to America in her twenties, pursued a variety of leftist causes, and turned to writing at forty-three. Her surface gentleness (“it is not in my sweet nature to lose my temper,” she writes) concealed the systematic intelligence, strong will, and wicked wit that defined her journalism.
Poison Penmanship’s introduction provides an overview of Mitford’s methods. The writer describes researching her subjects through background reading and consultations with experts (one of whom is, intriguingly, a “thirteen-year-old junior high math whiz”). Before interviews, she composes questions and orders them along a spectrum of benevolence ranging from Kind to Cruel. She then butters up interviewees with Kinds before ambushing them with Cruels. Like a torturer, Mitford regularly prompts people to break down into self-incriminating babble. In her takedown of the Famous Writers School correspondence program, which promised students access to renowned authors, she interviews two of the teachers, publisher Bennett Cerf and poet Phyllis McGinley. Here’s how they describe their roles in a program that advertises their attention to lessons and aptitude tests:
“If anyone thinks we’ve got time to look at the aptitude tests that come in, they’re out of their mind!” said Bennett Cerf. And Phyllis McGinley: “I’m only a figurehead. I thought a person had to be qualified to take the course, but since I never see any of the applications or the lessons, I don’t know.”
Mitford brings out the least savory qualities not only in the people she interviews, but also in the magazines she writes for. She addends an explanatory note to each piece in Poison Penmanship, and observes of the Famous Writers School article: “My efforts to get it published, a series of dizzying ups and downs, gave me an insight into the policymaking process of magazines that I should never otherwise have acquired.” Several major magazines—The Atlantic Monthly, McCall’s, Life—expressed interest, and then tossed the story away like a potato hot enough to burn their relationships with the Famous Writers involved, and, perhaps more significantly, with their advertisers. (Ultimately, The Atlantic terminated the school’s advertising contract and accepted the piece. The issue featuring the article sold more newsstand copies than any in the periodical’s history until that point. The Famous Writers School witnessed a corresponding drop in sales.)
Another riotous backstory provides further insight into the magazine business. In an early piece for Life, Mitford explains how her family and friends have refined an elaborate system of collect calling, geared toward conveying messages without paying phone companies a cent: “If the operator announces, ‘Person-to-person call, collect, for Minnie S. Oder,’ it is clear to the husband who answers that his wife has arrived in Minnesota . Wishing to know whether any important letters have arrived, the wife may ask for Esther Annie Mehl?” (In Mitford’s complex moral system, cheating the phone company of a few dollars was okay—she did it to disseminate information, after all, the same reason she wrote articles—whereas cheating individual citizens of thousands of dollars, in the style of the Famous Writers School, was not. Perhaps her Communist leanings explain this attitude.) The telephone company that advertised in Life was, however, less than amused. “A friend who worked at Life told me all about it,” Mitford writes, quoting this informant:
“The telephone company called all the brass at Life on the carpet and ordered them to show cause why the phone company should pour millions of dollars into advertising in Life only to be knifed in the back like this.” What happened? I asked. “Well, first we fired Murphy.” Murphy, my friend explained, is a fictitious Life editor who is always fired whenever some high up in politics or business complains of being maligned in an article. To further assuage the phone company’s injured feelings, my friend continued, Life arranged to produce a special eight-page color spread on the company’s contribution to the space program.