Should modern readers feel uneasy about Mitford’s occasionally underhanded methods? To be honest—as she sometimes wasn’t—it’s hard to remain indignant in the face of her reportage, which illustrates the utility of the artful lie in unearthing more pernicious ones. Besides, her trickery is so entertaining that we inevitably chuckle even as we cluck. At one point, Mitford was researching the corruption of American prisons in preparation for her book on the subject, and sought access to back issues of The Grapevine, an insider trade magazine. She knew the publication was hostile to her journalism (“Her kind of reporter is one of the realities of life in these troubled times,” an article had lamented). And so she had her assistant write the editors a fawning letter under the guise of an aspiring corrections officer:
I have long felt that my education here has been jammed into a liberal mold of propaganda. I see your publication as a credible news source of our profession undistorted by the rampant irresponsible and unrealistic biases of the media and campus liberals.
Mitford tweaked the fake name her assistant had chosen to Kenneth from Karl—the original, she worried, might sound subversive—and dispatched the note. The magazine not only provided Mitford with back issues but also reprinted the letter for the benefit of all its readers, eager to publicize its popularity among the next generation of corrections hopefuls.
All this strikes Mitford as a hoot. In Poison Penmanship, she never comes off as morally superior. Rather, she’s both discriminating and flawed, a good and bad cop united into a gleeful one-woman force. She doesn’t write so much as crow—whether about other people’s schemes or her own—and she leavens her sentences with stylistic surprise. Her passion for justice compares with her passion for mots justes, and, like some of us, she loves a good pun. Mitfordian missiles such as “I ain’t gonna study Waugh no more” will likely make such people cackle and slap their knees.
Mitfordian misfires—the messy phrase, the ill-chosen word—are rare but bothersome, like mosquitoes that have managed to penetrate high-quality netting. I wondered why her technical flaws made me flinch, and realized that her fault-finding energy, along with her uppity tone, is contagious. After hitting upon the phrase “As my firstborn, I still feel some maternal affection for it,” I penned indignantly in the margin: “Now, Jessica! Unhinge that dangling modifier and reattach it somewhere more appropriate!”
As the author of The American Way of Death, Mitford would doubtless want to know how well her pieces have aged since initial publication. While there’s life in the old girls yet, they’ve nonetheless gone a little gray at the temples. As comedy, as exhumations of scandal, and as records of an American scene now passed or passing, they remain exemplary. But most of these pieces stop short of philosophy, failing to address the more profound hows and whys. (She writes, with only some irony, “I am not an essayist by nature; the word evokes high-level scholarship and rich, thoughtful prose on some abstract subject.”) A muckraker she was, but particularly fascinated by surfaces: who said what to whom, and how he looked while saying it. She leaves any deeper digging to us.