Mitford’s Good Fight

A review of Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking
February 23, 2011

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.)

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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.

Mitford scrutinizes other forms of media, too, often focusing on how they handle (or in some cases, staunch) the flow of information. Interviewing the literary radical George Jackson, she presses him on how he managed to publish a book in prison, despite abundant censorship. (The book, Soledad Brother, comprised letters that Jackson mailed from jail. The guards altered or confiscated many, but eventually Jackson’s lawyers managed to prohibit such tampering.) One of her finest pieces examines NBC’s decision to block production of a television special meant to clarify details about a particular sexually transmitted disease. Before doing so, the network ordered a series of cuts and substitutions that range from amusing to problematic:

“As is your custom, please exercise caution when showing the interns staring appreciatively at the group of nurses passing by. In addition, please eliminate Dr. Tyler’s speech, ‘If she is not anybody’s kin—and nobody’s sister—I would like to scrub with her.’”…“Please delete ‘a case of syphilis’ and substitute ‘this disease.’ ”

Mitford provocatively titles her article “Don’t Call It Syphilis,” both echoing and rebutting NBC’s efforts to hide unpleasant facts.

Tracking truths is Mitford’s passion, and her notes reveal her despair when she misses an especially good one. After she published her piece on the Famous Writers School, for example, she found out the teachers had been sending pupils cleverly camouflaged form letters. Having overlooked this tidbit gave her nightmares for years. And yet, for someone so devoted to facts, she is surprisingly enthusiastic about strategic mendacity: “Ethics is not one of my strong points,” she explains. She continues:

In general, I think that if you have promised anonymity to the person you are interviewing, or if it is agreed in advance that he is speaking “off the record,” such agreement should be respected. Better, however, to steer him away from such untoward thoughts, which can often be done by fast and dexterous talk about the matter at hand, so that the problem does not arise.

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.

Abigail Deutsch is a writer who lives in New York. Her work appears in The Village Voice, n+1, Bookforum, Poetry, and other publications.