Review Fridays: Poison Penmanship

Jessica Mitford was a well-known muckraking journalist, one of the famous (and sometimes infamous) Mitford sisters. Nicknamed Decca, Mitford was born in England and emigrated to the United States in 1939. She eventually settled on becoming a journalist, writing exposés of everything from the funeral industry to prisons, the Maine Chance spa to a man who hoodwinks lawyers out of money. In Poison Penmanship, she collects some of her best articles along with more information about how she came up with the article idea, researched the topic, and structured the writing.

Many of the articles were a success, but she does not hold back from discussing her failures. One of my favorites in the collection was the article she wrote about being a distinguished professor at a university in California. A condition of her employment was that she should sign a loyalty oath and be fingerprinted, both of which she objected to, and the latter she went to court to fight against. The students and her fellow faculty rallied around her, and she won her court case, but she found, in retrospect, that her fight had little impact. If anything, it only tightened the restrictions. As a result of her refusal and subsequent article, fingerprinting and signing the oath had to be completed before employment could begin. It was a case when her muckraking backfired and led to the opposite of what she intended.

The commentary accompanying the articles is illuminating for not only aspiring writers but for those who like to read newspapers and magazines with a critical eye. She is far from reticent about explaining her process, her dealings with officials, how when interviewing people she had a technique of going from easy questions to the more difficult, pointed ones. She includes a few articles that she structured in a similar way. One can compare and contrast them and think about how the way the articles were written helps her get her point across.

Another topic she chooses to tackle is why, sometimes, she did not to pursue a lead. She writes about how, when given the opportunity of travelling to Egypt, she was faced with a topic in which she was not quite interested, and held back from muckraking the archaeologists she met. Muckraking was not what the magazine was looking for, nor was Egyptology her forte, so, she wrote, she let the opportunity get away.

I think that the collection is not just about sinking one’s teeth into corruption; it is about learning to hold back a bit, just a bit, so that the readers, having the facts presented to them, can form their own opinions. Her articles do not display outright hostility. They are subtly barbed, skillfully restrained, and yet completely incriminating of the people and institutions on which she chooses to focus.

Jessica Mitford was a brilliant writer, fighting corruption of all sorts in her own inimitable style. I am looking forward to getting a copy of her autobiography, Hons and Rebels, to learn more about her. JK Rowling ranks her as a great personal influence, and it is apparent from Mitford’s muckraking articles alone why that is.