Jessica Mitford: Poison Penmanship Review
A new collection of muckraker Jessica Mitford’s journalism reminds us of one of the sharpest pens around—and what the media is missing today.
Investigative journalist Jessica Mitford died more than 14 years ago, but in true muckraking style, she simply refuses to go away. Her nonfiction has been widely reissued since the beginning of the decade, Knopf published her letters in 2006, and this year, Leslie Brody penned a biography on the doyenne of investigative reportage, aptly titled Irrepressible. For someone who got her start with funerals, Mitford’s reputation has enjoyed surprising longevity.
While the “funeral business” as it exists today dates back to the end of the 19th century, it wasn’t until the 1960s that death actually began to require installment plans. The average cost of a funeral in 1961 was $750—upwardly revised to $7,800 35 years later—and during the boom years, undertakers were raising prices as fast as they were devising new options for the bereaved, urging the public that private mausoleums and commemorative urns were the only way to honor the dead.
But the business of death went largely unchecked until 1963, when Jessica Mitford published The American Way of Death, a detailed and casually hilarious exposé of the industry’s more devious practices. (Think bargain basement caskets literally hidden in the basement and thinly veiled threats to cut off a corpse’s feet.) With scathing wit, Mitford attacked the sanctity surrounding the funeral-industrial complex, saddling the industry with congressional hearings and an FTC investigation—a harsh reversal for a profession previously considered off-limits. When the ashes finally settled, Mitford had few friends in the business, but she had launched her career as “Queen of the Muckrakers.”
One of the aristocratic Mitford sisters, whose endless entanglements and wild behavior have been well catalogued, Jessica was the self-styled communist of the family. While her older sister famously married the leader of the British fascists, and another sister, Unity, shot herself over her love for Hitler, Jessica opted for leftist politics, channeling this impulse into her writing. Motivated by an exacting sense of social justice and an equally exacting sense of irony, "Decca," as she was known, went after everything from the "Famous Writers School"—a mail-order predecessor to today’s college degree mills—to the trial of baby care doctor Benjamin Spock and fat camps for the wives of the elite. All the more impressive considering she had no formal education and stumbled into the profession late. “I figured that the only thing that requires no education and no skills is writing," she quipped of her career. None of her other books ever achieved the fame—or notoriety—of The American Way of Death, but her writing always attracted attention, and to her delight, was frequently capable of stirring a scandal.
“You may not be able to change the world,” [Jessica Mitford] once quipped, “but at least you can embarrass the guilty.”
A newly reissued edition of her work, Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking, collects 17 of Mitford’s articles from more than two decades, spanning 1959’s “Trial by Headline”—her first piece to make it into a national magazine—to a 1979 essay about the eccentricities of Egyptologists. The writing is uniformly excellent (although I confess not even Mitford is able to make Egyptologists interesting) but the best part of the book is watching Mitford train her critical skills on herself. Each piece is accompanied by a meta-commentary detailing what worked and what didn’t in the run-up to publication. In the addendum to an article about network TV censorship, Mitford lamented her failure to crack a corporate spokesman—getting people to blurt things out was a special hobby—and in other postscripts, she outlines her rationale for writing pieces (usually financial), and difficulties encountered on the road to the page. These commentaries add a behind-the-scenes dimension that makes investigative journalism seem deceptively easy, and, luckily for readers, exposes Mitford as much as the people she’s writing about.
One of the book’s funniest chapters recounts Mitford’s “short and happy life as a distinguished professor,” a stint that resulted in a newfound love of teaching and legal consultations with the ACLU. In 1973, Mitford accepted a position at San Jose State University, detailing the experience in an essay in the Atlantic Monthly. A hit with students, San Jose administrators came to regret their decision when her refusal to submit fingerprints ended up igniting campus radicals and making the national papers. A standoff ensued, and when Mitford did win a court ruling overturning the policy in all California universities, it came after the semester ended. “Too late, alas, for the public ceremony I had envisaged in which my students would cremate the prints, place the ashes in a suitable urn, and donate them to the university.” The incident later got her a job at Yale, no prints required.
With many of Poison Penmanship’s subjects long vanished from cultural relevancy, the book is best enjoyed as a how-to manual for aspiring muckrakers. To this end, it opens with a piece of advice from Nicholas Tomalin: “the only qualities essential for real success in journalism are ratlike cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability.” Manner and ability are tough to teach, but Mitford is happy to share tricks with would-be muckrakers, offering advice about how to get interviewees to divulge (nice questions first, nasty ones later) and how to use trade magazines and fake personas to dig up information nobody wants you to find.
It’s to the shame of publishers and the credit of NYRB Classics that after more than 30 years out of print, Mitford’s collection is finally getting its due attention. At a moment when opinion and investigative journalism are frequently nicknames for fringe politicking, Poison Penmanship is an excellent reminder that muckraking can be objective and fair; opinionated and transparent. The “red sheep” of her conservative British family, Mitford was never one to suppress her politics, and one of the delights in reading her is watching her make her subjects squirm. And from funeral homes to universities, there was always plenty of fodder. “You may not be able to change the world,” she once quipped, “but at least you can embarrass the guilty."
Jessica Loudis is a writer living in Brooklyn.