Sunday, November 7, 2010

NYRB Reading Week - Jessica Mitford

It’s NYRB Reading Week & I haven’t chosen any of the NYRB titles sitting on the tbr shelves. I borrowed one from the library instead. I’m continuing my Mitford theme this year with Jessica Mitford’s Poison Penmanship : the gentle art of muckraking. This is a collection of articles Mitford wrote for various American magazines. Most of the articles come under the heading of muckraking, “one who seeks out and publishes scandals and the like about prominent people”, as Mitford quotes in her Introduction from the OED.

Mitford was first called Queen of the Muckrakers by Time magazine after her article on the Famous Writers School was published. This is one of the most interesting articles in the book. The Famous Writers School was a company that put big, full-page ads in magazines & newspapers to sell their correspondence courses on how to be a freelance writer. They exaggerated the ease of becoming a freelance & how much money one could earn. Their door-to-door salesmen used hard sell tactics & they engaged well-known writers to lend their names to the ads. It turned out that these writers had very little to do with the company, apart from accepting large fees for the use of their name & photo. They didn’t teach the courses, read the submissions & hadn’t even read the course material. The courses were expensive & most of the students never completed the assignments. They were dissatisfied with the lack of direction & personal contact. Not surprising when each assignment would be corrected by a different person, using standard phrases & jargon from a script they followed.

Mitford’s article was published in Atlantic Magazine, but only after it had been rejected by several other journals because they were afraid of losing the advertising revenue they made from the Famous Writers School. When the article was published, the reaction was immediate. Stock in the company plunged & their profits dropped dramatically. A wonderful example of the power of the Press to alert consumers to a scam & expose crooks. Even more interesting than the articles are the Comments Mitford adds at the end of each one. She sets the article in context & examines the impact the article had, what she would have done differently, & how she went about researching & structuring the piece.

The most famous article in the collection is St Peter, Don’t You Call Me, which is about the funeral business. This led to the bestselling book, The American Way of Death. The article examines the way funeral directors take advantage of grieving families to make a profit. There are many wonderful examples of the euphemistic language used to describe coffins, shrouds, embalming techniques. It’s funny & gruesome at the same time. It’s also shocking to realise how often funeral directors would discreetly find out how much families could afford to pay & tailor the costs so they would exactly match the amount of the insurance payout or funeral plan fund. Mitford’s article led to a backlash against unnecessarily expensive funerals & the growth of co-operative societies that provided a service while keeping costs down.

In the Introduction, Mitford explains how to research such articles. The importance of getting hold of trade journals for background information (this was crucial in the funeral article), compiling a list of questions ranging from Kind to Cruel when interviewing potentially hostile subjects, how to structure the article & avoid libel actions. Poison Penmanship could still be used as a textbook for journalism students today, although, as it was originally published in the 1970s, they would have to take account of the internet as a research tool. I read Jessica Mitford’s Letters earlier this year & it was fascinating to read the articles she wrote about in her letters. It enriched the experience of reading this book so much. I’d recommend the letters to anyone who loves reading other people’s letters but they also gave a lot of insight into the process of researching & writing these articles as she often wrote to family & friends while she was working on them. Poison Penmanship is an insight into radical journalism in the 60s & 70s when it was perhaps easier to enrage & shock the public about injustice & dishonesty than it is today.

You can find all the details of NYRB Reading Week on The Literary Stew & Coffeespoons blogs, where you’ll also find links to lots of other reviews of NYRB titles. It's not too late to join in if you have NYRB books on the tbr shelves, and there are prizes to be won for posting a review. Thank you to Mrs B & Honey for hosting the Reading Week.


  1. This is a great review and wonderful way to start the week. I love the Mitfords and I read Hons and Rebels last year but had no idea she had another NYRB book available. This sounds very interesting and I'll definitely put it on my list of books to read.

  2. I wish I'd stuck with Jessica's letters, now! I think I gave it away - not because I'm not fond of Jessica Mitford, but because I find collected letters difficult to read. I've read Hons and Rebels. A Running Away Fund - what an excellent idea!

  3. I wanted to read this book for NYRB Reading Week because I read Hons & Rebels earlier this year, but my library doesn't have it. I would like to read more of Jessica's writing at some point, I admire her for trying to do some good through her muckraking.

  4. Your review has made me very interested in this book. I'm not a journalist, but I do have to do a lot of research for my job. And I like reading about the politics of writing.

    Thank you so much for joining the NYRB Reading Week!

  5. I read my first Mitford this fall, Nancy's _The Pursuit of Love_, and I am definitely intrigued by this one and the collection of letters. They seem to be an industry unto themselves these sisters. Have you read any studies of the family itself as a source of fascination? I'd like a book about them that is not itself muckraking but a good, careful examination of our fascination with the family.

  6. Nathalie, Mary Lovell's biography, The Mitford Sisters,is very good. I read it several years ago so I can't remember if she goes into the fascination about them but it's a very good & objective look at them all.

  7. Very interesting. When I saw this was coming out it piqued my interest but I didn't even realize Mitford herself was such an important muckraker. The Mitfords as a whole form quite a large void in my reading life, but (as I think happens to everyone bookish) the more I read about them the more I'm fascinated. Great review.