End of Summer Reading: Come Back Jessica Mitford

Jessica Mitford. Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking . New York: New York Review of Books Classics. Reprint, 2010.

Though her work was better known in the 1970s, Jessica Mitford is still worth reading today. Mitford was born into an eccentric English aristocratic family; two sisters, Jessica and Nancy became writers, while two others, Unity and Diana, became notorious for their pre-World War II support of Adolf Hitler.  In 1939 she moved to the United States and it was here that she became a writer.

Poison Penmanship, first published in 1979, is a collection of Mitford’s articles published in magazines such as the Atlantic, the Nation, and the New York Times Book Review. Her books, The American Way of Death (on the funeral business), and Kind and Unusual Punishment (on prisons) may be better known than her brief works. Subtitled The Gentle Art of Muckraking, Poison Penmanship will be a delight both for the reader who may remember her books and for those young writers and readers interested in a close up view of a writer’s career.

Mitford begins the book with an introduction which discusses a number of issues relevant to writers (and I would add, to lawyers) including picking other people’s brains, trade magazines, interviewing, blind alleys, organization, style, editing, libel, and luck.  On the issue of libel, Mitford (herself married to a lawyer) comes down hard on lawyers who practice in this area:

To the extent that I have had dealings with this curious subspecies of the genus lawyer, which breeds and proliferates mainly in the swamplands of Eastern publishing centers, I have concluded that their main function is summed up by the title of a recent best-seller: Looking Out for Number One.

Mitford goes on to suggest that libel lawyers see defamation everywhere mainly to protect themselves should a potential plaintiff claim libel.  “Thus, in one effortless operation he protects himself and garners a fat fee.”

Knopf’s libel lawyer listed thirty-four potential libels in the manuscript of her book The Trial of Dr Spock, beginning with “Page 1, para.1: It is alleged that Mitchell Goodman, Michael Ferber and Marcus Raskin were codefendants with Dr. Spock and Rev. Coffin, which would be libelous if untrue…,” One can imagine the steam coming from her ears as she replied: “Page 1, para 1 – that’s from the indictment, which lists the codefendants….”

The bulk of the book consists of seventeen published articles arranged in chronological order, from her first published piece, “Trial by Headline” (the Nation, October 26, 1957) to “Egyptomapia: Tut, Mut, And the Rest of the Gang,” (GEO magazine, 1979).  Each essay is followed by Mitford’s comments specifically written for publication in the book.  While it’s easy to imagine writers being critical of their early works, few ever publish those critiques.  Her trenchant analyses are often full of dry humor. In her comments on the essay “Trial by Headline,” Mitford evinces unmerciful judgment on her first published article:

Why those oddly short paragraphs, having nothing to do with the change of subject, which I have since learned is the whole point of paragraphs? ….Also, I regret those exclamation marks, which strike me as a form of unnecessary emphasis. …Why did I not seek to interview the principles of the story…? I supposed I assumed they would rebuff me and refuse to answer questions.  I now know better. It is a rare and exceptional individual, in almost any line of work, who will decline the opportunity to expound his views to a reporter.

First published in 1979, it is no surprise that parts the book seem dated. In “Proceed with Caution,” Mitford describes a humorous mechanism from an era when long-distance phone calls were very expensive.  When calling home “collect” (does anyone under age 30 remember this?) ask for a fictional person whose name suggests that the caller has arrived somewhere.  “Person-to-person, calling collect for Minnie S. Oder,” suggests the caller has arrived in Minnesota.  Ms. Oder, of course, is never available.

Perhaps Mitford’s most famous essay is “Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers,” a damning appraisal of the Famous Writers School where a dozen or so famous writers of the 1960s and 70s formed the Guiding Faculty of the Famous Writers School. The guiding faculty, renamed by Mitford as the Famous Frauds, turned out to have done almost nothing — no curriculum, no teaching, no critiques,—except collect their fees. After testing the aptitude of potential students — almost everyone was accepted — a salesman would come to applicant’s home and hard-sell a very expensive writing classes. Students paid up front and then wrote essays, which were mailed to the school. There a phalanx of adjunct instructors using automated typewriters sent copious boilerplate criticism back to the aspiring writers. The 90% of students drop out but prove unsuccessful in obtaining refunds. “We couldn’t make any money if all students finished,” admits one of the Guiding faculty in a surprising moment of candor..

In her comments on this essay Mitford explains how the Famous Writers School declared bankruptcy soon after the publication of her essay only to be reborn three years later using the same discredited techniques.

In “My Short and Happy Life as a Distinguished Professor,” Mitford writes of a year spent as a visiting professor at San Jose State University teaching a course called the American Way. There, before classes start, she is asked to sign a loyalty oath, a requirement under the California Constitution, and to be fingerprinted, which turned out to be a policy created somewhere in unwritten university history and not a statutory or constitutional requirement. The remainder of the essay plays out what happens when she refuses to sign the oath or get fingerprinted. In the comments to this essay, Mitford points out that what looked like a success turned out to be a muckraking failure:

This, an example of muckraking that not only fizzled but backfired, illustrates the limitations of the genre: absent an ongoing protest movement which in this case failed to materialize, the mere exposure of bureaucratic absurdities is insufficient in and of itself to force change.

Mitford ultimately did sign the loyalty oath, after posing several unique arguments.  The oath requires upholding and defending the US and California Constitutions:

[The California Constitution annotated] runs to three hefty volumes and covers all manner of subjects. Do I uphold and defend, for example, Article 4, Section 25 ¾, limiting boxing and wrestling matches to fifteen rounds.  I don’t know.  Perhaps it should be fourteen, or sixteen? ….What if I strike out the words “freely and without any mental reservation’ and substitute ‘under duress?  No, that won’t do, [Mitford was told] you can’t tamper with the oath.  Then…you are requiring me to swear falsely as a condition of employment?

Mitford prevailed in court in her case against fingerprinting.  When Mitford later checked on the status of fingerprinting new faculty members, she found that California universities merely changed their policy and ensured that the new hires get fingerprinted before they start working. In fact, some universities that had previously not enforced the fingerprint rule started to do so.  All these machinations played out in front of her students and perhaps that proved to be best education for budding investigative reporters.
Mitford died in 1996. She was the sort of person I’d love to sit next to at a dinner party, well read, broadly interested in the world, and with a rapier wit. When one considers the current crop of journalists that make up the Fourth Estate, the shenanigans behind News Corporation’s News of the World telephone hacking, and the polarized talking heads of cable-TV, one longs for another well-written muckraking essay by Jessica Mitford.

Carl Yirka

Three of Jessica Mitford’s books can be found in the Cornell Library:
The American Way of DeathKind and Usual Punishment; the Prison Business,
and The Trial of Dr. Spock, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Michael Ferber, Mitchell Goodman, and Marcus Raskin.