Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Poison Penmanship by Jessica Mitford

Jessica was once the most famous Mitford on this side of the Atlantic -- her The American Way of Death being of more interest locally than her older sister Nancy's almost autobiographical novels of the backbiting British aristocracy in love -- but her position may be slipping. And any of the Mitford sisters are always in danger of being subsumed into the myth of the Mitfords, that legendary six-headed female aristocrat that was simultaneously fascist and communist, married to all of the crowned heads of the world after being the most famous debutante ever, and speaking in private tongues to itself.

Poison Penmanship is a collection of Jessica Mitford's shorter journalism, most of it -- as the subtitle, "The Gentle Art of Muckraking," makes clear -- in the declamatory, j'accuse style of the '60s and '70s. It's been out of print since the original trade paperback edition of 1980, though, coincidentally, NYRB Press has a reprint planned for the middle of next year. (So this may perhaps be the time for a Jessica Mitford revival.)

Mitford structured Poison Penmanship as a primer in muckraking -- journalism that goes after a practice or industry hated by the writer, taking a strong position but also doing solid research to aid in the attack -- with a long introduction on the principles of her work and afterwords for each article bringing them up to date (to 1979) and providing background. She doesn't seem to have noticed that the articles collected here show her moving from advocacy and muckraking (tackling large issues like prison reform, racism in the South, newspaper prejudice and the funeral industry) towards more general journalism -- particularly since she closes with the long piece "Egyptomania," from the German travel magazine Geo, in which she investigates the then-current digs in the Valley of Kings without any particular point of view. So an unfriendly reader -- someone inclined to muckrake Mitford, perhaps -- could use this book as evidence that success ruined Mitford, turning her to puffier pieces like "Egyptomania" and a similar investigatory journalism piece on a super-expensive Elizabeth Arden desert beauty clinic.

In 1979, muckraking was still exclusively the province of the Left; the very idea of similar work being done by the Right would be ludicrous. But the world has changed since then, in part because of Mitford and her fellow muckrakers, and now muckraking is not only bipartisan, but universal. (What are Perez Hilton and Gawker if not muckrakers of the most frivolous sort?) The Internet sometimes seem to exist purely for the raking of muck, and subsequent lobbing of said much at one's targets. We are all in the world Jessica Mitford built, but we have found that it's no longer "we" who attack "them" -- the war is now general, a Hobbesian war of all against all.

And so Poison Penmanship might be more useful now than ever before. Its specific examples might be old and out-of-date -- though the causes are still strong, often complaining about exactly the same abuses as Mitford did forty years ago -- but the lessons in advocacy journalism, in research and in getting the story solid before a reporter confronts a major hostile witness, are still as strong as ever before. And looking at the poor quality of muckraking currently -- since most of it could more honestly be called mud-flinging, with no serious attempt at research, analysis, or coherent thought behind it -- shows that Poison Penmanship is sorely needed now. Kudos to NYRB Books for bringing it back, and we should all hope for a rise in the general quality of muck raked about a year from now.

1 comment:

Mike Schilling said...

the myth of the Mitfords, that legendary six-headed female aristocrat that was simultaneously fascist and communist, married to all of the crowned heads of the world after being the most famous debutante ever

As portrayed in Jo Walton's Ha'Penny.

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