Friday, March 22, 2013

Book Review - Jessica Mitford's Poison Penmanship

Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking by Jessica Mitford
Published by: NYRB Classics
Publication Date: 1979
Format: Paperback, 288 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Jessica Mitford is a self admitted muckraker, once she found out what the label meant, she heartily agreed and called herself such from then on and was happy to see that each new dictionary had a nicer take on the word as it became more commonly used. In 1957 she published her first expose, which, as she was willing to admit, was rather dull and fell flat. Yet that is the charm of this book. Jessica views this book as a kind of "how to" for the muckraker to be. She details her techniques and theories of friendlies and unfriendlies and then after you read a given article of hers, she has a little commentary on how she felt the article worked or didn't work, and in some cases, the far reaching consequences of that article. Therefore, without any hesitation, she republishes some very slip shod work, and she agrees that it is such. Yet how are we to learn if we don't see her mistakes along the way.

For Jessica there where many mistakes, even later in her career there are articles that fall dreadfully flat, while others sparkle with her wit and wisdom. To say this is an uneven book would be an understatement. For me, being a worshiper of her autobiography Hons and Rebels, it was interesting reading Jessica's writing over a twenty year period and seeing how she was able to find her voice. Her first articles are so stiff and uninviting. Plain facts infused with no Mitford wit. Yet, if you look at the articles that fail versus succeed, you can see a pattern. The stories she was more involved in have a great depth and a personal feel, like a diary. Jessica's style not only lends itself to this way of writing, but it feels as if she was made for writing memoirs and autobiographies. You feel as if you are gossiping over tea as she is telling you about going to the extravagant Maine Chance Resort run by Elizabeth Arden, not reading an article in McCall's. Or as she tells you how important life long enemies are and that Liberace was really excited to hear her ideas about his role in the adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One. These stories make the book enchanting to read. Though it's not all tea and biscuits with the Hon.

The article, "St Peter, Don't You Call Me" is one that sticks out because it was what would become the basis for her famous book, The American Way of Death. At this point I will admit that I have not read this yet, seeing as funerary exposes are not exactly "my thing." Yet, seeing as it was written by Jessica Mitford, I will admit that I will eventually get to it, it's waiting on my shelf for me even now. The article though is so stiff and boring that I wondered, would the book that came from this article be like this. Later though she includes three more articles about what has happened since the first article spurred the book and therefore changed her life. These articles, written five years later, have more of her conversational style that I love. Which makes me wonder... was her style still developing during the time of the article and therefore the book will be fabulous, unlike the article, or was it just the freedom of being done with the book that let her sink back into her witty patter? Because, if I could get more stories about Pet Cemeteries and directors running wild in funeral parlors, sign me up.

One thing that nagged me though was once she was known for The American Way of Death she wouldn't shut up about it. It didn't feel like she was inflating her ego... but that she was riding the books coattails was very evident. Her teaching and anything she was to speak on was all "The American Way of..." I felt a little sorry for her that this book had so become synonymous with her name that they became inseparable. Yet she didn't seem to mind. I think I might have minded a little... or at least stopped harping on about it. Though she went on to do several other big exposes, from the deathly dull expose on the Famous Writers School, to prisons and policies existing in California Universities, to me it was the little stories that I loved best. The rude treatment at a restaurant, the little things that lend a similar feel of Helene Hanff to them, who is another author whom I adore. Though, in the end, it was of course the article on Egypt that kept me way up until the wee hours. While she thought it a failure of an article because she didn't rake any muck, I felt it wonderful, because it was just what I loved about this book, a little diary about an English woman in Egypt immune to the Eyptomania as she called it, which sadly, I think she would diagnose me as having.


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