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Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of…

Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking (New York Review Books…

by Jessica Mitford

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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303358,879 (4.12)11
A collection of 17 articles from various newspapers and periodicals, written over 20 years, demonstrating the author's strategies of using humour to protest against what she perceived as wrongs committed by the funeral industry, restaurants, universities and correspondence schools, censors, and others.… (more)



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Entertaining and educational in all kinds of ways, this is both journalism and a journalists journey with lessons on writing, researching, life, and consequences. I did a google search for muckraking humor, and this was the title that resulted. And it is. The articles are infused with a wry viewpoint directed at the subject, the author, and the audience. Jessica Mitford advises that the best writing is about a topic that engages the interest of the author, and proves it with a lackluster final article on Egyptology, in which her interest was marginal, and which is entirely without the glow of involvement which leavens all her other essays. ( )
  quondame | May 11, 2018 |
This is a collection of a journalist's essays originally published between 1957 and 1977. What sets them apart from and above many other such collections, are the author's postscripts appended to each essay. In these, she critiques her early writing style, adds information left out of the original essay (or unknown at the time), and follows up on events subsequent to the original essay. A few of the articles seem dated, or inconsequential now, such as the report on a visit to a very upscale women's health spa in Arizona in 1966. On the other hand, her 1962 essay about her travels through the American South (she was a British citizen) and witnessing a speech by Martin Luther King in a small church in Alabama, while white Southerners rioted and burned automobiles outside the church, has both historic and contemporary relevance. Her essay of the US Funeral Parlor industry eventually led to a best-selling book (The American Way of Death) and to the enmity of the funeral industry, and is still relevant today. My personal favorite is “My Short and Happy Life as a Distinguished Professor”. The notoriety gained from “The American Way of Death”, led to a position as “Distinguished Professor” at San Jose State University in the fall of 1973. But when she refused to comply with certain employment conditions: to be fingerprinted and to sign an oath of loyalty, the school terminated her employment midway into the first school year. In order to recover pay for the brief time that she was employed, she had to file a lawsuit. She won the lawsuit, and the fingerprinting policy was found in court to be illegal. However, like the saying, “no good deed goes unpunished”, she writes in the followup:

“... unhappily, it seems that the net result of my effort was a tightening up of the illegal fingerprint procedure at San Jose State, enforcement of the illegal policy at San Francisco State where it was formerly ignored, and the creation at San Francisco State of that prize grotesquerie the 'Public Safety Office'. This, is an example of muckraking that not only fizzled but backfired, ...”

The last essay was written about 40 years ago, but this collection is still readable today. ( )
  dougb56586 | Feb 9, 2018 |
A collection of "muckraking" journalism articles with afterwords of the author's thoughts to each, the book is a mix of entertainment and education in the arts of journalism. Mitford is deliciously barbed, her passion for her subjects (the Egyptology article excepted) positively infectious, her research methodical and thorough, with minor slippages that she points out self-deprecatingly in the comments, which makes me admire her all the more. The comments really elevated the book beyond being just a collection of articles which is arguably still excellent in their own rights.

"Trial by Headlines", Mitford's first foray into investigative journalism at the age of forty, was the perfect start and example of the genre and style that she would eventually make her own. Notwithstanding the rookie mistakes she points out in its afterword, it is an excellent piece on the media's immense swaying powers, often used for the sake of sensationalism (read: profits) under the disguise of "truth" and "justice". Still very pertinent in today's occasional vigilante media which has long surpassed the traditional reach of physical newspapers.

Like a journalistic twist on Sedaris, Mitford is honest and witty with an eye for the absurd as she follows up her social-justice journalistic debut and takes on the unscrupulous funeral industry (have they really reformed though in the last few decades? Judging from my limited knowledge watching Six Feet Under, I doubt it), the Famous Writers corresponding course scams, and in general, the daily injustices people endure against set institutions.

I really must read Mitford's other works, especially The American Way of Death. ( )
  kitzyl | Feb 27, 2017 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Jessica Mitfordprimary authorall editionscalculated
Smiley, JanePrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Jessica Mitford was a member of one of England's most legendary families (among her sisters were the novelist Nancy Mitford and the current Duchess of Devonshire) and one of the great muckraking journalists of modern times. Leaving England for America, she pursued a career as an investigative reporter and unrepentant gadfly, publicizing not only the misdeeds of, most famously, the funeral business (The American Way of Death, a bestseller) and the prison business (Kind and Usual Punishment), but also of writing schools and weight-loss programs. Mitford's diligence, unfailing skepticism, and acid pen made her one of the great chroniclers of the mischief people get up to in the pursuit of profit and the name of good. Poison Penmanship collects seventeen of Mitford's finest pieces-about everything from crummy spas to network-TV censorship-and fills them out with the story of how she got the scoop and, no less fascinating, how the story developed after publication. The book is a delight to read: few journalists have ever been as funny as Mitford, or as gifted at getting around in those dark, cobwebbed corners where modern America fashions its shiny promises. It's also an unequaled and necessary manual of the fine art of investigative reporting.
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