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Poison Penmanship

Poison Penmanship

The Gentle Art of Muckraking

by Jessica Mitford, preface by Jane Smiley

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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 Jessica Mitford, preface by Jane Smiley

Additional Book Information

Series: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 9781590173558
Pages: 288
Publication Date:


For my part, I can't remember when I enjoyed a collection of journalism so much, or laughed out loud so often. Spirited, extremely witty and sharp and, perhaps most importantly, driven by a powerful sense of social justice, Mitford was, quite simply, one of the most useful journalists of the 20th century. That she could also make you laugh while exposing the shenanigans of the corrupt, or, as she preferred to call it, muckraking, makes this book indispensable.
—Nicolas Lezard, The Guardian

Poison Penmanship was originally published in 1979....Its current reissue by New York Review Books is a welcome reminder of the author's reporting ingenuity. The book includes 17 pieces of journalism—a mere slice of the work that Mitford produced over the course of a 40-year career in letters, but a choice one....Poison Penmanship would make an apt addition to any reporter's reading list. Mitford supplies research tips and instructive anecdotes alongside the pieces that her self-education yielded, providing a satisfying synthesis of theory and practice.
The Economist

"[Mitford's] excellent collection Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking has just been republished...A number of essays here concern the funeral business and how her expose affected her life....Other selections include witty and trenchant pieces on the Famous Writers School, a shameful scam; the censoring of the subject of syphilis by NBC in 1964; race relations in the American South in the mid-1960s; a fat farm, 'Egyptomania,' and touring the U.S.A.
—Katherine Powers, The Boston Globe

Mitford is an author who has a talent for getting to the root of things, and to the dirt surrounding the roots.
The New York Times

An excellent how-to manual for all aspiring investigative journalists.
—Los Angeles Times

Mitford demystifies what should be a simple process and takes us back to the basics. Reporting, she knows, is the best obtainable version of the truth. Then she shows us how to get there with grace, wit, cunning, style, imagination, and—above all—a sense of enjoying the journey.
—Carl Bernstein

Mitford's Penmanship has been practiced on funeral folk, fat farms and, in one of her finest moments, the Famous Writers School. In addition, she provides the reader with insight into how the articles came to be. Muckraking hopefuls, note.
—Dick Lochte, Los Angeles Times

In these 17 pieces written during the past 20 years, Jessica Mitford shows why she is celebrated as the ablest journalist now practicing the ancient art of muckraking. Her targets include the now-defunct Famous Writers School, Manhattan's still surviving Sign of the Dove restaurant, the American funeral industry and Elizabeth Arden's Maine Chance spa.
—Paperbacks New and Noteworthy, The New York Times

Whatever your feelings about muckrakers, you are likely to be infected with Mitford's contagious joy. Here is a woman who revels in her work. Her voice ripples into laughter, both at self and at the subjects of her investigations. She digs up scandals with unrestrained delight in excavation and reports her findings with such saucy exuberance that her work looks deceptively easy. Jessica Mitford is the sort of royalty no democracy should be without.
—Mary Cross, Los Angeles Times

A must for anyone who takes a pen in hand to earn a living.
San Diego Union

Her introduction should be required reading in every journalism school in the country…In a couple of dozen words Mitford sets forth a catechism of good sense for would be muckrakers.
—Columbia Journalism Review

Any wayward industry fearing that sooner or later somebody may expose its defects should hire Jessica Mitford to do it first, because she would handle the chore with such deftness and charm.
—Robert Sherrill, The New York Times Book Review

Mitford's pen is mightier than the sword.
New York Times

Best known for her classic funeral-industry expose, The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford (1917- 1996) was fifth of the famous Mitford sisters, but rebelled against her privileged English roots to become a member of the American Communist Party and union organizer, a civil rights activist and a celebrated investigative journalist.
Publishers Weekly

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