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Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback

ISBN-13: 978-1590173558 ISBN-10: 1590173554

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Product Details

  • Series: New York Review Books Classics
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: NYRB Classics (September 7, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590173554
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590173558
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.6 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #456,708 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


“There is something rather fine about Mitford's tireless pursuit of her quarries, who include undertakers on the make, publishers peddling phony creative writing courses and the hapless bureaucrats she encounters during a brief and stormy spell as a professor….. These are articles written with a keen eye for injustice, but also with a great sense of personal passion, and a generous, exuberant wit.” —Lettie Ransley, The Observer
“…an exuberant enjoyment of the "Gentle Art of Muckraking" driven both by a hunger for justice and a love of the absurd…. Most collections of journalistic pieces barely warrant being bound in book form: this one (from 1979), with its wit and irrepressible ebullience, genuinely makes a convincing "classic" of a sort.” —The Scotsman

"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....It is also useful as, and intended to be useful as, a manual for doing the kind of journalism she did. She is very interested in inspiring people to continue the tradition of muckraking, and just because the technology of journalism has changed, it doesn't mean that techniques of getting interviewees to spill beans they would otherwise have preferred unspilled have changed, too. So as well as comments, or post-mortems, on every piece here, there is also an entertaining and helpful introduction in which she goes through the basics of her trade...And you can learn so much from her style, too. Although, it has to be said, there would be many at the receiving end of her attention who would dispute that line about her sweet nature. But then it was always her business to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Never mind if you haven't read any of her more substantial works (The American Way of Death, Kind and Unusual Punishment); here, in essence, is her achievement." 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 exposé 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.” -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. Muckracking 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 exposé, 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

About the Author

Jessica Mitford (1917–1996) was the daughter of Lord and Lady Redesdale, and she and her five sisters and one brother grew up in isolation on their parents’ Cotswold estate. Rebelling against her family’s hidebound conservatism, Mitford became an outspoken socialist and, with her second cousin and husband-to-be Esmond Romilly, ran away to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Romilly was killed in World War II, and Mitford moved to America, where she married the lawyer and political activist Robert Treuhaft. A brilliant muckraking journalist, Mitford was the author of, among other works, a memoir of her youth, Hons and Rebels (also published as an NYRB Classic); a study of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death; and Kind and Unusual Punishment: The Prison Business. She died at the age of seventy-eight while working on a follow-up to The American Way of Death, for which, with characteristic humor, she proposed the title “Death Warmed Over.” 

Jane Smiley, winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is the author of many novels and other works. In 2010 she published Private Life, a novel; A Good Horse, a book for young adults; and The Man Who Invented the Computer, the first volume of the Sloane American Inventors series.

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Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
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Each of the stories is written with a delicious sense of humour.
Shantell Powell
Poison Penmanship, The Gentle Art of Muckraking It's a pity this book hasn't been reprinted since Mitford's death in 1996.
Amazon Customer
If you aspire to writing, or if all you want is some humorous literature with a purpose, this is a good one to latch onto.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By C. Ebeling on December 4, 2000
Format: Paperback
I was sorry to see that this has gone out of print. The late Jessica Mitford, author of the American Way of Death, was a fine investigative journalist and just plain good writer. In Poison Penmanship she gleefully shares her adventures in the trade. She was fearless and zestful; obviously enjoyed the ruckus she kicked up, whether taking on the "death industry," the penal system, or a restaurant review. She is missed; so is this book.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Shantell Powell on March 31, 2006
Format: Paperback
I've been reading, with great relish, Jessica Mitford's Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking. It's an excellent book, and it's a bloody shame it's out of print. Although the articles date from the 50s-70s, the writing is fresh, fresh, fresh! The book is set out as a collection of investigative articles followed by note sections describing the writing and research process. The subject matter varies from exposés on the funeral industry and the difficult birth of desegregation in the American south to life in an exclusive Arizona spa retreat and the censorship process on public service announcements on syphilis. Each of the stories is written with a delicious sense of humour.

From "You-All and Non-You-All: A Southern Potpourri" comes this:

"Once you start out with the integrationists, they are likely to pass you from hand to hand and from town to twon without giving you much chance to peer at the other side. I mentioned this to a young attorney, originally from Jackson, whom I met in Nashville. He laughed and said, "You should tra meetin' Kissin' Jim Folsom. That'd open yo' ass." For a moment, I was frozen with astonishment--until I realized he was saying "eyes.""


"The reaction of my Montgomery hostesses to the piece, as reported by Virginia Durr, was illuminating. She said they were not in the least disturbed by my remarks about their mindless bigotry--but were exceedingly offened by my description of the FOOD as being uniformly bland and creamy: "We didn't have cream sauce, we had roast lamb the night she came." "She never mentioned my lettuce-and-walnut salad.""

If you can find yourself a copy at the library or second-hand shop, count yourself lucky. It's brilliant.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Andrew C Wheeler VINE VOICE on December 5, 2009
Format: Hardcover
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.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on December 14, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Poison Penmanship, The Gentle Art of Muckraking

It's a pity this book hasn't been reprinted since Mitford's death in 1996. It's as timely as ever in this age of Milquetoast journalism and blind acceptance of the status quo.

Penmanship is a collection of journal articles spanning Mitford's career which began, of course, with the groundbreaking and morbidly droll book "The American Way of Death" in 1963. My favorites are the infamous expose of The Famous Writers School, worth the price of the book alone, her bemusing and amusing stay at an Elizabeth Arden spa, and a little spat with a posh NYC restaurant which was obviously unaware of who they were trying to screw over.

I just bought hardcover prints of PP (and immediately found my original paperback... but having 2 is no problem) and Hons and Rebels, an amusing and fascinating memoir of her early life. My copy of AWOD is the one acquired in high school in the early 1970s, a little worn but intact.

This book should be reprinted!
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By C. Sanderson on February 1, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Mitford isn't afraid to investigate and tell us the truth. the essays about the American Way of Dying are particularly striking. The notes afterwards explaining how the piece came about are very helpful to nonfiction writers wnating to get into investigative journalism
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