In the Gilded Age, muckraking encouraged the belief that citizens, armed with facts, could bring corrupt politicians and corporations to justice. After a period of immense popularity, however, muckraking lost status, partly for appealing too easily to feelings. Who could have predicted that a British aristocrat would revive this quintessentially American form? Dubbed “Queen of the Muckrakers” by Time magazine (to her great delight), Jessica Mitford broke with muckraking’s sentimentality to restore its civic power, changing American laws from funerals to prisons. She joked that her muckraking contained “something to offend everyone” but, in fact, her targets were always those in power, always those who exploited others more vulnerable.
Jessica Mitford, born (in 1917) to wealthy, eccentric, right-wing aristocrats, was not raised to muckrake. Jessica Mitford not only traveled far afield from her right-wing upbringing, she also, Kaplan will show, created a pathway for other progressives and radicals to follow. In the current context of false news reports and officials who deny the relevance of facts, the kind of muckraking that Mitford practiced, along with her model of the citizen-activist, becomes more relevant than ever.