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May 17th, 2011

Harry Potter and the Muckraking Journalist

Since starting this blog, I’ve been on the lookout for books that changed the world…for that invisible connection between words and reality…for proof that the pen is mighty. Last month, I read Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Birth (1992), a pristine sample of muckraking in which Mitford exposes corruption, profiteering, and malpractice amongst American obstetricians and the organizations that represent them. In the final paragraph of the book, Mitford rather cautiously writes,

While it would be pleasant to end this book on a note of unstinting optimism, not quite so pleasant but more realistic is to allow a certain skepticism. Perhaps by the twenty-first century we should be seeing some significant changes in the American way of birth.

But alas! Everything that Mitford laments in her book—drugs and technologies that are harmful to women but profitable to the pharmaceutical and biotech industries; a healthcare system that offers limited access to maternal care; the corrosive influence of insurance companies—all of this has worsened…far worsened…since 1992. Did Mitford muckrake in vain?

Intrigued by this fearless crusader for women’s rights, I checked out Wikipedia and discovered that the situation is far worse than I had imagined: Mitford was a powerful and famous journalist from a wealthy family. If she can’t help, who can? The American Way of Birth was actually the final of Mitford’s bestselling investigative books; The American Way of Death, an exposé of the American funeral home industry, elevated Mitford to fame in 1963. In other works, she targeted the prison business, the justice system, and drafting laws.

(…..I’m getting to Harry Potter soon).

Mitford was the sixth of the famous Mitford siblings, children of an English baron who collectively were a fascination of the British public; Jessica’s older sister Nancy was a novelist, two of her other sisters were public supporters of Hitler, and Jessica (aka “Decca”) was a card-carrying communist, so it’s not surprising that the Mitford Sisters later became subject of various biographies. Jessica moved to the U.S. as a young woman and stayed here until her death in 1996; almost all of her political journalism was written from and about the United States. I couldn’t imagine why I’d never heard of Mitford, besides the fact that Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy and Janet Malcolm so graciously fill the “female journalist quota” on any reading list. I feared that Mitford and her insights, despite the recent release of her biography, might eventually be banished to the realm of cultural amnesia.

But then I made a discovery. Jessica Mitford is J.K. Rowling’s favorite writer. From Rowling’s 2006 review of a collection of Mitford’s letters:

Jessica Mitford has been my heroine since I was 14 years old, when I overheard my formidable great-aunt discussing how Mitford had run away at the age of 19 to fight with the Reds in the Spanish Civil War: ‘And she charged a camera to her poor father’s account to take with her!’ It was the camera that captivated me, and I asked for further details.

This was no casual homage: Rowling has read all of Mitford’s works, and named her first daughter, Jessica, after Mitford. In a 2002 interview, Rowling said,

My most influential writer, without a doubt, is Jessica Mitford… I love the way she never outgrew some of her adolescent traits, remaining true to her politics – she was a self-taught socialist – throughout her life.

And again, from Rowling’s review of Mitford’s letters….

Decca’s letters sing with the qualities that first made her so attractive to me. Incurably and instinctively rebellious, brave, adventurous, funny and irreverent, she liked nothing better than a good fight, preferably against a pompous and hypocritical target.

That’s it! Jessica Mitford is Harry Potter. Or not. But if you analyze those adjectives, it’s possible to argue that they collectively represent Harry…and Hermione….and Ron. As for the conjecture that Jessica Mitford made J.K. Rowling a socialist, who in turn made Harry Potter a socialist…that’s all been adequately covered by  conservatives and liberals alike, and I’m happy to report that the political influence of the Potter books has been compared to the political influence of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.


Which is all to say, even if Mitford’s work had limited impact in this here Muggle world, I can write with certainty that she had quite the effect on the wizarding world.