Jonathan Yardley

Book review: 'Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power,' by James McGrath Morris

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, February 21, 2010


A Life in Politics, Print, and Power

By James McGrath Morris

Harper. 558 pp. $29.99

No doubt I will not be the only one to remark upon the timing of this excellent book: a thorough, possibly definitive biography of the man who shaped the modern newspaper more than anyone else -- being published at the precise moment when the modern newspaper is staring into the abyss. Joseph Pulitzer is principally known now for the prizes he created in his own name, but during his reign at the New York World from 1883 until his death in 1911, he was the colossus of American journalism. In time, William Randolph Hearst eclipsed him, and the legacy of Adolph Ochs, publisher of the New York Times, has been more constructive, but one can only wonder how Pulitzer would have responded to the crisis in which the business he loved is now embroiled.

There have been other biographies of Pulitzer, most notably W.A. Swanberg's published in 1967, but James McGrath Morris's is the best. It is authoritative, lucid and fair to its complicated subject, and it draws upon a certain amount of "items previously unavailable to other biographers," most notably an unpublished memoir by Pulitzer's younger brother, Albert, and love letters to Pulitzer's wife, Kate, from a noted journalist with whom she had a brief but apparently passionate affair. The first of these tells us a bit more about Pulitzer's boyhood, and the second simply adds a bit of juice to his story.

Pulitzer was born Jewish in Hungary in 1847, but he soon left both Hungary and Judaism behind. His family was well-to-do, if not rich, and escaped much of the anti-Semitism that was widespread in Europe at that time, but at the age of 17 he set out for the United States. He served in the Union Army during the last year of the Civil War, and at its end he made his way to St. Louis, which had a large, influential and prosperous German population. From the outset he was in thrall to "his sense of wonder at American politics, his absolute faith in democracy, and his youthful idealism," and he found work at the German-language Westliche Post at a time when "politics and journalism were two sides of the same coin."

He was ambitious, driven and single-minded. He rose rapidly at the Westliche Post, by 1872 becoming a co-owner of the paper, and he had political successes as well: He served one term in the Missouri state legislature and then was appointed to the St. Louis Police Commission. At the time, his politics were strongly Republican, but corruption in the Grant administration helped move him toward the Democrats, to whom he remained fairly consistently loyal for the rest of his life. His English quickly became fluent, though he spoke with an accent, and he developed a vigorous, at times bombastic prose style. Not merely were politics and journalism intertwined in those days, but the line between reporting and editorializing was thin; Pulitzer always saw his newspapers as instruments through which to gain power, and he used them accordingly.

Inevitably, Pulitzer's ambitions led him to the English-language press. In 1878 he purchased the Dispatch, "a struggling evening paper in St. Louis," because "he was convinced that evening papers had a great future." That seems a cruel joke today, but Morris notes: "He was right. The advent of the telegraph and faster printing presses made it possible to publish an afternoon newspaper with news as fresh as that day, making morning papers look as if they were publishing yesterday's news." Almost immediately, he maneuvered a merger with the Post, and thus was born what became one of the most famous and respected newspapers in the country, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Pulitzer had come to the States 14 years earlier a poor young man, but the Post-Dispatch set him on the way to becoming a very rich young man and gave him the wherewithal to purchase the New York World in 1883.

New York was "the center of American journalism and politics," Morris writes, and "Pulitzer wanted in." He risked everything he had to buy the World, and he made the gamble pay off, eventually making the World "the most widely read newspaper in American history." He did so by turning it into a people's newspaper: "Pulitzer had an uncanny ability to recognize news in what others ignored. He sent out his reporters to mine the urban dramas that other papers confined to their back pages. They returned with stories that could leave no reader unmoved." He "pushed his writers to think like Dickens, who wove fiction from the sad tales of urban Victorian London, to create compelling entertainment from the drama of the modern city." He was anything except a common man, but he had the common touch:

"In the Lower East Side's notorious bars, known as black and tans, or at dinner in their cramped tenements, men and women did not discuss society news, cultural events, or happenings in the investment houses. Rather, the talk was about the baby who fell to his death from a rooftop, the brutal beating that police officers dispensed to an unfortunate waif, or the rising cost of streetcar fares to the upper reaches of Fifth Avenue and the mansions needing servants. The clear, simple prose of the World drew in these readers, many of whom were immigrants struggling to master their first words of English. Writing about the events that mattered in their lives in a way they could understand, Pulitzer's World gave these New Yorkers a sense of belonging and a sense of value. In one stroke, he simultaneously elevated the common man and took his spare change to fuel the World's profits."

Over the years, experience inclined him toward cynicism, yet he never lost his idealism. In 1889, at the dedication of the World's new building on Park Row, he declared: "God grant that this structure be the enduring home of a newspaper forever unsatisfied with merely printing news, forever fighting forms of wrong, forever independent -- forever advancing in enlightenment and progress, forever wedded to truly democratic ideas, forever aspiring to be a moral force, forever rising to a higher plan of perfection as a public institution." That he believed these words is beyond question, but soon enough he found himself dragged into the mud. In 1895 Hearst bought the anemic New York Journal and immediately made it, and himself, the champion of sensationalist, or "yellow," journalism. He dragged the World into a price war, and he won it. He also compelled the World into a screaming match that helped lead the United States into the Spanish-American War, a wholly unnecessary and foolish conflict but one that was very good for the Journal's circulation.

By this time, Pulitzer was almost entirely an absentee owner-editor. He went blind in the early 1890s and was inordinately sensitive to noise. He spent the rest of his life in a kind of moveable cocoon, traveling the world in search of quiet and being read to by assistants. While the St. Louis Post-Dispatch chugged dutifully along, a cash cow feeding Pulitzer's bloated exchequer, the World never regained the lead it had lost to Hearst. Pulitzer's marriage was unhappy -- he was brusque, demanding, often lacerating in his verbal cruelty to Kate and their children -- and so was his life. For a while he had been something of a political kingmaker, but by the early 20th century that was in the past. At his death, the newspaper he loved so much had less than two decades to live under its own name, and it finally died in 1967 as part of the pathetic World Journal Tribune. The irony that it died in partnership with Hearst's old Journal requires no elaboration.

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