Joseph Pulitzer Essay - Critical Essays

Pulitzer, Joseph


Joseph Pulitzer 1847-1911

Hungarian-born American journalist.

Pulitzer was among the most influential and well-respected figures in American journalism. As the owner/ editor of the New York World he is remembered both for his association with "yellow journalism"—newspaper sensationalism of the 1890s designed to promote circulation—and for his editorial crusades to expose the corruption of big business and government. An innovator in the field of newspaper journalism, Pulitzer is credited with the addition of Sunday supplements, fashion sections, comic strips, and profuse illustrations to the medium. Additionally he is celebrated for his philanthropic activities, most notably his creation of the esteemed prizes for journalistic and literary excellence that bear his name.

Biographical Information

Pulitzer was born on 10 April 1847 in Mako, Hungary to parents of German-Jewish extraction. Schooled in Budapest, he later emigrated to the United States in 1864 under the auspices of a general recruitment for the Union army. He jumped ship upon his arrival in New York harbor, but later joined the army as a member of the First New York Cavalry regiment. Seeing only a brief tour of combat duty during the Civil War, Pulitzer mustered out in 1865 and, unable to find employment in New York City, traveled to St. Louis, Missouri. He was granted American citizenship in 1867, and obtained a job as a reporter with the Westliche-Post, a German-language newspaper in St. Louis. His growing interest in local politics at this time led to a successful bid for a Republican seat in the Missouri state legislature in 1869. Retaining his position as a reporter, and later as managing editor and part owner of the Westliche-Post while in office, Pulitzer sold his interest in the daily in 1871 and embarked upon a tour of Europe the following year. He returned to America in 1874 and purchased another German paper in St. Louis, the Staats-Zeitung, but quickly sold it and turned his interests to the study of law. Two years later Pulitzer, who had maintained his regard for politics and was now active with the Democratic party, passed the bar. In 1878 he bought the St. Louis Dispatch, and merged it with another newspaper to form the Post-Dispatch. Ownership of this successful daily occupied Pulitzer until 1883, when he returned east and acquired the failing New York World. With clever management, Pulitzer quickly made the newspaper into one of the strongest in the nation. His primary competitor during this era was William Randolph Hearst, owner and editor of the New York Journal. The rivalry between the two shortly proved the impetus for the period of so-called "yellow journalism" in the 1890s. Carrying sensational journalism to its extreme and catering to the steadily growing demands of the nascent consumer age, Pulitzer and Hearst waged a battle for circulation that culminated in the World's editorial support for the Spanish-American War of 1898. One year prior to this, Pulitzer's poor health and weakening eyesight, however, had forced him to forsake his daily editorial duties, which in 1890 he placed in the hands of an executive board. Still extremely active in defining the role of his paper, Pulitzer changed its focus over the next decade. Advocating the principles of democracy and the rights of workers in his editorials, he turned the World into a highly-respected publication. Pulitzer maintained his daily contact with the paper, making himself known throughout the country and acquiring substantial wealth for himself, until his death from pneumonia on 29 October 1911.

Major Works

As the owner and editor of the New York World and several other newspapers, Pulitzer produced no works save for the many editorials he wrote to appear in his publications. These writings are nevertheless considered significant as they represent Pulitzer's at times enormous impact on public opinion in America in the late nineteenth and early entieth centuries. Among the crusades he championed in the pages of the World were against the corruption of such businesses as Standard Oil, Bell Telephone, and the Pacific Railroad Company. Additionally he was often cited for his impassioned plea to the American public, asking them to contribute funds for the construction of a pedestal to support France's gift of the Statue of Liberty in 1885. Near the end of his life Pulitzer also dictated a memorandum that set aside $2.5 million of his personal wealth for the creation of a school of journalism at Columbia University and for the establishment of the famed Pulitzer Prizes, awarded annually since 1917 to outstanding American writers of journalism, fiction, history, biography, and poetry.

Critical Reception

Pulitzer's biographers have noted his enormous contributions to the field of journalism, and have studied his well-publicized eccentricities, such as his obsessive regard for accuracy and his desire for absolute silence. Also, many have commented on his unbending management style and numerous attacks on political and industrial corruption in the name of democracy and the American people. More recently, Pulitzer's social influence has become the source of some critical interest, particularly in the work of Janet E. Steele, who has observed the correspondence of his journalistic style with "the emergence of a value system that increasingly celebrated consumption, leisure, and self-indulgence" in American society.


Will Irwin (essay date 1911)

SOURCE: "Yellow Journalism," in Highlights in the History of the American Press, edited by Edwin H. Ford and Edwin Emery, University of Minnesota Press, 1911, pp. 267-99.

[In the following excerpt, Irwin discusses Pulitzer's influence during the era of "yellow journalism" that flourished in the late nineteenth-century.]

The seeds of yellow journalism, so called for want of a better name, sprouted at St. Louis and San Francisco during the eighties; they came to fruition in New York, thrashing-floor for changes in journalism, during the early nineties. In the decade which preceded the full flowering of Hearst and Pulitzer, however, a change in the spirit of newspaper publication had crept in by way of the business office—a change which prepared the ground for this new seed. From a rather humble professional enterprise, the newspaper had become a great "business proposition," holding infinite possibilities of profit.

Dana, Medili, Greeley, Godkin, even Bennett, adopted their vocation from that mixture of motive and chance which leads a man into any profession; they certainly reckoned the chance of getting rich very slightly among possibilities. But the field for newspaper circulation grew, … and with it grew the perfection of swift mechanical processes. By 1891 a quadruple Hoe press would print, fold, cut, paste, and count 72,000 eight-page papers an hour. The linotype, or mechanical typesetting machine, climax of delicate mechanism, was not yet perfected; that was to come just after the yellows made their start. Our publishers had facilities, therefore, to handle any imaginable increase in circulation. It was necessary only to enlarge basement spaces and increase the number of presses. And now big retail business discovered the newspaper as a salesman. Yankee advertising had been a jest of Europe for a half-century long, before experience proved that for most commodities advertisement in a regular and respectable periodical pays better, dollar for dollar, than advertisement by circular or sign-board.


In the same period the retail dry goods business, consistently an advertiser since the first newspapers, began to concentrate in department stores and to drag into these great emporiums other forms of retail business, such as hardware, jewelry, and groceries. With their bargain days, their special offerings, designed to attract customers to the store, their advertising became a matter of news. They did not now announce, as in 1810: "We offer prints and calicoes at lowest prices," but: "Special today: A hundred dozen pairs of ladies' lisle hose, worth 75 cents, at 49 cents." For this form of publicity the newspaper was the only possible medium except privately distributed circulars; and a circular, as experience has shown, is usually thrown into the ash-can, while a newspaper notice, surrounded by matter which commands some respect, is kept and read. Newspaper and periodical advertising grew from tiny beginnings to a great force of distribution. Where the senior Bennett's old Herald got its advertising revenue by hundreds of dollars, the junior Bennett's Herald of the eighties got it by tens of thousands. There came, then, a gradual shift of power from the editorial rooms to the business office.

The stalwart old-time newspaper proprietor, who had entered the editorial game for love of it, still held his paper to editorial ideals, though he grew rich incidentally. McCullagh of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, it is remembered now in these changed days, would not let a business office man come on to the editorial floor, lest his staff become commercialized. There remained, however, a multitude of lesser souls who yielded to the temptation of the flesh-pots and trained their eyes solely on commercial possibilities. Their advertising solicitors raked the city for copy; the less scrupulous coerced advertisers by a species of blackmail—"You advertise with us and we'll leave you alone." Above all—and this is where the commercial movement ties up with "yellow" journalism—they were ripe and ready for any method which would serve to extend circulation and therefore make their advertising space more valuable.

During the seventies, a young German-American, a pest to his fellows with his truculence, a blessing to his employers with his news sense and his vigorous writing, shuttled back and forth between the German and English newspapers of St. Louis. Joseph Pulitzer had been a soldier of bad fortune for some years before he entered journalism; he had served as coachman, as waiter, as common laborer, as private in the burial squad which laid away the dead after the St. Louis cholera epidemic; and he had learned the common man's attitude toward life and the news. His fellows of the police stations in his early journalistic days remember him as a restless, inquiring youth, ready to try almost any experiment with life, if he might learn thereby what was inside the sealed envelope: above all, as a man with his own opinions, ready to back them with fist and tongue. He rose; he did his turn at Washington, where his writing attracted the attention of Dana; and he might have taken service with the New York Sun. He preferred the power of the game to its art, however; and in 1878 he raised money to acquire the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, an obscure paper, dying of inanition.


It is not true, as some assume, that Pulitzer founded yellow journalism then and there. What he did discover—and that is only one element in yellow journalism—was the means of fighting popular causes by the news. The process was not wholly original with him; the New York Times had smashed the Tweed Ring by publishing plain accounts of their corrupt transactions. Perhaps, however, Pulitzer was first to go out systematically and find evil before evil obtruded itself on public notice. He had a conservative community to serve. In such an atmosphere certain set and old injustices always flourish for lack of popular opposition. Pulitzer scratched this surface and showed what lay beneath. He made himself the bugaboo of the big cinch; he made his organ such a champion of popular rights that to this day the humble citizen of St. Louis who has a grievance tends to write to the P.-D. before he employs a lawyer. That was the kind of journalism which Pulitzer brought to the hospitable-minded metropolis when, in the middle eighties, he bought the New York World.…

Joseph Pulitzer had been fighting his way on the New York World with the sensational, militant style which he perfected in St. Louis. He took personal charge of the World in 1884. Within two years he had attacked so many things which the other newspapers had not perceived as copy, or had not dared to touch, that he was disputing circulation with Bennett the Younger and Dana.

By the end of the decade the World was altogether the most reckless, the most sensational, and the most widely discussed newspaper in New York. He has been several men, all extraordinary, in the course of his career, this Pulitzer; nothing so impresses one who regards him in the light of a historic character as the manner in which his able, penetrating, highly energized mind has shifted its point of view. In that stage he was a creature of infinite recklessness and incredible suspicion. By mental habit he scratched every fair surface to find the inner corrupt motive. Journalism, it appears, bounded his ambition; that was one secret of his extraordinary freedom from control. Had he cared for political position, for pure financial power, the history of American journalism in the past twenty years might have been very different. Within that narrow limit he, like the silent, cold, light-eyed young man experimenting out on the Pacific Coast, had the passion for leadership. "If you should put Hearst in a monastery," said one of his early associates, "he would become abbot or die." The gods cut Pulitzer off the same stripe.

The Sunday supplement was by this time an integral part of metropolitan journalism. As early as the Civil War period, the newspapers had been giving space on Sunday mornings to entertaining matter bearing only indirect relation to the news. When, with the development of the rotary press, they were able to print large issues by eightpage sections, the most advanced journals began to add one of these sections on Sunday mornings as a kind of catch-all for routine semi-news matter, like notes of the fraternal orders and women's clubs, and mild write-ups of picturesque features of city life, together with such embellishment of fiction and beauty hints as they could afford. S. S. McClure, breaking into the world of print at about that time, made a fortune from his idea of selling the best current literature to newspapers for simultaneous publication on Sunday mornings, the famous McClure Syndicate.


Pulitzer, like the rest, published a supplement. Although by 1891 he had brought his Sunday circulation up to 300,000 copies, the World did not show so great a proportionate increase over daily circulation as the Herald...

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Oswald Garrison Villard (essay date 1923)

SOURCE: "The New York World, A Liberal Journal," in Some Newspapers and Newspaper Men, Alfred A. Knopf, 1923, pp. 42-62.

[In the following essay, Villard summarizes the editorial history of Pulitzer's newspaper the World.]

A monument to Joseph Pulitzer the New York World unquestionably is. It is even more than that; it is really a monument to the idealism of the many men from Central Europe who came to America as to the promised land, so joyous at having turned their backs upon the falsities, the hypocrisies, the military autocracies of the Continent that they brought to America a devotion quite unsurpassed by any native born. Theirs was a far keener...

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Don C. Seitz (essay date 1924)

SOURCE: "The Portrait of an Editor: Joseph Pulitzer," in Highlights in the History of the American Press, edited by Edwin H. Ford and Edwin Ford, University of Minnesota Press, 1924, pp. 284-99.

[In the following essay Seitz offers a largely anecdotal look at Pulitzer's career as owner/editor of the New York World.]

Joseph Pulitzer was tall—six feet two and a half inches in height—but of a presence so commanding as to make his stature seem even greater. His hair was black and his beard a reddish brown. A forehead that well bespoke the intellect behind it shaded a nose of the sort Napoleon admired; his chin was small but powerful and of the nutcracker variety, such...

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Don C. Seitz (essay date 1927)

SOURCE: "The Day's Work," in Modern Essays of Various Types, edited by Charles A. Cockayne, Charles E. Merrill Company, 1927, pp. 249-63.

[In the following essay, Seitz recounts Pulitzer's efforts for the public good, such as his founding of the School of Journalism at Columbia University and other notable endeavors].

The opportunity to perform a great public service and at the same time aid in erecting a monument to the dearest longing of his soul—Liberty—arrived for Mr. Pulitzer in 1885. Commissioned by the people of France, who raised more than 1,000,000 francs for the purpose, August Bartholdi, the sculptor, had executed a gigantic figure of the goddess,...

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Silas Bent (essay date 1939)

SOURCE: "Pulitzer: Past-Master," in Newspaper Crusaders: A Neglected Story, Whittlesey House, 1939, pp. 20-42.

[In the following essay, Bent focuses on the crusades against government and big business corruption undertaken by Pulitzer's newspapers the New York World and St. Louis Post-Dispatch.]

Premier among the journalistic crusaders of this country was the elder Joseph Pulitzer. He was convinced that a newspaper should "never be satisfied with merely printing news." He stood for political independence, fearless attacks upon demagoguery, injustice, corruption, and "predatory plutocracy." If told fully, his achievements in that field alone might well fill a...

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Janet E. Steele (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "The 19th-century World Versus the Sun: Promoting Consumption (Rather than the Working Man)," in Journalism Quarterly, Vol. 67, No. 3, Autumn, 1990, pp. 592-600.

[In the following essay, Steele argues that the victory of Pulitzer's World over its competitor the New York Sun in the late nineteenth century "signified the erosion of traditional American values such as hard work, thrift, and self-sacrifice, and the emergence of a value system that increasingly celebrated consumption, leisure, and self-indulgence."]

One of the most familiar dramas of late nineteenth-century journalism is that of the epic battle for circulation between...

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Further Reading


Alexander, Jack. "The Last Shall Be First (Joseph Pulitzer)." In Post Biographies of Famous Journalists, edited by John E. Drewry, pp. 391-410. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1942.

Biographical sketch that features Pulitzer's rise to notoriety and influence on the politics of his day.

Barrett, James Wyman. Joseph Pulitzer and His World. New York: Vanguard Press, 1941, 449 p.

Biography of Pulitzer written by the last city editor of the New York World.

Black, Alexander. "Four Men." In American Husbands and Other Alternatives, pp. 149-82. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company,...

(The entire section is 257 words.)