Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1838
Article abstract: Combining a strong social conscience with a superb grasp of journalistic techniques, Pulitzer created with his New York World the prototype of the modern newspaper.
Joseph Pulitzer was born April 10, 1847, in Mako, Hungary. His mother, née Louise Berger, was Austro-German and Catholic; his father, Philip Pulitzer, was Magyar-Jewish, a grain dealer affluent enough to retire by 1853, whereupon the family moved to Budapest. Pulitzer and his younger brother and sister (another brother died early) were educated by private tutors; he became fluent in German and French as well as his native Hungarian.
By the age of seventeen, Pulitzer was ready to make his own way. Brilliant, independent, and intensely ambitious, he first sought fame in the military. Having been rejected for enlistment by several European armies—his eyesight was very poor—he was approached by Union army recruiting agents, who were considerably less selective. Thus it was that Pulitzer came to the United States and, in September, 1864, enlisted in the Lincoln Cavalry. His military career was short, undistinguished, and unhappy; discharged in July, 1865, with very little money and no immediate prospects, he settled in St. Louis, Missouri, where there was a large German community.
Photographs of the beardless, bespectacled young Pulitzer show a profile seemingly tailor-made for the caricaturist: a prominent, beaky nose and an up-pointed, witchlike chin. At six feet two and a half inches, he was a tall man for his time, slender and ungainly. When he arrived in St. Louis, he spoke only the most rudimentary English. Nevertheless, his exceptional abilities and his capacity for hard work were soon noticed, and, after a series of subsistence jobs, he was hired as a reporter for the Westliche Post, an influential German-language paper with a strong reform bent. This association provided Pulitzer’s entrée into politics, and he was elected to the Missouri state legislature in 1869. His financial acumen soon became evident as well, and by his mid-twenties he was able to enjoy a long vacation in Europe.
By the time of his marriage, in June, 1878 (his bride, the beautiful Kate Davis, was a distant cousin of the former president of the Confederacy), Pulitzer had achieved the kind of success that most immigrants could only dream of, but the direction which his life would take was not yet clear. Maintaining a desultory law practice, he continued to take an active interest in politics, but, impatient, imperious, he was ill suited to the demands of office. Later in 1878, however, he made what proved to be a decisive choice of vocation.
It was in December of 1878 that Pulitzer, acting through an intermediary, purchased at auction in St. Louis the bankrupt Evening Dispatch. The paper’s sixteen-year history had been marked by failure, but it did possess a Western Associated Press franchise—a consideration which prompted the publisher of a recently established rival paper, the Post, to propose a merger exactly as Pulitzer had planned. For the first issue of the Post and Dispatch (soon to become simply the Post-Dispatch), Pulitzer wrote an editorial that ringingly asserted the paper’s independence from special interests and its dedication to reform:
The POST and DISPATCH will serve no party but the people; will be no organ of “Republicanisn,” but the organ of truth; will follow no caucases [sic] but its own convictions; will not support the “Administration,” but criticise it; will oppose all frauds and shams wherever and whatever they are; will advocate principles and ideas rather than prejudices and partisanship.
Although Pulitzer’s great achievements are associated with New York, he laid the foundation for those achievements in St. Louis in the years from 1878 to 1883 with the Post-Dispatch. As publisher and editor, he was involved in every phase of the paper’s operation. He was an editor of genius, as his memos to his staff attest: Even today, his notes could serve as a course in newspaper journalism. Always a shrewd judge of talent, he hired the gifted editor of the Baltimore Gazette, John A. Cockerill, to serve as managing editor of the Post-Dispatch; Cockerill later followed him to New York. Indeed, Pulitzer’s ability to find good employees and treat them well played an integral part in his success: The average salary of the reporters for the Post-Dispatch was the highest of any paper in the country, and at a time when vacations were a luxury, every employee of the Post-Dispatch enjoyed a paid two-week vacation each summer. Pulitzer was, then, an inspiring leader and a relatively enlightened employer, but working for him was difficult: He had a pronounced dictatorial streak, which became much stronger as he grew older, and he could be ruthless in his judgments.
Having developed in St. Louis the brand of journalism that was to make him the most influential newspaperman of his time, Pulitzer was ready to move to New York—where, ironically, his brother Albert was prospering with the Morning Journal, which he had founded in 1882. (The arrival of another Pulitzer was not welcomed by Albert; never close, the brothers were permanently estranged thereafter.) The opportunity came in 1883, when Pulitzer bought the failing New York World from financier Jay Gould for $346,000; the deal was closed not long after Pulitzer’s thirty-sixth birthday. Although a young man, he was in poor health: His eyesight was failing, and he suffered from a nervous disorder. (In a later age, he would probably have been diagnosed as manic depressive.) Moreover, the continuing profitability of the Post-Dispatch notwithstanding, in purchasing the New York World he had incurred an enormous debt. Such were the unpromising circumstances in which Pulitzer entered the arena of New York journalism, yet within a short time his New York World reigned supreme: The paper that sold fifteen thousand copies daily in 1883 sold almost fifteen million daily in 1898.
Great as his success was, Pulitzer was never fully able to savor it. In 1890, still in his early forties, he was compelled by blindness and the worsening condition of his nerves to give up firsthand supervision of the New York World although he kept in close touch with his editors, firing off innumerable memos. His mood swings and other manifestations of his illness made him a difficult companion for his wife and their children (four daughters, one of whom died in infancy and another of whom, her father’s favorite, died at seventeen, and three sons, one of whom, Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., became a noted newspaperman in his own right, despite a conspicuous lack of paternal confidence in his abilities). Pulitzer spent much of the time in later years traveling; near the end of his life, his preferred residence was his magnificently appointed yacht Liberty, where, as was his custom, newspapers, magazines, and books were read to him in great abundance and where distractions and annoyances were minimized. It was on the Liberty that he died, on October 29, 1911. Among the provisions in his will was the establishment of the Pulitzer Prizes, annual awards in journalism and arts and letters; also included was a one-million-dollar bequest to the soon-to-be-opened Columbia School of Journalism, which he had endowed in 1903.
In countless ways, Pulitzer caught the democratic, egalitarian spirit of America, an achievement reflected in the enormous influence of his journalistic style. The New York World was a pioneer in increased sports coverage, especially of boxing and baseball. People from every walk of life—tradesmen and judges, firemen and Brooklyn belles—were featured in line-drawn portraits (photojournalism did not begin until the Spanish-American War), often accompanied by brief biographical sketches. That American institution, the Sunday funnies, can also be traced to the New York World, where, in 1894, the first colored comic strip appeared.
Pulitzer was able to accomplish so much because, to an extraordinary degree, his own character mirrored all the contradictions that distinguished late nineteenth century America. Genuinely idealistic, Pulitzer crusaded against widespread corruption and injustice, bringing to public attention, for example, the inhuman conditions in which many immigrants were forced to live and work. Certainly this sense of conscience was one key to the New York World’s success. At the same time, however, Pulitzer was a master of sensationalism. Others before him had used lurid stories of crime, sex, and disaster to attract readers, but Pulitzer took this material and, with bold headlines, illustrations (diagrams of murder scenes were particularly popular), and first-rate reporting, made it both appealing and acceptable to a wide range of readers. Indeed, Pulitzer rarely challenged the essentially conservative values of his readers (values which he largely shared), whether the subject was women’s rights or the plight of the unemployed.
Pulitzer’s legacy is most visible in the prizes that bear his name, synonymous with excellence in journalism. Less obvious but more pervasive is his impact on the way in which Americans get the news, not only in the morning paper but also on television, where sensationalism with a social conscience has enjoyed great success.
Barrett, James Wyman. Joseph Pulitzer and His “World.” New York: The Vanguard Press, 1941. An anecdotal biography by the last city editor of the New York World. Although the focus is on Pulitzer, the last three chapters follow the fate of the New York World after his death to the paper’s last issue in 1931. Valuable for its insider’s view but rambling and undocumented.
Juergens, George. Joseph Pulitzer and the “New York World.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966. The best single book on Pulitzer’s “new journalism.” Concentrates on the crucial years from 1883 to 1885, though later developments are also noted. Juergens’ approach is thematic rather than chronological; he provides a clear, objective, well-documented analysis of Pulitzer’s journalistic techniques and their revolutionary impact.
King, Homer W. Pulitzer’s Prize Editor: A Biography of John A. Cockerill, 1845-1896. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1965. A colorful account of Cockerill’s career before, during, and after his tenure with Pulitzer. Perhaps exaggerates Cockerill’s contributions to Pulitzer’s success but offers a needed corrective to other accounts.
Rammelkamp, Julian S. Pulitzer’s “Post-Dispatch,” 1878-1883. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967. Stresses the significance of Pulitzer’s St. Louis years, scanted in most studies. A valuable, well-documented study, as much social history (particularly concerned with the growth of the middle-class reform movement) as journalistic history.
Seitz, Don C. Joseph Pulitzer: His Life and Letters. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1924. Badly dated, this intimate portrait by Pulitzer’s longtime business manager nevertheless remains indispensable; all subsequent biographers have drawn on it.
Swanberg, W. A. Pulitzer. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1967. Popular biography, marred by some irritating mannerisms, but the only full-scale life of Pulitzer since Barrett’s book of 1941. Generally balanced and well-researched, drawing extensively on the Pulitzer papers at Columbia University and the Library of Congress.
Wittke, Carl. The German-Language Press in America. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1957. Mentions Pulitzer only in passing but provides a detailed account of the milieu in which he made his beginning as a journalist and in which his political views were formed.