(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.