Reading a daily newspaper has long been a morning ritual with James McGrath Morris, and these days The Santa Fe New Mexican is the local paper that’s delivered to his doorstep bright and early. Most days, however, he’s at his computer emailing editors and reporters especially now that his long awaited biography of the media tycoon Joseph Pulitzer is in print. Morris started his research in New York, and he still remembers the day that Jennifer Lee at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library tapped him on the shoulder and told him that another scholar was at work on a project about Pulitzer. He was on the premises too. Was Morris interested in meeting him?, Lee wanted to know. Morris’s first thought, he says now from his home in the mountains of New Mexico, was “Oh, no, not competition. I don’t need it.” But he told Lee – the curator of an exhibit about Pulitzer at Columbia this spring - that he would like to meet the man.
Nicholson Baker, the provocative novelist and ardent defender of print media, was in the thick of the Pulitzer archives, and eager to help Morris. He had just rescued a rare set of Pulitzer’s flagship newspaper, the Sunday edition of The New York World, from the British Museum where it was slated for disposal, and he had come to the conclusion that Pulitzer “understood Sundays better than most people.” His coffee-table book, The World on Sunday (2005), which he edited with his wife, Margaret Brentano, reproduces color pages from The World from 1898 to 1911, and shows how revolutionary, sexy and innovative Pulitzer could be. Indeed, The World published groundbreaking articles about the Mafia in New York, “Health Hints” for the healthy-minded, exposes about football injuries, delightful spoofs of Teddy Roosevelt, and articles by famous authors such as Mark Twain who contributed a piece entitled “My First Lie and How I Got Out of it.” The real glory of The World, as Baker quickly came to realize, was the artwork by Dan McCarthy, George Luks, Charles Bush, J. Campbell Cory, Louis Biedermann, and George McManus.
Though Baker had stolen some of his thunder, Morris persevered. His new biography is the first since W.A. Swanberg’s 1967 work to reexamine in depth the strange life of the man who was born Politzer Josef in Hungary, and who reinvented himself as Joseph Pulitzer in the United States. Morris unearthed an unpublished memoir by Joseph’s brother and sibling rival, Albert, who was also a reporter and editor and who had the gumption to sell his paper, The New York Journal, to a fledging newspaper man named William Randolph Hearst, who served, of course, as the model for Orson Welles’s Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, and who became Pulitzer’s fiercest competitor.
Morris’s patrician ancestors, who took part in the American revolution and were a part of New York’s elite for centuries, probably would have disapproved of Hearst and Pulitzer, who was Jewish, and who tried out his sensational newspaper style, known as “yellow journalism,” in the provinces, at The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, before bringing it to New York and shocking sedate readers. But Morris doesn’t hold back his admiration for Pulitzer, or his wish that he might become better known as an editor and publisher than the prizes that bear his name, and that have been awarded every year since 1917.
“Pulitzer had an uncanny ability to recognize and to harness the prodigious energies unleashed by the industrial revolution in 19th-century America,” Morris says. “He borrowed something from Dickens’s genius, something from advertising, and something from the American love of spectacle. He put all those elements together in New York in a new form of journalism that delivered information and entertainment more quickly than ever before to the masses, especially to immigrants not unlike himself who were pouring into Brooklyn and Manhattan from all over Europe. The World published articles and illustrations about ghetto dwellers in which they saw themselves and their own lives reflected with compassion and sympathy. Of course, Pulitzer also made a fortune and became a millionaire off their pennies and nickels. He ended his life defending law and order against striking workers, and he socialized with John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan. But he wasn’t the warmonger that standard history books have made him out to be. Granted, he supported the U.S. invasion of Cuba in 1898; almost every newspaper did. When Venezuela and England were about to go to war he urged diplomacy. The pen, he believed, was mightier than the sword.”
Morris sees parallels between Pulitzer’s time and ours, and he points out that when Pulitzer began to shape “yellow journalism” during the Gilded Age, newspapers around the country were going out of existence. Readers wrung their hands and bemoaned the end of newspapers, as they had known them. Pulitzer charged ahead full stream, and boasted that the color pages of The World emerged from the state of the art printing presses, manufactured by Hoe and Company, “like rainbow tints in the spray.” Indeed, The World seemed like something entirely new and different in the staid, old world of New York newspapers – perhaps as revolutionary then as the Internet today - and as provocative as the practitioners of advocacy journalism on Fox.
“Like Roger Ailes and Sarah Palin, Pulitzer believed in the power of the media to rally the troops,” Morris says. “He wanted readers to turn from the front page to the editorial page, and he wanted to persuade readers to support his cause, whether it was for the 40-hour work week, or Captain Dreyfus, the French officer who was made a scapegoat for France’s military defeat in the war against Prussia. Pulitzer believed that humor and sarcasm were more effective than heavy-handed prose. I think that if he were alive today he would skewer Palin and Ailes with panache, and a light touch.”