Pulitzer, A Life in Politics, Print and Power by James McGrath Morris, 2010, 558 print pages
For the first half of this book I was astonished at all that Joseph Pulitzer accomplished. In the second half, after he had achieved fame and fortune, I grew so tired of how miserable he was, I could barely finish the book.
Coming from a formerly well-off family in Hungary, he arrived in America with next to nothing - only the bounty he received to join the Union Army in the Civil War as a cavalry officer. When the war ended, that money was soon gone, and he needed a loan from his family back in Europe to make the trip west to St. Louis, then a center for many German immigrants.
And he arrived there with absolutely nothing. He had to work for the ferry company to gain passage across the Mississippi River. At that time St. Louis was the fourth largest city in the country, and Pulitzer found work at a German language newspaper. He prospered and soon was able to buy a piece of that paper as well as become involved in politics. Pulitzer idolized democracy and, when the Radicals refused to grant the vote to former Confederates, he left the GOP to become a vocal Democrat.
Because of his vitriolic outspokenness he was never going to be a successful politician, but it served him well as an editorialist. Through a succession of investments and acquisitions, he was eventually able to be the editor and publisher of what became the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It was at the Post-Dispatch where he created the very first New Journalism.
If you look at newspapers at the time of the Civil War, you will see columns of unbroken, small text with headlines barely larger and stories that were dry and functional. These papers were targeted to the highly educated, not a big part of the populace in those days. Pulitzer literally opened newspapers up with illustrations, bolder graphics, juicier stories. He wanted to create journalism for the masses, and he succeeded.
Eventually Pulitzer conquered the New York newspaper market with his purchase of the New York World. The World became the biggest, most profitable paper in the country, but it is with this success that Pulitzer's personal story turns sour.
He was married and had children, but his obsession with every detail of the World kept him away from home. His relationships with his editors weren't any better, since none could execute the ideal that only Pulitzer seemed to understand. Then his health failed, as he lost his eyesight and suffered with chronic insomnia.
His later years were spent wandering between his many homes in the U.S. and European spas, where he sought but never found cures for his various ailments. He got no joy from his family or his many accomplishments. I grew tired of hearing about all this woe. Maybe it was incumbent on Morris to explore this part of his life, but for readability, it could have been less detailed.
Fortunately, Pulitzer was also an idealist and that led him to create both the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and his enduring legacy, the Pulitzer Prizes. I wish I only knew about the young man struggling to overcome language barriers and anti-semitism and the older visionary that founded these enriching institutions. The blind, raging Joseph Pulitzer is not a pretty sight.
I recommend this for students of journalism and late 19th-century buffs. Others will get bogged down.