If you were an immigrant sailing into New York harbor at the close of the nineteenth century, the first building to catch your eye would have been the headquarters of the New York World, the tallest structure in Manhattan. Twenty stories high, and topped by a gilded dome that reflected light forty miles out to sea, the World building was—as James McGrath Morris writes in his new biography of Joseph Pulitzer—“a temple of America’s new mass media.”
The newspaper printed there was as dominant in the city’s life as the building was in its skyline. Starting in the 1880s, Joseph Pulitzer’s World revolutionized journalism with its signature blend of muckraking investigations, crusading editorials, sensational crime and human-interest stories, and colorful graphics. Selling hundreds of thousands of copies, the World was the kind of newspaper that did not just record history, but also made it. In the presidential election in 1884, the paper’s support helped Grover Cleveland carry New York State, putting a Democrat in the White House for the first time since the Civil War. In 1898, the World—along with its great rival, William Randolph Hearst’s Journal—led the drumbeat that carried the country into the Spanish-American War.
For that hypothetical immigrant, the power and promise of America could have been summed up in the fact that the World was itself the creation of an immigrant—a Hungarian Jew who arrived in the United States without a penny and without knowing a word of English. Joseph Pulitzer was born in 1847 in the Hungarian town of Mako, and spent his childhood in Budapest, where his father was a successful merchant. (The family name came from the town of Pollitz in Moravia, where they had lived generations earlier.) Like most of the Jewish middle class in the Habsburg Empire, the Pulitzers spoke German, and they eagerly embraced Judaism’s new Reform movement. “By the time Joseph reached his teenage years,” Morris writes, “being Jewish remained part of his life, but no longer the center of it.”
Pulitzer might well have remained in this assimilated Jewish milieu if his father had not died when he was eleven years old. This was the most devastating of the many deaths that afflicted the family when Joseph was growing up—of nine children, only two survived to adulthood—and it reduced them to poverty. When Joseph reached the age of 17, in 1864, he decided to strike out on his own. Ordinarily he could not have afforded the passage to America, but thanks to the Civil War recruiters were scouring Europe for young men willing to serve as paid substitutes for Northern draftees. It was on a ship full of these soldiers-to-be that Pulitzer crossed the Atlantic; he ended up serving in the First New York “Lincoln” Cavalry, in one of several German-speaking units.
Since he did not enlist until nearly the end of the war, Pulitzer never saw combat, and he was discharged in June, 1865. At loose ends, he decided to strike out for St. Louis, a fast-growing Midwestern city with a large German immigrant population. He soon landed a job as a reporter for a German-language newspaper, the Westliche Post, and became a protégé of the its owner, Carl Schurz, a Union general and later a United States Senator.
Schurz, Morris shows, was a role model for Pulitzer, proof of how an immigrant (he had fled Germany after the revolutions of 1848) could leverage his community’s clout into a career in journalism and politics. What Morris does not dwell on is the irony that Pulitzer, a Jew, could so easily adopt the German-American community as his own. Back home in Central Europe, Pulitzer’s Jewishness—no matter how assimilated he might be—would have been his defining trait, marking him permanently from his German and Hungarian neighbors. In America, however, the bonds of language meant more than the divisions of religion and ethnicity, and Pulitzer was accepted, with remarkably little friction, as a spokesman for St. Louis’s Germans.
In 1870, just six years after he arrived in the country, Pulitzer was elected to the Missouri state legislature. His district was populated by German Republicans and Irish Democrats, and he campaigned on straightforwardly ethnic grounds. The Irish, he wrote in a newspaper article, “would vote for the Devil himself in order to defeat the candidates of the Germans. What do our German friends have to say about that?” Later he was appointed to St. Louis’s police commission as the holder of its traditionally German seat.
But as Morris shows, in a detailed excursion into post-Civil War political history, Pulitzer’s rise was stalled by the failure of the Liberal Republican movement, which Schurz led as a rebellion against President Ulysses S. Grant. When Pulitzer subsequently changed his party affiliation to Democrat, he was acting on principle—he believed the Republicans had become the party of corruption and the rich—but he was also positioning himself for the future. Just as he moved from the German press to the wider English-language press, so he left behind the Germans’ preferred party. When he bought his first newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in 1878, he declared it would be “independent with a Democratic leaning,” and for the rest of his life Pulitzer remained an important power-broker in the Democratic Party.
Morris traces the rising arc of Pulitzer’s career, as he turned the Post-Dispatch into a moneymaker and set his sights on New York, the capital of business and journalism. At the same time, he was leaving his Jewish origins far behind. The woman he married in 1878, Kate Davis, was a distant relative of Jefferson Davis, and the wedding took place in the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Washington, D.C. “Success, power, and wealth in the United States had only one place of worship, the Episcopal church,” Morris observes, and for the rest of his life Pulitzer would belong to it. He even encouraged the rumor “that his mother had not been Jewish but rather was Catholic”—though it is doubtful that this would have seemed much of an improvement to America’s WASP elite.
Pulitzer’s Jewishness was an open secret, however, and his enemies were happy to make use of it. Morris quotes a few of their jibes—he was called “Jewseph Pulitzer,” and attention was drawn to his “nasal protuberance”—but on the whole it is remarkable how mild and ineffective this kind of baiting was, especially compared to the kind of ideological anti-Semitism then being directed against Jewish press figures in Europe. What bothered people about Pulitzer was not that he was Jewish, but that he was so bad-tempered and hard to get along with. As early as 1870, while he was a state legislator, Pulitzer became notorious for shooting a man during a political dispute. (The injury turned out to be minor.) At the World, he continued to rack up a long list of influential enemies, taking on corrupt politicians or simply political opponents, including Theodore Roosevelt.
More damning, Morris shows, was Pulitzer’s treatment of his own staff and family. In the last third of his fine book, Morris draws a portrait of Pulitzer as a boss from hell—a micromanager who bombarded his employees with telegrams, even as he refused to set foot in the office. Editor after editor quit the World, often to swell the ranks of Hearst’s Journal, simply because they could not tolerate Pulitzer’s rages and nitpicking. He and his wife eventually led separate lives, and his children were terrified of him. When Pulitzer lost his vision, because of detached retinas, in the late 1880s, he became abnormally sensitive to sound, and he spent millions of dollars buying and renovating houses in a hopeless quest for perfect silence. Eventually he preferred to spend time on his sound-proofed yacht, literally cut off from the rest of humanity.
By the time he died, in 1911, Pulitzer’s life had gone from American dream to American nightmare. If Orson Welles had made Citizen Kane about Pulitzer instead of Hearst, it would have been just as devastating a parable. It might also have prevented Pulitzer from being so widely forgotten. The World went out of business in 1931, a casualty of the Depression, and the World building was demolished in 1955. (Spare a thought for it if you ever take the on-ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge, which was built over its remains.) Today Pulitzer’s name is remembered primarily because of the prizes that he endowed, along with Columbia’s Journalism School, at the end of his life.
What makes Morris’s biography especially timely is that we are now witnessing the death of the whole style of newspaper publishing Pulitzer invented. The big city daily, the kind of newspaper that everyone read because everyone had to read it—from politicians and businessmen to laborers and homemakers—is becoming a thing of the past. So are the profits that such papers used to bring in. Pulitzer’s paper made him the nineteenth-century equivalent of a billionaire; but now dying papers look for billionaires to bail them out as a public service. A century after Pulitzer’s death, the newspaper now promises to join the other great technologies of the Gilded Age—from railroads to coal mining—on the scrap heap of American history. It is by no means clear that we should dance on its grave.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic. A version of this piece originally appeared in Tablet Magazine.