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Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911)


American journalist and publisher, who created along with William Randolph Hearst a new and controversial type of journalism. Pulitzer saw himself as a crusader on the side of people and a spokesman for democracy. He supported labor, attacked trusts and monopolies, and revealed political corruption. When journalism was not a respectable way of earning one's living, Pulitzer was committed to raising the standards of the profession. Pulitzer was the founder of the Pulitzer Prizes. Today the most prestigious prize in American journalism is named after him.

"There is room in this great and growing city for a journal that is not only cheap but bright, not only bright but large, not only large but truly democratic... that will expose all fraud and sham; fight all public evils and abuses; that will serve and battle for the people with earnest sincerity." (Joseph Pulitzer in assuming proprietorship of The New York World)

Joseph Pulitzer was born in Makó, Hungary, the eldest son of Hungarian Jews. His father, Philip, was a prosperous grain merchant, who died when Joseph was eleven. A few years later his mother married Max Blau, a businessmann. Pulitzer was educated in private schools in Budapest. In 1864 he emigrated from Hungary to the United States, landing at Castle Garden practically penniless. The Austrian army had rejected him for his weak eyesight, and the French Foreign Legion did not accept him, but in the new country he served in I. Company of the First New York Lincoln Cavalry until the end of the Civil War. During the monotonous winter camping, he sharpened his skill as a chess player. 

Pulitzer was fluent in German, French, and Hungarian, but his English was still awkward after the war. Like many of his generation a Pulitzer went West to seek his fortune. His first business as a boss stevedore in St. Louis failed. Pulitzer worked as a waiter, buried cholera victims of 1866 on Arsenal Island, and eventually found work as a reporter, first in St. Louis on the Westliche Post, a German-language newspaper. "He was a born reporter," said one of his colleagues later. Later, in 1871 he acquired a part ownership of the paper. In the 1860s he participated in politics and studied law, but practised only a short time. In 1869 he was elected to the Missouri Legislature and in 1874 Pulitzer was admitted to the bar in Washington, D.C., where he worked as a correspondent of the New York Sun. In 1877 he married Kate Davis, a niece of Jefferson Davis.

The purchase of the New York World in 1883 from the controversial financier Jay Gould turned out to be a successful decision, and made Pulitzer wealthy. The magazine increased in stature through its crusades against great business monopolies, lotteries, white slavery, but like many whites, Pulitzer himself was mostly indifferent to the plight of black Americans. The ill effects of demagoguery was one of his major concerns, especially when it was contrary to his own interests. "I am a radical myself, progressive, liberal to the core," he once said. "But I do not want to be thrown over by a lot of demagogues, nincompoops, and shallow shouters." In 1885 Pulitzer was elected to Congress from New York, but he resigned after a few months' service. By the time of establishing Evening World in New York, he had already begun to withdraw from direct management of his publications. At the age of forty, he was struck blind. The retina in his right eye had become derached, and the left retina was in danger of detaching. Moreover, he suffered from insomnia, asthma, indigestion, various vague bodily aches, and his tormenting mental and health problems strained his marriage.

After adjusting to his sightless life, Pulitzer he continued to run his press empire for twenty-two more years. In the 1890s he had a circulation war with William Randolph Hearst, and his newspapers were accused of "yellow journal" practices. Using strong headlines, sensational news events, cartoons and other means they especially tried to attract working class readers and immigrants. The World increased its circulation with a comic supplement. The first full-page original 'Yellow Kid' cartoon in color, created by Richard F. Outcault (1863-1928), appeared in 1895. However, the name had nothing to do with "yellow journalism."

In the New York Sunday World Pulitzer gave the staff creative freedom, though the editors were just like chess pieces that were thrown away easily. By purchasing in 1898 a new high-speed color printing press, Pulitzer created graphically one of the most impressive papers of the time. In the circulation war Pulitzer suffered a small drawback when Outcault moved to the New York Journal, one of Hearst's papers. Hearst, on the other hand, was also enthralled by the high quality of Pulitzer's papers. The writer Theodore Dreiser saw it differently – that the staff had in their eyes the look of tortured animals. To get even, Pulitzer hired the artist George Luks to draw cartoons using Outcault's characters.

The Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers showed their power in 1898: The World urged President McKinley to declare war against Spain. Hearst claimed that he had “brought on” the Spanish-American War, although there are doubts that he issued the command to Frederick Remington: "You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war." Pulitzer's nemesis, President Roosevelt, attempted to imprison him for criminal libel, after the World had suggested that Roosevelt's Panama Canal actions had been tainted by corruption.

Pulitzer died of heart disease aboard his yacht, the Liberty, on October 29, 1911. Before his death his German secretary had been reading him an account of the reign of Louis XI of France (1423-1483), who broke the power of the nobility. The Pulitzer-Hearst circulation battle lasted well into the 20th century. In his will Pulitzer left the World and the Post-Dispatch in the hands of four trustees, who, in time would turn control over to his sons. Pulitzer's wife Kate, who outlived her husband by almost sixteen years, died in Deauville, France.

Through his will, Pulitzer established the Columbia University School of Journalism, which was one of his chief desires, and annual Pulitzer Prizes for literature, drama, music, and journalism. In this he followed in the footsteps of Alfred B. Nobel (1833-1896), the inventor of dynamite, who established through his will the Nobel Foundation with its awards.

The Pulitzer Prizes, originally endowed with a gift of $500,000 from Joseph Pulitzer, are highly esteemed and have been awarded since 1917. However, it took years before they made a significant impact on the public. In the journalism the Prizes were awarded in the 1920s for exposing the practices of the Ku Klux Klan, revealing the dehumanizing prison conditions and exploring the problems of labor during a national coal strike. The novel prize was to be given only to a work "which shall best present the whole atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood." The wording has been since changed from "whole atmosphere" to "wholesome atmosphere." In 1921 the advisory board unanimously turned down Sinclair Lewis' Main Street, recommended by the jury, and chose instead Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. - The awards in letters are for fiction, drama, U.S. history, biography or autobiography, verse and nonfiction not covered by another category. The prizes are awarded annually by Columbia University, New York City. In 1948 the novel award was changed to an award in fiction.

For further reading: Joseph Pulitzer; Reminiscences of a Secretary by Alleyne Ireland (1914); Joseph Pulitzer, His Life and Letters by Don Carlos Seitz (1924); Joseph Pulitzer and his World by James Wyman Barrett (1941); The Pulitzer Prize Story, ed. by John Hohenberg (1959); Joseph Pulitzer and the New York World by George Juergens (1966); Pulitzer by W.A. Swanberg (1967); The Pulitzer Prizes (1975); The Pulitzer Story II, ed. by John Hohenberg (1980); The Pulitzer Prize Novels, by W.J. Stuckey (1981); Joseph Pulitzer II and the Post-Dispatch by Daniel W. Pfaff (1991); The Pulitzer Prize by J. Douglas Bates (1991); Joseph Pulitzer and the New York World by Nancy Whitelaw (1991); Pulitzer: A Life by Denis Brian (2001); The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer’s Newspaper (1898-1911) by Nicholson Baker and Margaret Brentano (2006)

Selected works & papers:

  • Papers of Joseph Pulitzer, 1880-1924 (Library of Congress: 5500 items, 12 containers)
  • Newsmen Speak: Journalists on Their Craft, 1954 (with others; ed. by Edmond D. Coblentz, foreword by Joseph A. Brandt)
  • The School of Journalism in Columbia University, 1968 (foreword by Michael W. Perry, 2006)

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