Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power

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Like Alfred Nobel, Joseph Pulitzer is better known today for the prize that bears his name than for his contribution to history. Yet, in nineteenth-century industrial America, while Carnegie provided the steel, Rockefeller the oil, Morgan the money, and Vanderbilt the railroads, Pulitzer ushered in the modern mass media.

James McGrath Morris traces the epic story of this Jewish Hungarian immigrant's rise through American politics and into journalism where he accumulated immense ...

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Like Alfred Nobel, Joseph Pulitzer is better known today for the prize that bears his name than for his contribution to history. Yet, in nineteenth-century industrial America, while Carnegie provided the steel, Rockefeller the oil, Morgan the money, and Vanderbilt the railroads, Pulitzer ushered in the modern mass media.

James McGrath Morris traces the epic story of this Jewish Hungarian immigrant's rise through American politics and into journalism where he accumulated immense power and wealth, only to fall blind and become a lonely, tormented recluse wandering the globe. But not before Pulitzer transformed American journalism into a medium of mass consumption and immense influence. As the first media baron to recognize the vast social changes of the industrial revolution, he harnessed all the converging elements of entertainment, technology, business, and demographics, and made the newspaper an essential feature of urban life. Pulitzer used his influence to advance a progressive political agenda and his power to fight those who opposed him. The course he followed led him to battle Theodore Roosevelt who, when President, tried to send Pulitzer to prison. The grueling legal battles Pulitzer endured for freedom of the press changed the landscape of American newspapers and politics.

Based on years of research and newly discovered documents, Pulitzer is a classic, magisterial biography and a gripping portrait of an American icon.

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Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Yardley
…[an] excellent book: a thorough, possibly definitive biography of the man who shaped the modern newspaper more than anyone else…There have been other biographies of Pulitzer, most notably W.A. Swanberg's published in 1967, but James McGrath Morris's is the best. It is authoritative, lucid and fair to its complicated subject, and it draws upon a certain amount of "items previously unavailable to other biographers," most notably an unpublished memoir by Pulitzer's younger brother, Albert, and love letters to Pulitzer's wife, Kate, from a noted journalist with whom she had a brief but apparently passionate affair. The first of these tells us a bit more about Pulitzer's boyhood, and the second simply adds a bit of juice to his story.
—The Washington Post
J. Courtney Sullivan
Morris…paints a vivid picture…This well-­researched, exhaustive biography reads like a novel, with fleshed-out characters ranging from William Randolph Hearst to John Gardarino, a penniless newsboy. It is the story of a man, but also of a time…
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
In this thorough, elegantly-written volume, biographer Morris (author of The Rose Man of Sing Sing, editor of Biographer's Craft magazine) explores the life of infamous media mogul Joseph Pulitzer, best known today for the journalism prize that bears his name. Pulitzer's story begins with the large Hungarian family of his mid-19th century youth, struck by monetary misfortune and the unexpected deaths of his father and some of his many siblings. Traveling to America in 1864, Pulitzer fought in the civil war before he settled in St. Louis, where he began his journey from newspaper reporter to politician to media baron. Morris goes into great detail regarding the events of Pulitzer's life and times, but also captures Pulitzer's character: hard-working, independent, and pursued by demons likely tied to his rough beginnings. Morris also notes Pulitzer's few, curiously strong attachments to his mother, wife, and an ambiguously sexual philosopher-mentor named Thomas Davidson. From the kill-or-be-killed ethos of his early journalistic and political career to his late-in-life preference for extreme solitude, Pulitzer proves a captivating figure, and Morris's handling superb. B&W photos
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal
Morris (The Rose Man of Sing Sing) presents a colorful and critical account of the life of Joseph Pulitzer (1847–1911) and Pulitzer's transformative use of the press in his battles for reform. One of the first practitioners of "yellow journalism," which emphasized scandals, crime, and human interest stories (coupled with accurate investigative reporting in Pulitzer's two successive newspapers), Pulitzer deftly appealed to the demographic of a growing immigrant and female newspaper readership. Toward the end of his career, with failing eyesight and near-constant ailments (covered in perhaps too much detail), Pulitzer combated "upstart imitator" William Randolph Hearst—the two respected each other—as well as politicians William Jennings Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt, whom he regarded as demagogues. The first major Pulitzer biography by a scholar of journalism since W.A. Swanberg's Pulitzer over 40 years ago, this book offers new insights derived in part from previously unpublished sources from Pulitzer's brother and wife (to her lover), both providing enriched context for Pulitzer's often turbulent family life. VERDICT With a breezy prose style and expository endnotes taking earlier secondary sources to account, this is highly recommended for both casual readers and students of the history of American journalism between the Civil War and World War I.—Frederick J. Augustyn Jr., Library of Congress
Kirkus Reviews
The spectacular rise of Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911), from his humble origins as the son of a Jewish merchant in Hungary to his position as the most powerful journalist and publisher in the world. Biographer's Craft editor Morris (The Rose Man of Sing Sing, 2003) begins, uncharacteristically, with a kind of Biography 101 maneuver. In 1909, the virtually blind Pulitzer is aboard his luxurious yacht while a teeth-gnashing Theodore Roosevelt, enraged at Pulitzer's continuous hostile coverage, has forced the Justice Department to convene grand juries to investigate his tormenter. Then the author swoops back to 1847 and makes readers wait 450 pages to find out what happened. Despite this organizational annoyance, Morris offers a substantial, balanced biography of a complicated, mesmerizing figure who embodied both the American Dream and the American Nightmare. After emigrating to the United States during the Civil War-he served with the Union cavalry but saw little action-Pulitzer struggled through penury and depression. However, his ferocious ambition to excel and prosper sent him to the Mercantile Library in St. Louis, where he studied and learned English and began his career as a reporter on a German-language newspaper. He brawled and worked his way into increasingly responsible positions, served a bit in public office and bought the struggling St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Itching for more exposure, Pulitzer moved to New York City, where he took over the struggling New York World and converted it into a powerhouse. He eventually used his millions to endow the Columbia School of Journalism, the Missouri School of Journalism and the eponymous prizes. Morris ably depicts a volatile, irascible,impulsive, unscrupulous man who betrayed and subverted his brother, verbally abused his wife and children, preached democracy, practiced autocracy and believed fervently that he was never wrong. A Horatio Alger tale shaded with Shakespearean darkness.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“An accomplished new biography. . . . Pulitzer is not its subject’s first biography. But it is by far the best at explaining Pulitzer’s St. Louis years.”
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“An important new biography about the early days of American newspapering in all its violent, vital, swashbuckling glory. . . . A tour de force of suspence and historical narrative. . . . Mr. Morris is a diligent sleuth.”
The San Francisco Chronicle
“A major biographical success . . . . A thrilling toboggan-ride tour of history. . . . Pulitzer presents a flood of diary entries, statistics, edotirals, memoranda, and cables from its subject’s many ocean voyages. In this cavalcade of American life and letters, the pages fly by.”
The New York Times Book Review
“Well-researched. . . . Reads like a novel. . . . Morris paints a vivid picture, portraying his subject as an ambitious, hotheaded, at times violent, often charitable man; a perfectionist, shrewd in matters of business yet cold in matters of the heart.”
The Washington Times
“an attractive, superbly illustrated, and gracefully written account of his subject that might well catch the attention of the Pulitzer Prize trustees.”
David Nasaw
“James McGrath Morris has given us everything we could have asked for in his new biography of Joseph Pulitzer. Gracefully written and thoroughly researched, his biography is easily the best we have on this remarkable man who so profoundly influenced the worlds of politics and publishing.”
Debby Applegate
“Before there was Murdoch, Berlusconi, Bloomberg, or Hearst, there was Joseph Pulitzer. This epic biography, with its remarkable new research and vivid, fast-paced writing, will delight anyone who wants to understand the tangled history of politics and the press in modern America.”
Harold Evans
“Everyone knows the prize, fewer the man. Here’s an antidote to the hand-wringing about the future of the newspaper, a full-scale, full-blooded biography of a penniless immigrant from Hungary who showed what newspapers could do. Seriously good history.”
Kai Bird
“James McGrath Morris masterfully demonstrates the power of biography to reveal our past and inform our future. Deeply researched and beautifully written, Morris has written the definitive Pulitzer.”
Jonathan Yardley
“An excellent book. . . . There have been other biographies of Pulitzer, most notably W.A. Swanberg’s published in 1967, but James McGrath Morris’s is the best. It is authoritative, lucid and fair to its complicated subject.”
The Barnes & Noble Review

While daily newspapers (as well as magazines, local television, and radio news operations) lose audience members, a new biography about a seeming media dinosaur could point to a recipe for survival. The dinosaur in question is Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911).

Arriving in the United States at age 16 from Hungary, the German-speaking Pulitzer fought for the Union army in the Civil War, then settled in St. Louis wondering how he would earn money for food and shelter. Newspapering became his path, starting as a low-paid reporter, and ending as an owner.

Today, Pulitzer is mistakenly stereotyped as a founder of sensationalistic journalism, especially at the New York World, which he purchased during 1883. Yes, sometimes Pulitzer trafficked in sensationalism. Mostly, though, what Pulitzer learned on the way to the top is that media owners need to appreciate the value of streetwise reporting, factual accuracy, and compelling writing.

At the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and at the New York World, Pulitzer encouraged reporters, feature writers, and opinion-page editorialists to speak truth to power, using facts as weapons. As biographer James McGrath Morris shows in his newly published book, "Pulitzer was convinced that accuracy built circulation, credibility and editorial power. Words could paint brides as blushing, murderers as heinous, politicians as venal, but the facts had to be right."

The news is more than the accumulation of facts strung together. Good writing matters. While they talk about writing "stories," most of the time journalists disseminate boringly constructed articles or reports. Acompelling story has a beginning, middle, and end, tension and resolution. Morris explains that Pulitzer recognized effective storytelling. "He pushed his writers to think like [Charles] Dickens, who wove fiction from the sad tales of urban Victorian London, to create compelling entertainment from the drama of the modern city. To the upper classes, it was sensationalism. To the lower and working classes, it was their life."

To compete successfully in the crowded St. Louis and New York City mass media markets, Pulitzer understood that he had to attract readers from other newspapers, plus find those who traditionally shunned newspapers.

"In the Lower East Side's notorious barsâ??or at dinner in their cramped tenements, men and women did not discuss society news, cultural events or happenings in the investment houses," Morris relates. "Rather, the talk was about the baby who fell to his death from a roof top, the brutal beating that police officers dispensed to an unfortunate waif, or the rising cost of streetcar fares to the upper reaches of Fifth Avenue and the mansions needing servants. The clear, simple prose of the World drew in these readers, many of whom were immigrants struggling to master their first words of English. Writing about the events in their lives in a way they could understand, Pulitzer's World gave these New Yorkers a sense of belonging and a sense of value. In one stroke, he simultaneously elevated the common man and took his spare change to fuel the World's profits."

As an investigative reporter for 40 years, I've done my best to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable -- accurately and in compelling prose. Most of the newspapers and magazines paying me to strive for those goals are extant, and profitable. Pulitzer died a wealthy man because he understood the formula so many media owners today fail to comprehend.

--Commentary by Steve Weinberg

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780594260424
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/9/2010
  • Pages: 558
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.90 (d)

Meet the Author

James McGrath Morris is an author, columnist, and radio show host. His books include Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power—which theWall Street Journal deemed was one of the five best books on American moguls and Booklist placed on its 2010 list of the ten best biographies—and The Rose Man of Sing Sing: A True Tale of Life, Murder, and Redemption in the Age of Yellow Journalism, a Washington Post Best Book of the Year. He is one of the founders and past president of Biographers International Organization (BIO) and makes his home in Santa Fe, NM.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: Havana 1909 1

Pt. I 1847-1878

1 Hungary 9

2 Boots and Saddles 20

3 The Promised Land 29

4 Politics and Journalism 43

5 Politics and Gunpowder 56

6 Left Behind 70

7 Politics and Rebellion 80

8 Politics and Principle 95

9 Founding Father 111

10 Fraud and His Fraudulency 124

11 Nannie and Kate 138

Pt. II 1878-1888

12 A Paper of His Own 149

13 Success 162

14 Dark Lantern 175

15 St. Louis Grows Small 190

16 The Great Theater 204

17 Kingmaker 221

18 Raising Liberty 233

19 A Blind Croesus 248

Pt. III 1888-1911

20 Samson Agonistes 269

21 Darkness 284

22 Caged Eagle 299

23 Trouble from the West 319

24 Yellow 337

25 The Great God Success 349

26 Fleeing His Shadow 361

27 Captured for the Ages 383

28 Forever Unsatisfied 399

29 Clash of Titans 417

30 A Short Remaining Span 441

31 Softly, Very Softly 456

Acknowledgments 465

Notes 471

Bibliography 531

Index 537

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