His name is emblematic of the journalism profession itself. Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911), revered and reviled in equal measure, is best known for perfecting the art of investigative reporting; introducing the techniques of “new journalism” to the newspapers he acquired; his crusades against big business and corruption; and, at a time when industrial capitalism was on the rise, his bold and courageous support of anti-trust enforcement.
His New York World revolutionized journalism with its signature blend of muckraking investigations; crusading editorials; sensational crime, disaster, entertainment, and human-interest stories; staged news stunts; and colorful graphics. The bane of the corrupt politicians and well-heeled oligarchs who controlled America and a hero to the labor movement, he was a champion of the freedom of the press on the one hand and an enthusiastic practitioner of yellow journalism on the other.
The fierce competition between his World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal opened the way for mass circulation newspapers that depend on advertising revenue and appealed to the reader with multiple forms of news, entertainment, and advertising. Pulitzer also innovated the extensive use of illustrations and the development of the sports pages.
A leading national figure in the Democratic Party, was elected as a New York congressman, serving one term (1885-86).
Today, however, he is best remembered for establishing the Pulitzer Prizes (1917) through the bequeath of prize money to Columbia University to recognize American achievements in journalism, photography, literature, history, poetry, music, drama, and cartooning. He also donated money to found the Columbia School of Journalism.
Perhaps equally important, however, Pulitzer’s life stands as a metaphor for Jewish achievement and success in America in the face of vile and unremitting anti-Semitism.
Until recently, historians blindly accepted Pulitzer’s dubious account of his ancestry – that his father was a Hungarian Jew from Budapest and his mother “a devout Roman Catholic.” Though he was generally reticent when it came to discussing his ethnic and religious origins, he told biographers he was Jewish only on his father’s side and that therefore, in accordance with the matrilineal descent rules of traditional Judaism, he was not really a Jew.
However, due to contemporary research into his background, no doubt remains that his mother, Elize Berger, was born to a family of Jewish traders in Pest and raised there as a Reform Jew. Among other evidence, researchers have uncovered any number of official records, including passports and issued passes that conform Pulitzer’s mother was a Hungarian-born Jew.
Moreover, recently discovered Hungarian-Jewish archival materials show that Pulitzer was born in Makó and was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth; that he received a traditional upbringing as a Reform Jew; and that he attended a government-funded Jewish grammar school in Makó, which significantly reduced the importance of Jewish tradition. Each member of the Pulitzer family was registered by the official community Jewish registry as “Israelitic” under religion and as “Jewish” under nationality.
The assimilated Pulitzer’s efforts to distance himself from his Jewish background seem deliberate; he married an Episcopalian, raised his children as Protestants, never expressed any particular religious views (except perhaps Enlightenment-type skepticism), and never seemed to identify with anything remotely related to the faith of his ancestors. Yet, perhaps because his life was indelibly marked by the anti-Semitism he experienced growing up in Hungary, he not only crusaded to expose anti-Semitism in Russia, he also donated huge sums of money to Jewish victims of Russian pogroms and staunchly supported the unjustly convicted French artillery officer Captain Alfred Dreyfus.
Though his Jewish background undoubtedly played an important role in shaping his lifelong dedication to social justice, these acts in support of Jews may be attributed to his inherent sense of social justice rather than to his Judaism.
Pulitzer’s ambivalence toward his Judaism proved no defense, however, against the anti-Semites. After leaving Hungary to join the Union army during the U.S. Civil War (1864), when he served in a German regiment under General Philip Sheridan (his passage to America was paid for by Union recruiters), he was almost court-martialed for defending himself against the anti-Semitism of his fellow soldiers and officers. After the Civil War, he made his way to Missouri where, after working as a waiter, taxi driver, and caretaker of mules, he became a journalist, was elected to the state legislature as a Republican, went to law school, started a law practice, and quickly gave it up after purchasing the St. Louis Dispatch (1878); through it all, he was still called “Joey the Jew.”
After purchasing the New York World in 1883 and serving for a brief time in the House of Representatives, Pulitzer remained the subject of regular anti-Semitic attacks and slurs, most notably from the vituperative Charles A. Dana, editor of the rival New York Sun, who called him “Judas Pulitzer” and one who “tries to repudiate his birth and ancestry.”
Enraged about being crushed by Pulitzer in the venomous circulation wars, Dana sought to alienate the New York Jewish community from Pulitzer’s New York World by viciously attacking its owner and publisher as “a renegade Jew who denies his breed, race and religion.” In all fairness, Dana was not far off the mark in this regard, as we have shown; even the Hebrew Standard editorialized that “Pulitzer is a Jew who does not want to be a Jew.” Dana frequently reprinted the Hebrew Standard editorial in the New York Sun under the banner headline “Pulitzer Repudiated by his own Race.”
There were frequent anti-Semitic media caricatures of him with an exaggerated “Jew-nose” and the widely-read publication The Journalist called him “Jewseph Pulitzer,” describing him as “combing his hair with his devil’s claws” and hiding in the shadows “to escape turning rancid in the hot sun.”
Exhibited here is an extremely rare June 9, 1877 correspondence to fellow journalist Julius Chambers, which is among the handful of surviving letters from Pulitzer’s early life:
Many thanks for your epistle. I will do the same for you whenever you come as near being cremated as your humble servant. What a graphic description you would have written! I hope you are well mentally, physically, morally, and pecuniarily. I have no doubt you are steadily and surely though perhaps only inwardly and invisibly developing toward that literary fame which I am sure must be in store for you, and so far a share of which you already possess. How many editions of your book were printed in this country?
Chambers (1850-1920) was an American author, editor, journalist, travel writer, and crusader against psychiatric abuse who served as an editor at the New York Herald before accepting Pulitzer’s invitation to serve as managing editor of the New York World. According to an article by Chambers, most of Pulitzer’s early letters were destroyed in a St. Louis fire on his 30th birthday, with our exhibit here being one of the only surviving pieces from that period. A year before our letter, Chambers had gained Pulitzer’s admiration after publication in 1876 of A Mad World and its People, a path breaking investigation into alleged abuses of the mentally ill. The work stoked Pulitzer’s reporter’s instinct, hence the inquiry: “How many editions of your book were printed in this country?”Saul Jay Singer