Most outsiders want assimilation; to be included in the group they’ve just joined; but only a few want more, to become insiders, makers, movers and shapers of their adopted society. Joseph Pulitzer was one of those “aim high” guys.
In Mako, the town in Hungary where Joseph Pulitzer was born, his family were double-outsiders. The Pulitzers had moved there from Czech Moravia just two generations ago and they were Jews. Josef’s dad was ambitious and when Joseph was six moved the family to Budapest. There, the country kid was placed in a first-rate capital city private school, where he learned to speak German and French, as well Hungarian. Josef’s Dad was an over-reacher and when he died, he plunged his family into bankruptcy and poverty. Joseph was 11.
As soon as he was 16, he applied to several European armies, but Joseph was scrawny, un-athletic and wore glasses. No one saw him as a soldier.
Until recruiters of cannon-fodder for the Union Army in the American Civil War signed him up. Off to America, where he fought the last year of the war with a German-speaking cavalry unit. Mustered out, he bummed his way west, doing odd jobs for food, shelter and rarely, cash. Until he got to Saint Louis, which had a large and successful German-speaking community. There too was a successful German-language newspaper, the Westliche Post, for which Pulitzer reported, edited and wound up owning a very profitable piece. He also was elected a representative in the Missouri state legislature.
From there, Pulitzer cashed out his share of the Westliche Post, bought and then combined the English-language dailies the Post and the Dispatch. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch quickly became, and remains today, the dominant paper in the city and the whole mid-Mississippi region. In about 15 years the penniless outsider from Hungary had become one of the most powerful insiders in America’s heartland.
But why stop there? New York was America’s biggest, most influential city, and one of Gotham’s greatest insiders, Jay Gould, had a newspaper for sale: The World, a humble sheet, with a daily circulation of just 15,000. Within 10 years, Joseph Pulitzer’s The World sold 600,000 copies a day and he was a national-scale insider, mover and shaker. He was even elected to congress from a district in New York and served barely half his term. He quit, in part to show that he could, but mostly because he had a journalistic mission at The World.
How did he do it? What was the news formula Pulitzer created that made his papers powerful in St. Louis and New York? Why does the noted novelist, critic and scholar Nicholson Baker call Joseph Pulitzer “the most thrilling, important, original, creative mind in American media?”
Robert J. Seidman is a novelist and screenwriter. He is the lead writer and a producer of the American Masters documentary Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People.
His first novel, One Smart Indian, has never been out of print since its publication in 1977. It is available in paperback from The Overlook Press. His second novel, Bucks County Idyll, was published by Simon & Schuster in 1980. The third, “Moments Captured,” was published by The Overlook Press in 2012.
In 2008, Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life, which Seidman co-wrote with Rob Levi, won three of the most coveted awards for film: Writers’ Guild for Best Written Documentary; a George Foster Peabody Award; and the Emmy for Best Documentary. Seidman has written or co-written scripts on Samuel Beckett, Margaret Mead, Henry David Thoreau, American Art of the Post-War era “In Our Times” in the PBS/Channel 4 series “Art of the Western World.” He co-wrote the Emmy-nominated “A Life Apart: Hasidism in America.”
He is currently working on a novel based on his original screenplay, “The All American Game,” a story of a troubled contemporary Seneca who is a talented lacrosse player.