The extraordinary story of the founder of the most prestigious prize for journalism worldwide
A hundred years ago, the Pulitzer Prize was first awarded, destined to become the most famous and prestigious prize for journalism and, at least in the United States, for literature. Its founder, Joseph Pulitzer, who had just died on the Liberty yacht when the prize was awarded, originally reached America as an immigrant from Eastern Europe seeking fortune, gained the nick-name “Joey the Jew” and was determined to move up the social ladder.
Born in 1847 at Makó in southern Hungary, so a subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Pulitzer wasn’t a poor man, like many other Jewish people coming from the Tsar Empire, but his professional path is nonetheless very fascinating and perfectly illustrates the American Dream, as well as the dawn of the European nightmare, the uncertainties of the Old Continent, where multi-culture wasn’t regarded as an opportunity and nationalism was about to bring wars and persecutions on a large scale within just a few years.
From the army dream to the opportunity given by the publishing industry
Pulitzer was the son of a rich Jewish grain merchant and a Catholic German mother. His dream was to enrol in the army. Any army. He first tried the Hapsburg, but having sight and health problems, he was rejected. The same happened when he tried to join the French army in Mexico and the British army in India. So, he decided to cross the Ocean and reach America to sign up for the army, not to escape distress like many Jewish people from Eastern Europe did at that time. Thanks to a chance meeting with a “bounty recruiter” in Hamburg, a mercenary recruiter from the US Union Army, he managed to sign up for the reserve. Once in Boston, he was enrolled by the Lincoln Cavalry, which was full of Germans.
He later moved to St. Louis, where he held humble jobs (mule driver, porter, waiter) and started studying English – a language he spoke very poorly – in the library. At the Mercantile Library in St. Louis, the life of this brave Hungarian Jewish man, too weak to be a soldier, made a sudden turn. Being familiar with chess – in Hungary chess is played almost everywhere, even at thermal baths – Pulitzer watched and made comments on a game played in the library. He eventually got to know the players who were struck by his brightness. They happened to be the editors of one of the most important American newspaper published in German, the Westliche Post. He had spotted them on purpose and wanted to take a chance, taking advantage of the informal situation.
The rise of Pulitzer
In 1878, ten years after that chess game, Pulitzer became the owner of the St. Louis Dispatch, after having accomplished a number of journalist jobs and editorial acquisitions. However, the United States should not be seen exclusively as the land of opportunity. In fact, there were also unsuccessful examples such as that of Lazarus Averbuch, a Jewish man who escaped from the Russian pogroms, and was killed in Chicago by the Police Head George Shippy in 1908, when the immigrants from Eastern Europe were seen as potential subversives, and were often suspected of being anarchists and rebels. This story was told by Aleksandar Hemon, a refugee fleeing from former Jugoslavia in a book titled “The Lazarus project”.
Pulitzer, after a period of pleasure-loving life, got married to a rich woman, went through a surprising change of look – he started to grow a reddish beard, wore pince-nez glasses and smart clothes, and began to speak an impeccable English – and became totally devoted to investigative journalism. Investigative reports became his strong point to gain public interest and, for this reason, corruption has become the most prized topic of the Pulitzer Prize. The St. Louis Dispatch became the most popular newspaper in town.
On the way to Europe for a recovery stay to rest his sight, together with his wife, he changed plan and, instead of embarking on the ocean liner, he launched himself into another adventure. He met the owner of the New York World and bought his newspaper, bringing it to success thanks to investigative reports about public and private corruption, and a wide use of photos and images. On this newspaper, he launched a subscription to collect money to build a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. The success obtained by the New York World, which quickly became the best seller in town, also brought harsh attacks to Pulitzer.
The editor was accused of having betrayed his origins and the Jewish religion, by marrying an Anglican woman in a church, and of losing the sympathy of the immigrants – especially the Israeli ones – who used to look at the World as a newspaper supporting their quest. Around that period, at the end of the Nineteenth century, the expression “Yellow press” (tabloid press) came into being, when Pulitzer had to compete with William Randolph Hearst, the editor interpreted by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane. However, we shouldn’t think of our present-day tabloid press.
If, on one side, the competition for news generated a “heavy gossip” across the public which was not accustomed to the independent role of press, Pulitzer payed particular attention to social claims, besides crime stories, relying on investigative journalists working under cover. Among these, the woman journalist Nelly Bly, who travelled around the world in 1898-1899 in the footsteps of Jules Verne’s book.
The journalism school and the prize
Pulitzer retired and lived partly in his yacht, and partly in the tower of silence, as he used to call his house in Maine, and his mansion in New York. Nearly blind, and suffering for hypersensitivity to sound, he stopped going to the editorial office. Strongly committed to the important role of press in a democratic society, Pulitzer founded a school of journalism at the Columbia University, and the Pulitzer Prize for excellence in newspaper journalism, which was awarded for the first time on the 4th of June 1917, a hundred years ago. The board was then formed by the trustees of the Columbia University and the prize categories were reduced compared to nowadays.
In 1917 there were only three categories while today we have 21. The prize was appointed to Herbert Bayard Swope of the New York World for a series of articles published over the autumn period, titled “Inside the German Empire”. Within the “editorial” category, the prize was given to a review article published a year after the Lusitania sinking. This tragedy occurred in 1915, when the English ocean liner, regarded as one the safest, fastest and most luxurious boats in the world, set sail from New York holding civilian passengers on board, among which 152 Americans, and a load of explosives and gold ingots. The liner crossed the route of some U20 German submarines and was sunk by torpedoes near the Irish coastline. Half of the 1300 passengers died in the sinking.
Who was the writer of this awarded review article? It was an anonymous review, according to the Anglo-Saxon tradition, so the prize was given to the New York Tribune. In the meanwhile, the United States, outraged for the numerous ships sank by submarines from the German and Austro-Hungarian Imperial Navy – like the merchant vessel Vigilantia for instance – went to war with the Central Powers.
Finally, for the “biography” category, the prize was given to the book Julia Ward Howe 1819-1910, written by Laura E. Richards and Maude Howe Elliott, in collaboration with Florence Howe Hall. It wasn’t just an acknowledgment to the work done by the women writers – the daughters of Ward Howe – but also to the long life of the American poet and activist, who stood up to abolish slavery and acknowledge women’s rights (domestic and gender slavery, we could say in present-day words).
Julia Ward Howe had founded the Woman’s journal in 1870, a weekly newspaper holding a suffragist approach. Fiction was introduced among the Pulitzer Prize categories later, after the second World War, and this prize was given to William Faulkner, Saul Bellow and Ernest Hemingway. All three of them also won a Nobel Prize. Hemingway received the Pulitzer prize for The Old Man and the Sea, after having gone very close to winning with For Whom the Bell Tolls, judged as too bold. Press freedom will never be a black-and-white issue. The biography of Julia Ward Howe is available online through a link on the Pulitzer Prize website.
(Translated by Cecilia Braghin)