Joseph Pulitzer and His Most “Indegoddampendent” Editor


A great change has come over the American Negro’s attitude toward the w’hite man’s government during the last four years.… He is no longer submissive but aggressii’e, and while this change has its grave dangers to the Negro himself, it is an inevitable consequence of the failure of local and State Governments to administer even-handed justice. It is the fashion to attribute most of the recent race riots to economic rivalry betw’een ichites and blacks, but economic rivalry is no new thing … and this conflict is bound to go on as long as the two races compete for their daily bread. Rivalry, however, is not riot, and back of all these miniature civil wars which disgrace the Nation from year to year is the breakdown of government and the denial of due process of law to the Negro. Lincoln said that tliis government could not endure half slave and half free. It cannot endure with one law for the white man and another law for the black man. There must be one law for both, and until there is one law for both every community of mixed population is living under the shadow of threatened anarchy. Cobb in the Wolrd , June 3, 1921

Upon this apparent chump Jay Gould, the fancy financier, performed the characteristic feat of unloading a losing property for which he no longer had use, the New York World . To the surprise of almost everyone, notably Gould, Charles Anderson Dana of the Sun , James Gordon Bennett, Jr., of the Herald , Whitelaw Reid of the Tribune , and the solemn proprietors of the Times , the World became the biggest tiling of its kind within two years. Pulitzer accomplished this with a bewildering mixture of political and general news, crime reports, crusades, stunts, human-interest stories in which women in various forms of distress and disarray predominated, plenty of illustrations of these and other matters of interest, cartoons, and editorials that thundered at the plutocrats and exalted democracy. The World ’s climb gained extra spurts through such Pulitzer strokes as promoting Grover Cleveland for President before others gave him a tumble and (more memorably) converting the erection and dedication of the Statue of Liberty into a triumphant World promotion by raising from its readers the money for the pedestal which Congress had failed to appropriate. (Thenceforth a vignette of the statue graced the World ’ nameplate, lest anyone forget.)

Swift success was followed by personal tragedy. Exhausted by a political campaign in November, 1887, Pulilzer was struck down by nervous prostration and a detached retina in his one sound eye. The rest of his life became a nightmare of doctors’ consultations, insomnia, monumental headaches, asthma, chronic indigestion, nerves that jolted him at the first hint of noise, fits of rage and of despondency. Pulitzer, a man of explosive energy, endured all this while trapped in a twilight that faded slowly into total darkness.

From the first, the doctors agreed on one point: he must stay away from the World , the farther the better. Pulitzer obeyed, but alter a few disastrous attempts at cutting himself oil altogether, he contrived to keep in touch with his paper no matter where he was—usually at Mar Harbor in summer, in Europe during spring and fall, at Jekyll Island. Georgia, in winter, and (dangerously) in New York between seasons. Others edited, sold the advertising, signed the contracts for newsprint and presses. But the voluminous Pulitzer papers now at Columbia University testify that matters of moment down to the hiring of an assistant city editor, and many that were of no moment, were settled by a telegram, cable, or memorandum signed “J. P.”

Thus Pulitzer and Cobb were apart most of the time, and that was a mercy. They possessed, said a witness of their relationship, “much the same vociferousncss of manner, headlong speech, and trick of over-assertion.” He might have added other explosive characteristics they shared: savage independence in politics, contempt for mediocrity, fluency in the art of cursing (H. L. Mencken’s American Language credits J. P. with “indegoddampendent”), and a fierce devotion to the proposition—one hopes it does not sound quaint—that a daily newspaper damned well ought to he a mighty engine of social progress.