Author Q&A: James McGrath Morris

  • May 10, 2011

The Independent's David Stewart talks with the noted biographer of, among others, Joseph Pulitzer

Marking the recent paperback release of his powerful biography, Pulitzer, A Life in Politics, Print, and Power, we caught up with James McGrath Morris at his home outside of Santa Fe.  He was feverishly preparing for the second annual conference of Biographers’ International Organization (BIO – get it?), which he formed two years ago and which he now serves as executive director.  The May 21 conference will be in Washington, D.C.  To fill his copious spare time as he works on a dual biography of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, Morris also produces BIO’s monthly newsletter, The Biographer’s Craft.

David Stewart Q&A’s with James McGrath Morris…

Q.  Your book explains how Joseph Pulitzer – a Hungarian immigrant for whom English was a second or third language – remade the American newspaper industry.  Was being an outsider part of Pulitzer’s ability to reinvent newspapers?  What other qualities did he have that pushed him to do something extraordinary like that?

Like many towering nineteenth century figures, Pulitzer was an immigrant and that gave him an advantage in the newspaper business.  Immigrants, who are outsiders, often see things that natives don’t. Take Alexis de Tocqueville, for instance. We still read his books Democracy in America today because of the remarkable insights they offer. He could see what we could not. The same was true for Pulitzer. He observed several massive social trends and rode them to success and, in the process, helped create the modern mass media. What were these trends?

If you look at Pulitzer’s first successes in St. Louis with an afternoon newspaper you can see examples of what I am talking about. Among the things he saw was, first, the migration of rural folks to the cities. Farmers were becoming industrial workers. As commuters they wanted something to entertain themselves during the ride to and from work. Women, who had played a role in running the farm, were becoming housewives.  They wanted economic information on where to buy flour, gingham, and other essentials. Gaslight and then electric light was coming into homes permitting people to read at night. Paper was being made from wood pulp, lowering its cost. Paper was also being made that was increasingly strong permitting its use in the new high-speed printing presses. The telegraph was bringing news across the country allowing an afternoon paper to carry news from Washington or New York as fresh as that morning. All of these elements, and others, created the circumstance in which someone who saw the trends could capitalize by creating an afternoon paper that contained fresh news, advertising, and was entertaining. Pulitzer did just that in 1878 in St. Louis and began his rise in newspaper publishing.

Q.  Are there figures in the current media landscape, which is certainly a shifting one, who have shown a comparable gift for reinventing our communications world?  Do they resemble Pulitzer, or contrast with him?

Rupert Murdoch is often compared to Pulitzer. However, I think he is more like William Randolph Hearst. The Pulitzers of our era are more likely to be people like Tina Brown or even Arianna Huffington who are trying to find new means to report news on a financially sound basis. Of course, Huffington’s secret is that she found a way to get people to write for her for free and then sold her enterprise for a fortune. That distinction aside, both women are examples of people trying to establish a new form of reporting that is viable in an era when newspapers are coming to the end of their run.

Q.  Your book includes previously ignored material about Pulitzer’s early years in Missouri politics, including his service in the state legislature.  How did earlier writers miss that information, and what was its significance?

I’m not sure why earlier writers skipped this portion of Pulitzer’s life. But it was important and the records were there to be tapped. The subtitle of my book is “A Life in Politics, Print, and Power.” The reason for this is that Pulitzer began life as a politician, a reform-minded one, and in many ways never ceased to be one.

Previous biographers also missed an important episode. Pulitzer lost his re-election bid to the Missouri House of Representatives. Had he won, the book might have been the biography of an important nineteenth century politician.

Q.  A remarkable “find” in your research was a previously unpublished memoir of Pulitzer’s brother Albert.  How did you come upon it?

I was very fortunate to have been able to unearth this memoir. In fact, it was such fun that I wrote the tale up and it can be seen here.

Q.  A central part of Pulitzer’s personal story was his blindness in the last decade of his life.  How did it affect him personally and professionally?

Deeply. Like Beethoven, who couldn’t hear his own music, Pulitzer could no longer see and read his newspaper. But also, this was an era before Helen Keller. Blindness was not only an infirmity that prevented one from seeing but also created enormous social pressures not to be seen. It was one of the elements that turned Pulitzer into a recluse and made him into the Howard Hughes of the nineteenth century living out the remainder of his life on a yacht wandering the globe.

Q.  You have written biographies about a man who murdered his wife (The Rose Man of Sing Sing) and now Pulitzer a high-strung, overbearing tycoon who was so impossible to live with that he spent several years cruising on his yacht with only paid retainers for company.  Yet you are a generally amiable person.  What about the darkness of these personalities draws you?  Do you vicariously experience their tortured times?

Tough question, one that has been asked by my friends, my spouse, and even by me. I am now at work on a book about anarchists, including one who tried to assassinate someone. A friend said that every time I pick up a pen someone picks up a gun. The simplest answer I can give is that tortured, complicated souls make for good writing. The real answer may only come if I subject myself to therapy and, so far, the royalties have not permitted me such a luxury.

Q.  You have been a moving force in organizing the Biographers International Organization (BIO), a trade association of biographers, which has attracted a great deal of attention.  What about the writing of biography warrants the formation of its own professional association, separate from others writers groups?

Several years ago I realized that mystery writers, romance writers, thriller writers and others all had their own organization. So I wrote an open letter to biographers in The Biographer’s Craft, a newsletter that I then published. I suggested we could benefit from having an organization to promote the art and craft of biography and by getting together regularly. Now, several years later BIO is a reality with members in some 40 states and 6 nations, a board of directors, an annual conference, and an executive director—me.

Q.  BIO will stage its second annual conference in Washington, DC, on May 21.  Why should writers think about attending it?

First, it will be a rare and remarkable gathering of some of the best biographers in the country. Robert Caro, Stacy Schiff, Jonathan Eig, Megan Marshall, Brian Jay Jones, J. Michael Lennon, Marfe Ferguson Delano, Anne Heller, Jane Leavy, Wil Haygood, John Aloysius Farrell, Richard Zacks, Kate Buford, and many others are coming.

In addition to spending time with these distinguished writers, and forging new friendships, writers will have a chance to meet with agents, editors, publicity directors, librarians, archivists, and social networking experts. Highlights of the daylong conference include: sixteen workshops on such topics as organizing your research, funding your work, interview techniques, writing the young adult biography, and much, much more.

Biography is just one form of narrative non-fiction. Any writer interested in narrative non-fiction would benefit from attending the conference.

I want this book: Politics & Prose OR

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