Tuesday, February 9, 2010

James McGrath Morris' "Pulitzer"

James McGrath Morris spent five years working on his new book, Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power. His previous book, The Rose Man of Sing Sing: A True Tale of Life, Murder, and Redemption in the Age of Yellow Journalism, was selected as a Washington Post Best Book of the Year for 2004 and was optioned as a film and released as an audio book.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to Pulitzer and reported the following:
Frankly, I was terrified—well, maybe anxious, nervous, worried, filled with trepidation (hard to find the right word here)—to go and read page 99 of my new book, Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power (HarperCollins, 2010).

“What if it is really boring?” I thought.

Whew, it’s not bad.

In fact it contains some of the favorite things I liked doing when writing. For instance, I was able to work in the trial of George “Charcoal” Botts who shot his General O.S. “Pet” Halstead. I mean, who has names like that today?

I also was able to bring dialogue into play. This is hard with biographies of people long since dead but it adds such vitality and life to a book. I spend a lot time reading fiction to figure out how my colleagues on the dark side of writing pull it off. I don’t have to invent the words but I need to learn how to select them and how to weave them into the book.

Lastly the page features a description that one can only write after completing a lot of research. It’s the kind of thing that other writers appreciate but readers rarely notice. My job was to let people know just enough about Charles Dana and the Sun in order to understand why getting a job there was an accomplishment. But I couldn’t spend too many words on this because it would take the reader away from the story. The sentences at the top of the excerpt contain few words but lots and lots of hours of research to have the confidence to distill this explanation down. I love doing this.

So, go ahead and read my page 99. I don’t mind.
original mission, Dana inspired and enforced a regime of tight, coherent, bright, lively writing intended to provide “a daily photograph of the whole world’s doings in the most luminous and lively manner,” as he put it in his first editorial. The paper was a pastiche or quilt of urban tales. It was an irresistible feast of information that won wide attention in an era of generally dull journalism.

Under Dana’s regime, the paper prospered even more, and its circulation rose to new, unheard-of heights. Whereas Joseph could only dream of working for Dana, Albert was not intimidated. He walked up the flight of stairs to the Sun’s newsroom and spoke to the night editor. The editor asked Albert how long he had worked for a city newspaper.

“Only a short time, sir,” Albert replied.

“That’s rather vague,” the editor said, adding, “You have a slight accent.”

“I shall not have the accent long, sir. And I write better than I speak.”

The editor decided to give Albert a test assignment, a rather difficult one intended to discourage the youth. Albert “made a Parisian bow and disappeared,” said the editor. But to his surprise, Albert returned with the story and won himself a trial period on the staff of what many considered the best-written paper in town. In fact, soon after Albert landed this job, a letter appeared in the Sun from one reader in St. Louis. “I read The Sun regularly,” Joseph Pulitzer wrote. “In my opinion it is the most piquant, entertaining, and, without exception, the best newspaper in the world.”

Albert rose rapidly in the ranks of city reporters. His big break came when he was assigned to cover the Halstead murder in Newark, the city’s first murder in four years. General O. S. “Pet” Halstead had been shot dead in the rooms of Mary S. Wilson, described by the New York Times as “a woman of the worst character.” Apparently George “Charcoal” Botts, a charcoal peddler who paid for her lodgings and company, did not take kindly to the presence of Halstead in Wilson’s bedroom. Albert wrote colorful accounts of the courtroom scenes and even obtained an interview with the condemned man a few days before his execution. “It was a kind of reporting that was new in those days, especially in Newark, and made a decided hit in this city,” a writer for the Newark Advertiser recalled.

In February 1873, Albert moved to the New York Herald. Started by
Browse inside Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power, and learn more about the book and author at the official James McGrath Morris website.

--Marshal Zeringue