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Baker’s ‘World’

Their book offers a kaleidoscopic tour through an ebullient moment in American history when the country was emerging from the shadowy gaslight age and bursting into the glare of the modern. It is a big, lush, coffee-table-size book suffused with gaiety and the optimism of an age blissfully unaware of darknesses soon to come. What a delight it must have been a hundred years ago to find the World on your Sunday doorstep.

Now long gone and mostly forgotten, the World was actually three papers; morning, evening, and Sunday publications each had distinctive characters. In the Sunday paper Pulitzer gave artists, cartoonists, photographers, and graphic designers—as well as editors—great creative freedom. Their impact was heightened after 1898 by Pulitzer’s purchase of a new high-speed color printing press. A full-page ad boasted that it was thirty feet long, eight feet wide, fifteen feet high, weighed some seventy tons, and was made up of some 40,000 separate parts.

Like rainbow tints in the spray are the hues that splash and pour from its lightning cylinders,” said one of its ads. “THE MOST MARVELLOUS MECHANICAL PRODUCTION OF THE AGE,” said another. Perhaps it was. Looking nowadays at what those lightning cylinders produced, Nicholson Baker suggests, can produce “a sense of the exuberance and modernness and strangeness” of that old New York such as no history book can easily create.

The World on Sunday is the result of a heroic piece of cultural preservation, for Joseph Pulitzer has been dead since 1911, his last newspaper closed in 1931, and physical evidence that the World ever existed has long been limited mostly to microfilm. Microfilm is better than nothing, but not much if you are trying to discover what a vanished newspaper, and a vanished time, were like. Once hundreds of thousands of fresh newspapers poured out of Pulitzer’s Park Row “skyscraper” every day, on Sunday as many as 500,000 copies, yet of all this, as Baker notes in his introduction, next to nothing survives.

Baker himself is a warrior in the struggle against America’s throwaway culture, specializing in bookish matters. He has strongly criticized libraries for replacing their card-file indexes with electronic blips and for miniaturizing original documents and papers on inch-and-a-half-wide strips of microfilm.* Microfilm enables them to clear shelves of a lot of cumbersome stuff after shrinking it to fit on plastic strips. Since librarians are among the world’s most civilized people (who else does such priceless work so cheerfully for such rotten pay?), most of them probably dislike the carnage as much as Baker does, but they are prisoners of a society that is running out of storage space. As every suburban homeowner knows, America’s astonishing plenty threatens to overflow every last crevice and cranny, every hallway and closet, attic and cellar, garage and crawl space, and finally overwhelm everyone too sentimental to pack grandmother’s wedding pictures off to the dump. America’s astonishing credit cards make us all victims of the sorcerer’s apprentice. No wonder libraries settle for lifeless little plastic photos.

Before microfilm appeared in the 1950s librarians collected and bound complete original runs of only a few mass-circulation newspapers. Once miniaturization arrived even the noble New York Public Library and Library of Congress swapped their heavy space-consuming wood-pulp originals for new little plastic copies.

In 1999 Baker was writing a book about microfilm’s defects—“the crudity of the microcopying itself, the perishability of early acetate film, the bogus science predicting acidic paper’s imminent doom”—when he learned that a nearly complete collection of bound Worlds still existed in England. The British Library, then known as the British Museum, had started collecting and binding them in 1898. (Maybe somebody thought it might be a valuable source of material about the looming Spanish-American War.)

For decades, foresightedly, through various financial upheavals and geopolitical reshufflements,” he writes, “they kept these volumes safe on shelves,” encased in sturdy, red-spined, gold-lettered volumes. Starting with 1898, the collection extended through the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, into World War I, and on to the 1920s when Herbert Bayard Swope gave the paper an elegant literary voice and published many of the writers later to be associated with The New Yorker magazine.

Learning that the library intended to auction much of its newspaper collection to dealers, Baker went to England to argue that the American papers were too culturally valuable to be discarded. The argument failed. As Baker tells it, a Pennsylvania dealer who cut up papers, and sold pages from them to be used as birthday and anniversary presents, had submitted “interesting” bids, and the British apparently “simply wanted his money.” That meant

box-cutter bisection and plastic-sheathed, issue-by-issue dispersal, and I concluded that the only way to save the collection was to raise the money to buy it and ship it to leased quarters in the United States.

With Margaret Brentano—his wife and this book’s editor and caption writer—Baker formed a nonprofit organization which bought more than six thousand bound volumes of various newspapers and another thousand wrapped bundles in excellent condition. The cost was approximately $150,000. The entire collection has since been given to the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library of Duke University. Transporting it to Duke from Baker’s New Hampshire storage facility required five tractor-trailers.

The World on Sunday testifies to Pulitzer’s genius as a publisher, but some of the credit for its beauty must surely go to his fiercest enemy, William Randolph Hearst. Pulitzer had dominated mass-circulation journalism in New York for a decade when Hearst appeared. He had bought the World as a worthless cast-off from Jay Gould in 1883. By 1890 it was so successful that Pulitzer had built what was briefly the tallest sky-scraper in Manhattan—“between eighteen and twenty-six stories (depending on who was counting—Pulitzer preferred the higher number),” says Margaret Brentano.

Five years later Hearst blew into New York from California, spending money like a multimillionaire’s playboy son, which he was, bought the Morning Journal, and redesigned it with the aim of taking the mass market away from Pulitzer. To match Pulitzer’s Sunday comic supplement, Hearst ordered a color press in 1896 and hired Pulitzer’s artist Richard Outcault. Outcault brought along his popular cartoon character, the Yellow Kid. Fighting back, Pulitzer hired the artist George Luks to draw cartoons using Outcault’s characters, and the ensuing competition begat the term “yellow journalism.”

Hearst swiftly established his own group of Sunday color comics, starting with The Katzenjammer Kids. Their success persuaded Pulitzer that he was in for a bankruptive circulation battle. It was the big, newly literate working-class audience that both men targeted—“the mob,” as H.L. Mencken called it. (Hearst “did not try to lift up the mob, like Pulitzer; he boldly leaped down to its level,” Mencken later wrote.) And so, by 1898, Pulitzer was boasting of his marvelous new color press with its “lightning cylinders” creating those rainbow tints.

The Pulitzer–Hearst battle lasted well into the new century. Some of the artists displayed in the Baker-Brentano book will look familiar to people who remember Hearst’s popular Sunday comics of the 1930s and 1940s, for Hearst ruthlessly raided Pulitzer’s staff and usually got his man by paying lavishly for defections. The entire back cover of The World on Sunday, measuring some fourteen by thirteen inches, is filled with a smashing cartoon by Pulitzer’s George McManus, who later became Hearst’s leading Sunday comics cartoonist.

McManus had a genius for gentle delivery of very shrewd satire, which made his “Jiggs” and “Maggie” two of Hearst’s most popular comic characters. In the 1909 sample from his Pulitzer days we find the graceful McManus line, which would be instantly recognizable by “Jiggs” fans thirty years later, already fully developed in the faces and postures of eighteen characters, two dogs, and a cat.

The picture is from The Newlyweds —“the first great family cartoon,” according to Brentano’s caption—which McManus drew for “The Funny Side,” Pulitzer’s Sunday humor supplement. Here, early in his career, McManus is dealing with a young husband and wife, their new baby, and assorted relatives. After switching to Hearst he continued telling a family story, but the newlyweds became middle-aged and their child a beautiful young daughter, who looked startlingly like Mama in The Newlyweds. Papa, who had become “Jiggs,” was a retired construction worker who had got rich toiling with wheelbarrows and bricks but yearned only to get together with his old working-class pals for corned beef and cabbage; mother “Maggie” was a social-climbing tyrant who kept him dressed in top hat and tails and confined to their penthouse while she sang opera to uptown swells.

When I delivered newspapers for Hearst the brightest hour of the week usually fell between darkness and dawn on Sunday mornings. Having distributed the contents of several big bundles, I might settle down, the weather being agreeable, on a convenient set of doorsteps to watch the sun rise and savor the bliss of Hearst’s Sunday universe. Since the streets at that hour were empty and the city silence profound, it was easy to lose yourself in that gaudy and fantastic world.

It came wrapped in brilliantly colored comics: the Katzenjammer Kids Hans and Fritz tormenting the Captain; Jiggs in his top hat scheming to escape Maggie by riding a construction crane off his penthouse balcony. Then page after page of comical fools and indomitable heroes in breathtaking color.

The intensity of the color seemed to leap off the page. After the comics came the magazine section filled with wonders. A message from the planet Saturn perhaps. Strange doings at the South Pole. Even the news pages were not without delights. Murder was plentiful and often perpetrated by “fiends.” Tales of racy behavior among the high-born frequently involved women said to be “statuesque.” Every twelve-year-old Hearst reader knew what “statuesque” meant: “sexy.” A word so vile that it was never uttered aloud, or written in a family newspaper.

In those days Sunday belonged to the newspaper, as it now belongs to television. But it is not just media technology that has changed; Sunday itself has lost that distinctive quality created by silent dawns flowing into peaceful afternoons. In the 1930s Sunday was still “the day of rest” which gave the country a twenty-four-hour pause in its furious drive for money, success, and glory. In the first half of the last century, Sunday was the day when much of the country simply came to a stop. Groceries, merchandisers, and most businesses closed for the day. Even politicians stopped campaigning for fear of losing Christian votes.

The day of rest vanished in mid-century and the country hasn’t paused since. Competition, tension, and pressure became relentless. The new calendar rewarded incessant and swift activity and penalized the reflective pause. The big Sunday newspaper, a veritable library of variegated reading material, fantasy, amusements, gossip, and entertainment, was good company for an age when most of the world still took a day off. Now, with Sunday almost as frantic as every other day, the hyperspeed of electronic journalism seems more suited to the nation’s agitated temper.

The CBS show Sunday Morning is network television’s one attempt at an electronic version of calm, old-fashioned Sunday journalism, and an elegant show it is. Little else, however, varies from TV journalism’s routine daily style in which the usual suspects are rounded up again and again until the mind goes numb. With news channels running ceaselessly, journalism becomes as omnipresent as wallpaper. Tirelessness is its strength and monotony its style, though sometimes it does something absolutely irresistible.

An assassination occurs. The World Trade Center falls. War begins. A mountain explodes. The Indian Ocean rises up in boiling rage. Then things grow calm…. Police helicopters pursue a stolen car. Missing Girl is found dead. The President arrives, departs, declares, challenges; earthquake kills thousands; raid nets millions in cocaine. It fills you up while leaving you famished.

Baker thinks that what people a hundred years ago wanted from a Sunday paper “wasn’t really news—it was life.” In 1900 the six-day work week made Sunday a precious time for most Americans. Waking up, Baker writes,

you wanted the comfort of a fresh floppy creation that had required the permanent marriage of tankfuls of ink and elephantine rolls of white paper in order to proclaim the elemental but somehow thrilling fact that this very morning in which you found yourself, despite its familiar features, was incontrovertibly, datably, new….

You wanted romance, awe, a close scrape, a prophecy, advice on how to tip or shoplift or gamble, new fashions from Paris, a song to sing, a scissors project for the children, theories about martians or advanced weaponry…. You also wanted to escape for a few minutes to the North Pole or South Dakota or the St. Louis world’s fair, or to take a boat trip down the Mississippi…. And you wanted imagery—cartoons, caricatures, “gems of pictorial beauty”—layouts and hand-inked headlines that made your eyeballs bustle and bounce….

Comparing Pulitzer’s journalism to the modern brand, one is tempted to indulge in disputable speculation about popular culture, to suppose that the people who enjoyed these papers a century ago must have been an insouciant, optimistic, young nation. But why this instinctive thought about its youth? Is it because of a growing sense that America is no longer a young nation?

For generations Americans have been mindlessly telling themselves that they are a young country. Has it perhaps, without even noticing, become “old America,” one of those rusty-jointed old-fogey nations such as Donald Rumsfeld had in mind when dismissing France and Germany as “old Europe”?

There is a wonderful drawing on the cover of this book which shows a family of brand-new millionaires from Montana arriving in New York with plans for crashing into upscale society (see illustration on page 13). There is a welcoming crowd of disreputable-looking men who obviously intend to bilk them. The masterful touch, hardly noticeable at first glance, shows a shabby newsboy thumbing his nose at the rich man’s fancy-dressed son. This not only symbolizes precisely what the newcomers should anticipate of New York, it also speaks of the indomitably insolent cheek of a young urban America.

Sunday journalism today celebrates solemnity rather than sassiness. When screens light up on Sunday morning, we are treated to “the Sabbath gasbags,” Calvin Trillin’s term for the evasive politicians and stagestruck journalists who infest Sunday-morning television. People of sinuous intent engage in incomprehensible Washington quarrels, and people said to be experts present a hundred reasons why everyone should be scared witless. Retired bureaucrats worry about economic collapse, retired generals dilate on the progress of wars. Athletic competitions proliferate as the day matures, and as it fades into darkness 60 Minutes enlivens things at last with stuff in the old Pulitzer and Hearst vein: tales of rascality, a visit to someplace exotic, aging entertainers talking about their youthful sins as retailed in forthcoming memoirs, a bit of tart humor.

Except for 60 Minutes, CBS’s Sunday Morning, and some of C-SPAN’s weekend book reviews and interviews, the audience for most of this cannot be insouciant, optimistic, or young. This is journalism for a people grown long in the tooth.

The bulging Sunday newspaper still thrives in some parts of the land, but it too now seems designed for a sedentary generation. The few surviving book reviews disclose a literature about weight loss, money management, and careers of the financially enviable. The Sunday comics, once called “the funny papers,” are now freighted with political commentary and social significance. The surviving magazine supplements are cherished for their crossword puzzles. These may be the only playful things left in many papers; even sports pages are now grumpy with old-folks preoccupations: salary contracts, labor disputes, physical debility, unethical behavior, and the decline of good manners among athletes.

The America that Pulitzer addressed on Sunday mornings was obviously hospitable to gaiety, ready to laugh at itself, quick to fall for nonsensical fantasies, and utterly delighted with its own splendors, whether the astonishing electrical illumination of the St. Louis world’s fair, the prodigious construction work on the canal in Panama, the Astor family’s gigantic real estate empire, or the power and grandeur of John D. Rockefeller. It laughed readily at its big shots, but its mirth was not sour.

To call it an innocent age and mope about a loss of innocence would be folderol. Lamenting America’s loss of innocence is one of journalism’s silliest clichés. What nation has ever had innocence to lose? The age portrayed in The World on Sunday was probably as corrupt as most of its predecessors.

The worst lynching epidemic in history was in progress. Washington was waging an imperialistic war against Spain and brutally imposing American order in the Philippines. In 1901 the country had another presidential assassination. Farmers and laborers were caught in a poisonous class struggle with Wall Street capital, women were in the streets demanding the vote, Theodore Roosevelt had simply taken Panama and boasted about it….

Innocent it wasn’t. Calling it young doesn’t begin to touch the complexity of the case. Still the evidence from Brentano and Baker is that it took pleasure in being alive. As reflected in these pages, its spirit, if not exuberant, was not dampened by the world-weariness that often makes our contemporary Sundays feel so ponderous. Many of these hundred-year-old articles dealt with the same heavy matters that still absorb editors today. Today’s treatment of them tends to be sober, worried, earnest. The 1900 style did not take itself so seriously.

Here, for instance, is Pulitzer’s Sunday magazine catering to the eternal public awe of great wealth with a splashy page about Hetty Green, not only a woman but also an immensely powerful Wall Street force. A startling photographic layout filling half the page shows her towering ten stories tall over Wall Street. A sort of female Godzilla in grandmotherly shawl, she looks down on hordes of tiny capitalists presumably at her mercy. “What Will ‘Aunt Hetty’ Green Do with Wall Street Now?” the headline asks. Her expression suggests she may crush the Stock Exchange under foot.

To satisfy public curiosity about the extraterrestrial, the magazine used an artist’s cover painting of the solar system to illustrate an article about a water shortage on Mars. Mars occupies the foreground, just over Earth’s horizon, and is crisscrossed with straight lines. A professor theorizes that Martians, “Probably of a Much Higher Type than the Inhabitants of Earth,” have built a system of canals and “Mastered the Art of Making Water Run Up Hill.”

The public has always delighted in the eccentricities of scientists, and the World comes up with a new one in 1904. An ingeniously illustrated piece reports that the New York Technology Club will open its next banquet by serving radioactive cocktails. The artist depicts a dozen men in tails hoisting glasses that have a fluorescent glow. “Liquid Sunshine as a Banquet Appetizer,” the headline said. It involved sulphate of quinine, water, and a tube of radium inserted in a glass until the water emitted violet or ultraviolet rays. Club members were said to be “looking forward to the liquid sunshine experiment with much pleasant anticipation.”

The reporter observed that, whatever the other effects of the cocktail, “‘liquid sunshine’ is known to cure carcinoma of the liver—the hob-nailed effects that come with a too intimate acquaintance with liquid moonshine.”

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    Nicholson Baker, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (Random House, 2001).

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