The World on Sunday

Read Time:
3m 6sec


Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer’s Newspaper (1898–1911).

By Nicholson Baker and Margaret Brentano.
Bulfinch Press. 134 pp. $50

We think that we advance. Instead, we merely abandon the beauty of the past. Nothing illustrates this better than The World on Sunday, a magnificent coffee-table volume.

Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World once a week became The Great Sunday World, a supplement-stuffed extravaganza that, as Nicholson Baker puts it, “weighed as much as a small roast beef,” and introduced the worthy bourgeois custom of lounging over the Sunday papers. Baker and Margaret Brentano reproduce material published between 1898, when the World installed a “marvellous” color printing press, and 1911, when Pulitzer died. With intelligent and insightful captions by Bren­tano, we see excerpts from nearly every section of the newspaper, including the classifieds and department store ads, but most of the selections originate—and rightly so—in the magazine and the humor section: one sumptuous, antic, multicolored spread after another, not only a slew of very eccentric, very funny editorial cartoons and comic strips, but also breathless features that celebrate robber barons, Arctic explorers, bathing beauties, world’s fairs, subways, skyscrapers, airships, and the most amazing phenomenon of the age, Teddy Roosevelt.

The World was a paper of record, at least in the United States, with its Sunday edition read by more than half a million Americans, yet its editors never lost their sense of giddy wonder. They sometimes slid into sensationalism—a spread on “spirit pictures” that purported to show spectral presences; a headline declaring that “Scientists Now Know Positively That There Are Thirsty People on Mars”; a lurid, warmongering cartoon on Spanish atrocities in Cuba. But even in the era of yellow journalism, the paper’s reporters dedicated a surprising amount of space to explaining the dizzying new world around them. The modern reader can still get absorbed by “The Busiest Hour on Earth”—a Manhattan rush hour—or the “12 New Americans Every Minute” passing through Ellis Island, or the way electricity was making Broadway “The Street That Knows No Night.”

The most striking element of all, and the one that most starkly distinguishes this ca. 1900 newspaper from its ca. 2000 counterpart, is the heady energy of the World’s graphics. The works of Pulitzer’s brilliant artists and designers epitomize what has nearly been lost in American popular culture: an idiosyncratic, nuanced, subjective vision. Consider a single illustration, and far from the best one: Dan W. Smith’s 1908 magazine cover about an upcoming carnival to celebrate the 10th birthday of the automobile. Smith depicts a luminous night scene at Columbus Circle, cars festooned with glowing Japanese lanterns and besieged by a crowd of eager swells. It’s like a Toulouse-Lautrec poster, the sort of cultural artifact that gives you a palpable desire to be there. Contrast it with what a Sunday magazine section might serve up today: a shapeless modern car, set against some vast and desolate landscape, perhaps with a skinny model standing alongside.

One finishes this book wishing only that Brentano’s captions had gone on a bit longer. But as Baker makes clear in his introduction, a large part of the goal behind The World on Sunday is to further the two authors’ crusade to rescue original periodicals and newspapers from those space-saving fanatics bent on mutilation and monochromatic microfilming. Baker laid out the argument in his 2001 book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper. Here, he and Brentano mostly let the World speak for itself, and it makes their case brilliantly.


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