While many young readers are familiar with the Statue of Liberty, few know much about Joseph Pulitzer. Some adults only associate this Jewish-American newspaper publisher with the journalism and arts awards bearing his name. Others are unaware of his connection to the great icon of freedom in New York Harbor. In Saving Lady Liberty, Claudia Friddell tells the story of Pulitzer’s indefatigable commitment to funding the statue. Stacy Innerst’s incomparable artistry paints a vivid picture of both the publisher as an individual and the times in which he lived, an era when the idea of the United States as a nation of immigrants became a reality.
Pulitzer’s story begins as a familiar tale of economic displacement, and also of antisemitism. Growing up in a wealthy Jewish family in Hungary, his father’s death and his own resulting poverty led Pulitzer to seek a place in the military but, as Friddell points out, “… no army in Europe wanted a scrawny teenager, nearly blind without his glasses.” It is notable that Friddell presents Pulitzer’s subsequent decision to immigrate to the United States and enlist in the Union Army during America’s Civil War as pragmatic, not idealistic. However, antisemitism, if only implicit, does not disappear from his life. Although Friddell notes his pride at serving, she also relates the “bullying” to which generations of Jewish-American soldiers were subjected, admitting that Pulitzer “couldn’t wait for the Civil War to end.” This realistic tone, one of respect for the reader’s ability to process the truth, characterizes the book.
Another irony of prejudice against immigrants is the distortion of their skills into liabilities. Although Pulitzer’s fluency in several languages, including French, German, and Yiddish, might be viewed as an asset, his need to learn English was a significant obstacle. The author succeeds in accurately describing Pulitzer’s determination as well as his obstacles, without romanticizing the process. It was clearly difficult for him to work as a waiter, a grave digger, and a mule driver; the hours he spent in educating himself eventually afforded him opportunities. When Friddell refers to his “brash manner and relentless drive,” as well as to his journalistic focus on uncovering corruption, a picture emerges of a tough and principled man, not a saint. She does use the word “dreamer” to characterize both Pulitzer and the French sculptor Auguste Bartholdi; both men saw the idea of a statue honoring freedom as a cause worth pursuing. But Pulitzer was well aware that their dream might never be realized due to lack of funds, and he set out to put his massive publicity machine in the service of their goal. Eventually, the powerful publishing magnate convinced thousands of Americans to contribute to bring Liberty home to New York.
Innerst’s inimitable style evokes Pulitzer’s energetic crusade and its context with unforgettable impact. Using sepia tones mixed with carefully chosen colors for contrast, he sets the hero of the story in a beautifully documented past. Newspaper headlines in typeset typical of the era, architectural details, and accurate clothing form the backdrop to the characters. Pulitzer develops from a young man reduced to sleeping on a park bench, curled up like a child, to a confident cultural figure not above shaming the rich into donating their wealth to his project. Innerst draws on political cartoon imagery of the nineteenth century. His picture of the scowling publisher, writing opinion pieces about the “burning disgrace” of the stingy rich, is followed by a scene of these overfed individuals enjoying hors d’oeuvres and conversation at a party. On the other end of the social and economic spectrum, he offers an affectionate homage to working people; a newsboy rolls a penny as large as himself down the street, representing the proportion of this modest donation to his total income. On every page, Friddell’s verbal poetry works together with Innerst’s visual one. “Children emptied piggy banks, waitresses mailed tips, and poker players sacrificed jackpots!” is paired with a servant in a long apron delicately dropping a coin into a stamped envelope.
Both the conception and the execution of this wonderful book are exceptional. Bartholdi’s dramatic rendering of liberty in the form of a noble woman became part of the Americans’ vision of themselves as a nation of immigrants. But without Pulitzer’s vigorous appeal to the American people, the story might have been a disappointment, not an inspiration. Claudia Friddell and Stacy Innerst have elevated this important message for young readers into a profoundly original work of art.
This highly recommended book includes an extensive afterword with historical background material, photographs, a timeline, and bibliography.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.