Joe Morgenstern '53: Pulitzer winner is essayist at heart

Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic, Joe Morgenstern.

A week after winning the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism, Wall Street Journal film critic Joe Morgenstern found that his life hadn't really changed.
There I was, staring at a blank computer screen figuring out yet again: How do I start this week's column? But humility aside, his life has changed significantly. And even Morgenstern admits that winning a Pulitzer is a big deal.
In the weeks before the announcement, I was going around telling all my friends how cool and mature I was and if I didn't win, there would always be next year, he says. But when the e-mail message popped up with my name in it, I lost it. I just wept.
Morgenstern, who has an extensive resume in journalism as a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times and a movie critic at Newsweek and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, says he is in one of the few positions in American newspapers where there is no pressure to do anything but excel.
The Journal is a place where good writing and editing are valued and no one breathes a word to me from one end of the year to the other about what to do or what to cover -- the only limitation is space, he says.
This freedom allows Morgenstern to use his blend of insight, authority, and wit to review whatever he wants, and he chooses a mix of Hollywood products, documentaries, and good fun. The smaller movies, he says, are the nourishment I live on. Sometimes they are very disappointing and sometimes they're wonderful discoveries I can pass on to readers.
To gain this freedom takes being obsessive about defending your prose, he says. At a Newsweek reunion a few years ago, I was reminded by a former colleague (in friendly terms) what a real pain in the ass I'd been about protecting my work from meddling and fiddling, he says. But I think the counterpart of that, which may have made me tolerable, is that I have continued to work hard on the writing to make it solid and lucid so it doesn't have to be monkeyed with.
This hard work started during Morgenstern's days as an English major at Lehigh. After being a screwed-up kid and a show-off in high school, I found myself being deeply at home at Lehigh. There is a clear connection between sitting in those English classes and being able to write prose now that has a certain style and is able to bring people into the world I'm writing about.
Morgenstern, who made his journalism debut in the late 1950s, says he feels particularly honored to receive a Pulitzer at this time in history, when newspapers and the press are feeling threatened.
On the 25th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, PBS broadcast a whole day of commercial television from that day and as I watched it, I thought, `What's wrong with this picture?' Then it dawned on me -- nobody in any of the interviews or shows asked anyone else how they were feeling. Now, in broadcast and a lot of print media, all we do is sell emotion.
The other major shift Morgenstern has noticed over the years as a journalist is the increasing focus on Hollywood celebrities. I came across a clip around the time of the Vietnam War from the Hollywood Reporter when I was cleaning out my files, he recalls. It said Newsweek was sending their movie critic to do one of the magazine's rare show business cover stories. And that phrase 'rare show business cover story' was so funny to me.
Morgenstern took his own stab at show business a few years ago by writing a few TV and movie scripts, most notably for Law and Order. I enjoyed working on Law and Order enormously, but I realized I'm an essayist at heart, so I went back to doing what I enjoy, he says. Prose is my bag.
To the students sitting in Lehigh English classes 50 years later with a glimmer of hope that a Pulitzer may some day be theirs, Morgenstern offers this advice: The only piece of wisdom I have to impart is get a real education and be a real person with real connections to the world, not a careerist. Otherwise you're just selling a thin version of yourself.
Meanwhile, Morgenstern will go on staring at blank screens each week before the words start to flow. There is no absolution, he says. But it's nice to know someone out there likes my work. That's good enough for me.
--Elizabeth Shimer
Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Spring 2005