Samuel Roth

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Samuel Roth
Sam Roth, right, in his book shop, Greenwich Village (1920)
Sam Roth, right, in his book shop, Greenwich Village (1920)
"Nustscha" (now Nuszcze) near Zboriv, formerly Galicia now Ukraine
DiedJuly 3, 1974
Pen nameMshillim (Hebrew name), Norman Lockridge (alias), David Zorn (alias)
Notable worksPublished Lady Chatterley's Lover and Ulysses against U.S. censorship laws

Samuel Roth (1893–1974) was an American publisher and writer. Described as an "all-around schemer",[1] he was the plaintiff in Roth v. United States (1957). The case was a Supreme Court ruling on freedom of sexual expression and whose minority opinion, regarding redeeming social value as a criterion in obscenity prosecutions, became a template for the liberalizing First Amendment decisions in the 1960s.[2][3][4]


According to his autobiography Stone Walls Do Not, Samuel Roth was born in 1893 in "Nustscha" (now Nuszcze ) on the "Strippa" (Strypa) River, upriver from "Zborow" (Zboriv) near the Carpathian Mountains of Galicia (now Ukraine). His Hebrew name was "Mshilliam." His parents were Yussef Leib Roth and Hudl; his siblings were "Soori" (Sarah), Yetta, and Moe. In 1897, aged four, the family emigrated to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In New York, he started working at age eight as an egg chandler (holding eggs up to a candle to see if they were fertilized), at ten as a newsboy, and 14 as a baker. By the age of 16, he was working for the New York Globe as Lower East Side correspondent. When the latter folded, Roth became homeless but continued writing and publishing and even attended Columbia University for a year on scholarship. After Columbia, he opened a bookstore, the Poetry Shop in the West Village and began his first magazine, Beau.[5][6][4]


Successes (1920s)[edit]

1st edition cover of James Joyce's Ulysses published by Sylvia Beach (1922)

Roth's early poetry was praised by Edwin Arlington Robinson, Louis Untermeyer, Maurice Samuel, and Ezra Pound, among others. It appeared in several respected magazines, such as The Maccabean and The Hebrew Standard, and in anthologies. His sequence of 18 sonnets, "Nustscha" (composed c. 1915-18) is an elegy to his home town in Galicia. His "Sonnets on Sinai" in The Menorah Journal are also notable. The speaker in the poems plans to visit Sinai in order to return the Ten Commandments to God, since so many peoples of the world have relegated them to the walls of their public buildings in order to lie to themselves about their own moral rot.[citation needed]

After World War I, Roth founded a bookshop. In 1921, he traveled to London to interview European writers with the hope of selling his essays to magazines. During this time, he wrote two well-reviewed books on the state of the "two worlds" (Europe and America) and the situation of Jews on both continents. Europe: A Book for America (Boni & Liveright, 1919) is a long, prophetic poem on the decay of Europe and the promise of America. Now and Forever (McBride, 1925) is an imaginary "conversation" between Roth and British writer Israel Zangwill on the merits of Diaspora and Zionism for the Jewish people. Zangwill praised Roth for his "poetry and pugnacity."[citation needed]

In the mid-1920s, with money earned by establishing a school for teaching immigrants English, Roth founded four literary magazines. These included Beau, a forerunner of Esquire and perhaps the first American "men's magazine." The most important products in his short-lived magazine empire were the quarterly Two Worlds and Two Worlds Monthly. He chose to publish (in some cases, without permission) some sexually explicit, contemporary authors, including (in Two Worlds Monthly), segments of James Joyce's Ulysses. Joyce won an injunction to stop Roth from printing these expurgated installments. Joyce's publisher Sylvia Beach, at the writer's urging, engineered an international protest in 1927 against Roth, although the nature of copyright law at the time made the charge of piracy debatable. Due to the well-organized protest of 167 authors against him, Roth became an international literary pariah, and Random House won its case to "de-censor" Ulysses in 1934.

Roth soon after published pirated editions of Lady Chatterley's Lover, most probably the first American to do so. After a raid on his Fifth Avenue warehouse by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1929, Roth spent over a year in prison on Welfare Island, and in Philadelphia, for distributing pornography.[citation needed]

The Wall Street Crash forced Roth into bankruptcy.[citation needed] What followed was the most complex episode in Roth's life, the one that brought him the most rejection. Written under the pressures of bankruptcy, and the advantage taken of that by colleagues in the underground economy of erotica publishing, he published Jews Must Live, regarded by many of his critics as an example of ethnic self-hatred.[7]

Jail (1930s)[edit]

Roth did well with his William Faro imprint in the early 1930s. His expurgated version of Lady Chatterley's Lover was a big seller, as were reprints of classic erotica (especially Mirbeau's Diary of a Chambermaid), from which books explicit sex was excised. Another interesting William Faro novel was A Scarlet Pansy (Robert Scully, 1932),[8] an early, sympathetic account of a flamboyant homosexual. In 1931, Roth published an exposé of Herbert Hoover (The Strange Career of Mr. Hoover Under Two Flags) which sold extremely well.[citation needed]

However, he began to run afoul of the law as early as October 1929, when Roth, his brother Max Roth, and Henry Zolinsky (later known as Henry Zolan, an Objectivist poet who had edited The Lavender student poetry magazine at the City College of New York from 1923 to 1926, whose poet friends included Louis Zukofsky and Whittaker Chambers, and who was in 1929 an employee of Roth's[9][10]) were arrested at a warehouse of the Golden Hind Press in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, a distribution point near New York City.[11][12][13]

Because of his need for money, after 1933 Roth began distributing strictly banned pornography, receiving illustrated books and pamphlets and sometimes leaving them for trusted customers in subway lockers. The FBI tracked the works to their source and Roth spent 1936 to 1939 in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary; he also spent the years 1957 to 1961 there, due to his conviction for distributing what was considered obscene, and pandering to prurience in his advertisements.

Overall, incarcerations include:

  • 1928: 3 months in New York "workhouse" for possessing indecent materials with intent to sell
  • 1929: 6 months imprisonment in "Detention Headquarters, NYC" for violation of parole: occurred after NY Society for the Suppression of Vice raided Roth's Fifth Avenue warehouse and found copies of Lady Chatterley's Lover, Ulysses, Fanny Hill, other titles and pictures
  • 1930: 2 months in Moyamensing Prison, remanded after serving time in New York for selling obscene books (including Ulysses) in Philadelphia
  • 1934: $100 fine (otherwise 20 days in jail)
  • 1957-1961: incarceration at Lewisburg penitentiary

(NB: Prior to these dates were several suspended sentences and fines.)[citation needed]

There were several other cases where the charge was dismissed. In 1954, police, under direction of an assistant District Attorney, raided the office of the Seven Sirens Press on Lafayette Street and Roth's apartment on the upper West Side. All books, correspondence, and furniture were removed from the office. Roth attempted to leave the apartment to make a telephone call and an altercation with a police officer occurred. After Roth promised not to sue, the case was dismissed due to vagueness of the search warrant and illegal methods of search and seizure.[citation needed]

Hiss Case connections (1940s)[edit]

In the 1940s, Roth became involved in a book against U.S. Senator Burton K. Wheeler.

In the mid-1920s, Roth received poems by Whittaker Chambers (common friend of Henry Zolinsky and Louis Zukofsky) in his magazine Two Worlds Quarterly.[6]

During the 1940s, Roth had David George Plotkin write a number of books for him. In 1946, Plotkin published The Plot Against America, an exposé of U.S. Senator Burton K. Wheeler. Though Roth did not publish the book, an incensed Wheeler asked the FBI to investigate, which shared Plotkin's file with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). In the process, the government made a connection between Plotkin and Roth.[6]

During the Hiss Case, Roth was the only person aside from Alger Hiss willing to testify before HUAC that Whittaker Chambers had used the alias "George Crosley"

In 1948, Roth wrote one of the attorney's of Alger Hiss and offered to testify before HUAC that Whittaker Chambers had written poems for Roth during the 1920s under the alias "George Crosley"–the only person aside from Hiss himself ever willing to testify such. The Hiss defense team chose not to use Roth's deposition. (One of Roth's daughters later claimed that Roth had offered this testimony at least partly because of his "hatred for Communism and Communists.")[6]

During United States vs. Alger Hiss (1949), the Hiss defense team used "Tandaradei," an erotic poem of Chambers' that Roth had published in June 1926, to imply that Chambers was homosexual.[6]

Mail order (1940s)[edit]

After 1940, Roth conducted most of his business via mail order. Using a combination of literary reprints, celebrity worship, criminal exploits, and political exposes, all touted as daringly salacious, he brought the Times Square entertainment carnival to every corner of America.[citation needed] Since the postal inspectors periodically declared "unmailable" letters to and from the business names he used, he changed those frequently. "Dame Post Office," as he referred to the Post Office Department, had to set up a special unit solely for his enterprises. By the time he re-entered Lewisburg as a result of his conviction in the 1957 case Roth v. United States, he had devised over 60 names for his "presses" or "book services." During this time he did publish some very interesting books. One was My Sister and I (1953), supposedly written by Friedrich Nietzsche when he was in a mental hospital near the end of his life. Another was ghost-written by scholar of erotica, Gershon Legman: The Sexual Conduct of Men and Women (1947). My Life and Loves in Greenwich Village (1955) was probably not by Maxwell Bodenheim, whom Roth employed (at what salary is disputed) during his last, penniless years. One of Roth's strangest publications was an exploitation of Marilyn Monroe's suicide, Violations of the Child Marilyn Monroe by "Her Psychiatrist Friend" (1962).[citation needed]

1st edition cover of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi (1896)

Legman and his first wife also did a fine translation of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, published under the title King Turd in 1953. George Sylvester Viereck's Men into Beasts (1955) was an account of his years in federal prison during World War II. Viereck was apparently a German agent. He was one of the anti-Semitic writers Roth befriended (Fritz Duquesne was another), although Roth continued to be an orthodox Jew throughout his life. Milton Hindus' fine study of Louis-Ferdinand Celine, The Crippled Giant, appeared in 1950; playwright Arthur Sainer's The Sleepwalker and the Assassin: A View of the Contemporary Theatre in 1964 (Roth continued publishing after his last stint in federal prison). Roth self-published his own works during the 1940s and 50s, including a novel about a naive, virginal Italian immigrant discovering the plight of the working class in America, Bumarap (1947). While in prison for the last time, he wrote a fictionalized version of the ministry and crucifixion of Jesus, My Friend Yeshua (1961). The narrator, clearly a version of Roth, is given the mission of reconciling the Jewish and Christian peoples in the 20th century. As bizarre as it might seem to cast himself in this role, the theme itself was a frequent one in the 19th and earlier part of the 20th century. Scholem Asch and Israel Zangwill, and the artist Maurycy Gottlieb, are notable examples.[citation needed]

Roth v. United States (1957)[edit]

Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476 (1957), along with its companion case Alberts v. California, was a 1957 landmark case before the United States Supreme Court, which redefined the Constitutional test for determining what constitutes obscene material unprotected by the First Amendment.[citation needed]

Personal life and death[edit]

Roth may have been bisexual,[6] and he married Pauline Roth on May 18, 1917. They had three children together.[6] During his career he used several aliases, including "Norman Lockridge" and "David Zorn."[1]

Roth died age 79 on July 3, 1974, of complications from diabetes.[6][3]


Roth fought censorship laws.[2] However, because he had no money or status and because of international protest, he was ignored by established writers and outbid by wealthier, better connected publishers (Alfred A. Knopf, Thomas Seltzer, Bennett Cerf, and Horace Liveright). Roth did not ask permission of some of the best writers he published not only in his underground publications but in his trade imprint, William Faro, Inc. The reputation of "that pirate Roth" spread to all corners of the literary establishment.[citation needed]

Roth's instinct for discovering political corruption was first rate.[citation needed] Due to the nature of his popular audience, he appealed to sensationalism. He understood the energy that made Broadway, Washington, and Hollywood glamour irresistible, but his readership demanded romantic clichés and prurient gossip. So Roth sensationalized his exposes and his advertising copy.[citation needed]



  • Broomstick Brigade (New York: Bloch Publishing, 1914)[14]
  • "First Offering: A Book of Sonnets and Lyrics"[15]
  • Europe: A Book for America (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1919)[16]
  • Now and Forever: A Conversation with Mr. Israel Zangwill on the Jew and the Future, 1925
  • Stone Walls Do Not: The Chronicle of a Captivity, 1930
  • Lady Chatterley's Husbands: An Anonymous Sequel to the Celebrated Novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover (New York: William Faro, 1931)[17]
  • Lady Chatterley's Lover: A Dramatization of His Version of D.H. Lawrence's Novel (New York: William Faro, 1931)[18]
  • The Private Life of Frank Harris (New York: William Faro, 1931)[19]
  • Songs Out of Season (New York: William Faro, 1932)[20]
  • Jews Must Live: An Account of the Persecution of the World by Israel on All the Frontiers of Civilization (New York: The Golden Hind Press, 1934)[21][22]
  • Dear Richard: A Letter to My Son in the Fighting Forces of the United States (New York: Wisdom House, 1942)[23]
  • Peep-Hole of the Present: An Inquiry into the Substance of Appearance (New York: Philosophical Book-Club, 1945)[24]
  • Bumarap: The Story of a Male Virgin (New York: Arrowhead Books, 1947)[25]
  • Apotheosis: The Nazarene in Our World (New York, Bridgehead Books, 1957)[26]
  • My Friend Yeshea (New York: Bridgehead Books, 1961)[27]


Magazines edited:

  • Two Worlds Monthly; Devoted to the Increase of the Gaiety of Nations (New York: Two Worlds Publishing, 1926-????)[29]
  • Two Worlds: A Literary Quarterly Devoted to the Increase of the Gaiety of Nations, 1925[30]
  • Good Times: A Revue of the World of Pleasure, 1954-1956[31]

Poems edited:

  • "Yahrzeit" (poem), The Nation (May 8, 1920)[32]


  • "A Letter to Mr. J. C. Squire," The Nation (November 10, 1920)[33]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Samuel Roth Papers, 1907-1994 [Bulk Dates: 1910-1979]". Columbia University. Retrieved 22 July 2018.
  2. ^ a b Miller, Dennis (3 September 2013). Jewish Self-Styled Prophet 'Pirate' and Pornographer Brought Ulysses to America. Huffington Post. Retrieved 22 July 2018.
  3. ^ a b "On This Day - 3 July". James Joyce Centre. 3 September 2014. Retrieved 22 July 2018.
  4. ^ a b Bronski, Michael (15 August 2002). "Hero with a dirty face". Archived from the original on 23 March 2009. Retrieved 2008-02-24.
  5. ^ Roth, Samuel (1934). Jews Must Live: An Account of the Persecution of the World by Israel on All the Frontiers of Civilization (PDF). The Golden Hind Press. Retrieved 22 July 2018.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Gertzman, Jay A. (23 April 2013). Samuel Roth, Infamous Modernist. University Press of Florida. p. 1 (birth), 3 (family), 35–37 (marriage, bisexuality), 198–200 (Plotkin), 301–304 (death), 305–319 (imprints). Retrieved 22 July 2018.
  7. ^ Gertzman, Jay A. "Samuel Roth: Poet, Pirate, Pornographer "
  8. ^ Scully, Robert (1937). A Scarlet Pansy. Retrieved 13 February 2012.
  9. ^ Twitchell-Waas, Jeffrey. "Journals and Publishers of LZ". Z-site: A Companion to the Works of Louis Zukofsky. Retrieved 22 July 2018.
  10. ^ Twitchell-Waas, Jeffrey. "The "Objectivists" and Their Publications". Z-site: A Companion to the Works of Louis Zukofsky. Retrieved 22 July 2018.
  11. ^ Gertzman, Jay A. (2 September 2011). Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica, 1920-1940. University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 135 (Golden Hind), 256 (Faro), 370 (Zolinsky). ISBN 978-0812205855. Retrieved 22 July 2018.
  12. ^ "(unclear)". Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. 5 October 1929. pp. 365, 370. Retrieved 22 July 2018.
  13. ^ Birmingham, Kevin (12 June 2014). The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses. Penguin. pp. 283–284. ISBN 9781101585641. Retrieved 22 July 2018.
  14. ^ "Broomstick Brigade". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
  15. ^ "First Offering: A Book of Sonnets and Lyrics". Lyric Publishing. 1917. Retrieved 27 December 2013.
  16. ^ "Europe: A Book for America". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
  17. ^ "Lady Chatterley's Husbands: An Anonymous Sequel to the Celebrated Novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
  18. ^ "Lady Chatterley's Lover: A Dramatization of His Version of D.H. Lawrence's Novel". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
  19. ^ "The Private Life of Frank Harris". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
  20. ^ "Songs Out of Season". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
  21. ^ Roth, Samuel. "Jews Must Live". Retrieved 12 February 2012.[permanent dead link]
  22. ^ "The Jews Must Live: An Account of the Persecution of the World by Israel on All the Frontiers of Civilization". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
  23. ^ "Dear Richard: A Letter to My Son in the Fighting Forces of the United States". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
  24. ^ "Peep-Hole of the Present: An Inquiry into the Substance of Appearance". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
  25. ^ "Bumarap: The Story of a Male Virgin". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
  26. ^ "Apotheosis: The Nazarene in Our World". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
  27. ^ "My Friend Yeshea". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
  28. ^ "New Songs of Zion: A Zionist Anthology". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
  29. ^ "Two Worlds Monthly". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
  30. ^ "Two Worlds". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
  31. ^ Private collection: Alex Henzel
  32. ^ Roth, Samuel (May 8, 1920). "Yahrzeit". The Nation. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
  33. ^ Roth, Samuel (November 10, 1920). "A Letter to Mr. J. C. Squire". The Nation. Retrieved 12 February 2012.

Further reading[edit]

  • Gertzman, Jay A. (2 September 2011). Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica, 1920-1940. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 978-0812205855. Retrieved 22 July 2018.
  • Gertzman, Jay A. (2013). Samuel Roth, Infamous Modernist. University Press of Florida. ISBN 978-0812205855. Retrieved 22 July 2018.
  • Whitney Strub, Roth v. U.S. and Modern Obscenity Doctrine (U Press of Kansas, 2013). forthcoming
  • Leo Hamalian, Nobody Knows My Names: Samuel Roth and the Underside of Modern Letters, Journal of Modern Literature, 3 (1974): 889-921.
  • Adelaide Kugel [Roth's daughter], 'Wroth-Wrackt Joyce': Samuel Roth and the 'Not Quite Unauthorized' Edition of Ulysses, Joyce Studies Annual, 3 (Summer 1992): 242-48
  • Walter Stewart, Nietzsche My Sister and I: A Critical Study (n.l.: Xlibris Corp., 2007).[self-published source]
  • Walter Stewart, My Sister and I: Investigation, Analysis, Interpretation, (n.l.: Xlibris Corp., 2011).[self-published source]
  • Gay Talese, Thy Neighbor's Wife (NY: Dell, 1981), Chapter Six.
  • Josh Lambert, "Unclean Lips: Obscenity and Jews in American Literature" (diss., U. of Michigan, 2009).
  • Spoo, Robert. "Without Copyrights: Piracy, Publishing, and the Public Domain." (NY: Oxford U. Press, 2013). Major study, with extended discussion of Roth's efforts to become Joyce's authorized American publisher

The Columbia University Libraries have acquired an archive of Roth's annotated books, court documents, business records, copyright statements, unpublished typescripts, and letters to and from distributors, writers, and printers.

External links[edit]