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Samuel Roth (1893 – July 3, 1974) was an American publisher and writer. He was the plaintiff in Roth v. United States (1957), which was a key Supreme Court ruling on freedom of sexual expression. The minority opinion, regarding redeeming social value as a criterion in obscenity prosecutions, became a template for the liberalizing First Amendment decisions of the 1960s.
According to his autobiography, Stone Walls Do Not, Roth was born in 1893 in Nustscha, in the Carpathian Mountains of Galicia. He immigrated with his family to the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1897, at the age of four. In New York he was working by age eight as an egg chandler (holding eggs up to a candle to see if they were fertilized), a newsboy by 10 and a baker by 14. At 16 he was working for the New York Globe as the 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.
Career as a man of letters and publisher
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.
After World War I he founded a bookshop, and traveled to London in 1921 to interview European writers, hoping to sell his essays to magazines. During this time, he wrote two well-reviewed books on the state of the “two worlds” of Europe and America, and the situation of the Jews on both continents. Europe: A Book for America (Boni and Liveright, 1919) is a long prophetic poem predicting the decay of Europe and the promise of America. Now and Forever (McBride, 1925) is an imaginary “conversation” between Roth and the great British writer Israel Zangwill on the merits of Diaspora and Zionism for the Jewish people. Zangwill praised Roth for his “poetry and pugnacity.”
In the mid-1920s, with money earned by establishing a school for teaching immigrants English, Roth founded four literary magazines, including 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 at least some cases without permission, some of the 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.
Roth had an unerring sense of literary merit, but since he had no money or status, and because of the international protest, he was ignored by established writers, and outbid by wealthier, better connected Jewish publishers (Alfred A. Knopf, Thomas Seltzer, Bennett Cerf, Horace Liveright). He 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.
Roth’s instinct for discovering political corruption was first rate. 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. He did well with his 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), an early, sympathetic account of a flamboyant homosexual. In 1931, Roth published an expose of Herbert Hoover (The Strange Career of Mr. Hoover Under Two Flags) which sold extremely well.
The Wall Street Crash forced Roth into bankruptcy. What followed was the most complex episode in Roth’s life, the one that brought him the most rejection, and the one wherein his degraded status as a pirate and pornographer most unhinged him. Written under the pressures of bankruptcy, and the advantage taken of that by colleagues in the underground economy of erotica publishing, this example of ethnic self-hatred is a terrified response to insecurity and a substitute for self-examination. An embarrassment to the family and to the writer himself, Jews Must Live is, ironically, evidence of an imperiousness and irascibility that served Roth well in his iconoclastic efforts against the established legal and moral absolutes he challenged.
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 Moyemensing 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.)
There were several other cases where the charge was dismissed. It is important to note that on one occasion his civil rights were violated by the District Attorney's office of New York City. 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.
Roth v. United States
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.
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. 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 USPS, 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 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).
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.
- Broomstick Brigade (New York: Bloch Publishing, 1914)
- "First Offering: A Book of Sonnets and Lyrics"
- Europe: A Book for America (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1919)
- 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)
- Lady Chatterley's Lover: A Dramatization of His Version of D.H. Lawrence's Novel (New York: William Faro, 1931)
- The Private Life of Frank Harris (New York: William Faro, 1931)
- Songs Out of Season (New York: William Faro, 1932)
- 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)
- Dear Richard: A Letter to My Son in the Fighting Forces of the United States (New York: Wisdom House, 1942)
- Peep-Hole of the Present: An Inquiry into the Substance of Appearance (New York: Philosophical Book-Club, 1945)
- Bumarap: The Story of a Male Virgin (New York: Arrowhead Books, 1947)
- Apotheosis: The Nazarene in Our World (New York, Bridgehead Books, 1957)
- My Friend Yeshea (New York: Bridgehead Books, 1961)
- Two Worlds Monthly; Devoted to the Increase of the Gaiety of Nations (New York: Two Worlds Publishing, 1926-????)
- Two Worlds: A Literary Quarterly Devoted to the Increase of the Gaiety of Nations, 1925
- Good Times: A Revue of the World of Pleasure, 1954-1956
- "Yahrzeit" (poem), The Nation (May 8, 1920)
- "A Letter to Mr. J. C. Squire," The Nation (November 10, 1920)
- Maurice Samuel - author of You Gentiles
- Marcus Eli Ravage- author of "A Real Case Against the Jews"
- A Racial Program for the Twentieth Century
- Theodore N. Kaufman - author of Germany Must Perish!
- Bronski, Michael (15 August 2002). "Hero with a dirty face". bostonphoenix.com. Retrieved 2008-02-24.
- A Scarlet Pansy. Google Book. 1937. Retrieved 13 February 2012.
- "Broomstick Brigade". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
- "First Offering: A Book of Sonnets and Lyrics". Lyric Publishing. 1917. Retrieved 27 December 2013.
- "Europe: A Book for America". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
- "Lady Chatterley's Husbands: An Anonymous Sequel to the Celebrated Novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
- "Lady Chatterley's Lover: A Dramatization of His Version of D.H. Lawrence's Novel". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
- "The Private Life of Frank Harris". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
- "Songs Out of Season". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
- Roth, Samuel. "Jews Must Live". Alef.net. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
- "[https://archive.org/details/JewsMustLiveAnAccountOfThePersecutionOfTheWorldByIsraelOnAllThe 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. External link in
- "Dear Richard: A Letter to My Son in the Fighting Forces of the United States". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
- "Peep-Hole of the Present: An Inquiry into the Substance of Appearance". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
- "Bumarap: The Story of a Male Virgin". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
- "Apotheosis: The Nazarene in Our World". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
- "My Friend Yeshea". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
- "New Songs of Zion: A Zionist Anthology". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
- "Two Worlds Monthly". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
- "Two Worlds". Library of Congress. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
- Private collection: Alex Henzel
- Roth, Samuel (May 8, 1920). "Yahrzeit". The Nation. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
- Roth, Samuel (November 10, 1920). "A Letter to Mr. J. C. Squire". The Nation. Retrieved 12 February 2012.
- Jay A. Gertzman, Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica, 1920-1940 (U of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), Chapter 6.
- Jay A. Gertzman, Samuel Roth, Infamous Modernist (U Press of Florida, 2013).
- 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).
- Walter Stewart, My Sister and I: Investigation, Analysis, Interpretation, (n.l.: Xlibris Corp., 2011).
- 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.