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Samuel Roth (1893 - July 3, 1974) was an American publisher, writer, and plaintiff in Roth v. United States (1957), a key 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. The Strange Confession of Monsieur Mountcairn (1928) by Benjamin Francis Musser, a gay novel, was published as limited edition by Samuel Roth, a champion of writers’ freedom of expression, and reprinted in Roth’s hardback quarterly American Aphrodite. Roth’s publishing house also brought out A Scarlet Pansy (1932) by Robert Scully (pseudonym of Robert McAlmon). Roth fought for James Joyce’s Ulysses and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover; Roth vs United States, 1957, began the process of applying the first amendment to literature and disarming the US postal service, which until then could declare that any book concerning homosexuality was obscene and thereby subject to prosecution.
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.
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, Roth opened a bookstore, the Poetry Shop in the West Village and began his first magazine, Beau. 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."
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.
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. 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.
Roth 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 exposé of Herbert Hoover (The Strange Career of Mr. Hoover Under Two Flags) which sold extremely well.
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) were arrested at a warehouse of the Golden Hind Press in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, a distribution point near New York City.
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:
There were several other cases where the charge was dismissed. It is important to note that on one, and only 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.
In the mid-1920s, Roth received poems by Whittaker Chambers (common friend of Henry Zolinsky and Louis Zukofsky) in his magazine Two Worlds Quarterly.
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.
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 daughter later claimed that Roth had offered this testimony at least partly because of his "hatred for Communism and Communists.")
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
On May 18, 1917, Roth married Pauline; they had three children. Roth may have been bisexual. He used several aliases, including "Norman Lockridge" and "David Zorn." Roth died age 79 on July 3, 1974, of complications from diabetes.
Roth had an unerring sense of literary merit and fought censorship laws. 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.
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.
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