Samuel Roth, Infamous Modernist
He was called “The Sleaziest Pig in the World” by a famous gossip columnist and was “nominated for oblivion” by Vanity Fair. But he would not have become the unique First Amendment Martyr he was if he did not appeal to a general audience interested in sex and sensation by defying the obscenity laws of the Post Office. That general audience was the one of which those in charge of morality, “taste,” and public order were genuinely fearful. So Sam was in federal prison when the courts ruled Lady Chatterley’s Lover a classic and therefore not obscene. Roth was as deceptive as any other advertiser and perpetually self-deceptive, self-hating, self-inflating, spiteful, and venal. And he was in flux, morally and professionally: “at war with himself and his race,” he wrote (from prison). It’s an American success tragedy: and more.
The entire dramatic spectrum of Sam Roth's career -- his sense of mission, struggle for fulfillment, and venal as well as spiritual neediness -- make it an exemplary twentieth century Jewish American one.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
One: 1893-1916: From a Galician Shtetl to Columbia University
Born in fire—a suicide on Yom Kippur—an early sexual initiation, and exorcism—the fighting founder of the Roth line—10-year-old Sam has a visit from Yeshea (Jesus); a rabbi goes ballistic—the Lower East Side: abandoned youth, teen age prostitutes, a crush on a movie star-- Sam’s long- lasting estrangement from his father—Sam meets Emma Goldman, becomes a poet, and begins his career as magazine editor
Two: 1917-1925: Prelude to an International Protest: A Rising, Pugnacious Man of Letters
A bridegroom’s dark fears—Did Sam love Pauline, Frank, or only himself—his Poetry Book Shop, and intro to porno—friendship with other poets, esp. Edwin Arlington Robinson—London trip: Zangwill, Eliot, Pound, H. D., and Joyce— abandons his London mistress—resourceful Sam founds a school for immigrants, makes money—begins Two Worlds
Three: 1925-27: “Damn his impertinence. Bloody Crook”: Roth Publishes Joyce
Roth publishes excerpts from Joyce’s “Work in Progress,” and pays – publishes excerpts from Ulysses, without permission (offers to pay after the excerpts appear)—Roth “conspewed” from the literary profession as “King of the Jews,” thief, scoundrel –International Protest against him – Joyce uses it to get Ulysses published in US – what Roth did, Joyce also does-- Joyce: “gentle Jesus” and “merciless” businessman—who “mutilated” Ulysses?
Four: 1928-34: Roth Must Live: A Successful Business and Its Bankruptcy
“Pornography”-laden warehouse raided; Roth had put it in his brother’s name, so he—went to jail. Roth too, for breaking parole. Establishes successful publishing house, specializing in scandal (Met opera singer kept in sex slavery! Lady Chatterley’s friends. The secret lives of Rudolph Valentino, a French chambermaid, and Frank Harris. Three important books: A Scarlet Pansy (transvestite life in early 20th century), A Gentleman in a Black Skin (exploitation of talented African-American by midtown sculptress), Strange Career of Mr Hoover (a minor contribution to Hoover’s defeat). Roth’s complex treatment of voyeurism.
Five : 1934: Jews Must Live. “We Meet Our Destiny on the Road We Take To Avoid It”
Roth’s response to people whom he thought tricked him into bankruptcy: Jews Must Live (JML), an anti-Semitic diatribe published just after the Nazis came to power (they advertised it themselves) . The motive: spite. Roth now ostracized from fellow Jews as well as the literary establishment. JML as rebellion against Roth’s father. The pre-Nazi sources of JML. The conclusion: is Roth suggesting he is a Judas?
Six 1934-39: A Stretch in the Federal Penitentiary
“Vhere iss sex?”—at the Fifth Ave. Book Shop. The Post Office’s “pandering” criteria. Porno, subway lockers, FBI spies, and three years in federal prison. Prison writings: the “Transfiguration” of Hitler after meeting Yeshea and a beautiful Jewess; result: a homeland for the Jews. Roth meets a former lover, in a dream vision full of Hasidic folklore transformed by his own imagination into a powerful set of stories about Destiny and judgment in the True World.
Seven: 1940-1949: Roth Breaks Parole, Uncovers a Nazi Plot, Gives “Dame Post Office” Fits, and Tells His Own Story in Mail Order Advertising Copy
Roth almost sent back to prison for distributing erotica. Possibly, his service to the FBI in breaking a German spy ring excused him. He gave information about a ringleader, who was a good friend and the subject of one of his most successful Faro books. His mail order bookselling began in 1942 and for 15 years was lucrative. His genius at teasingly sexual but not obscene advertising copy. The post office opens an office just to track his circulars and mailings. Their “unmailable,” “pandering,” and “fraud” accusations. In several books, Roth changes the text or adds introductions describing his achievements. He uses his criticism of contemporary fascination with sterile voyeurism to induce sales: “sex crimes begin at home,” “beautiful sinners of New York,” “the woman- juice our readers like to lap up.”
Eight: 1949-1952: Times Square, Peggy Roth, Southern Gothic, Celine, and Nietzsche
Roth replicates Times Square erotic bookstores in his mail order offerings for rural readers. Several offerings are informative, documentary, and original, especially the Southern Gothic novels. Richard Roth’s wife: blacklist victim and Roth editor. Milton Hindus, seeking reasons for Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s anti-Semitism, produces a brutally honest analysis of his own motives. Roth publishes My Sister and I purportedly Neitzsche’s last work (did he commit incest with his sister as a child?). Purportedly written in the asylum at Jena after the great philosopher’s mental breakdown, it is still convincing to some. Would Samuel Roth perpetrate a hoax?
Nine: 1952-57: The Windsors, Winchell, Kefauver: Back to Lewisburg
Roth’s defiance of post office, British Board of Trade (re book charging Duke of Windsor with homosexuality), Walter Winchell, and Estes Kefauver (at senate subcommittee hearing regarding his distribution of erotic materials as cause of juvenile delinquency) lead to 24-count indictment and five-year sentence in federal prison. Roth v. US (1957) Supreme Court case: the most important liberalizing First Amendment decision regarding freedom to read. Roth, ironically, on his imprisonment: “Although the books are good I am bad.” Roth’s contribution to the American people’s freedom to read
Ten: 1958-74: “It Had Been a Long Time since Someone Like You Had Appeared In the World”: Roth Fulfills his Mission
Roth’s novel about his accompanying Yeshea on his mission to Jerusalem: My Friend Yeshea: A life “painfully repoured . . .from the vats of the Real World into those of the True.” After 5 years in prison, back in business. Retirement and final writings: “redactions” of the poems of Heine, a biography of Heliogabalus, the teenage transvestite emperor of Rome—and a powerful set of poems, The Israeli Davidia, or Psalms of David. The end.
Appendix: Samuel Roth’s Imprints and Business Names
Bookleggers and Smuthounds
" ...a major work of scholarship on the book trade that should be of considerable interest."
–AB Bookman's Weekly, July 26, 1999
" ...an important contribution to understanding the growth of free expression in the twentieth century."
–BOOKS-ON-LAW/Book Reviews, December 1999