Monday, April 15, 2013

The Most Notorious Publisher In American History

by Stephen J. Gertz

He stood at the crossroads of Modernism and censorship, twentieth century literature, copyright law, and cultural history. He introduced America to James Joyce's Ulysses, D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, Arthur Schnitzler's Reigen, Alfred Jarry's The Garden of Priapus, etc. He also published Loose Shoulder Straps by "Alain Dubois" aka poet, litterateur, and author of The Rhyming Dictionary, Clement Wood; Padlocks and Girdles of Chastity by Alcide Bonneau (1928); Sacred Prostitution and Marriage By Capture (1932); Lady Chatterley's Husbands (1931, written by Antony Gudaitis, aka Tony Gud);  and the famed homoerotic novel, A Scarlet Pansy (1932 deluxe issue, by "Robert Scully," almost surely poet Robert McAlmon, with a 1933 trade edition). He edited and published Two Worlds, a hardbound literary quarterly whose contributing editors were Arthur Symons, Ezra Pound, and Ford Maddox Ford. He was a master of mail-order book sales. The list of imprints he established is as long as a leg. He was Jean Valjean to New York Society For the Supression of Vice leader John S. Sumner's Javert. He spent nine years in jail on state and federal obscenity convictions. He gave his name to a  key Supreme Court 1st Amendment decision. Samuel Roth's personal and professional activities - they were one and the same - ultimately allowed Americans to read whatever they wanted to; his sacrifice at the Court in 1957 made it safe for U.S. citizens to buy legal American copies of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita in 1958 and William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch in 1959 without Mrs. Grundy at their door with SWAT team and incinerator.

Roth, at right, in his Poetry Book Shop, Greenwich Village 1920.

"Samuel Roth…was a man of considerable culture. Some of the material he sold was trash; some of it was unquestionably literature" (Charles Rembar). He believed that "reading is itself is a great good, any kind of reading is better than no reading and some people will read only rather low material, which I am willing to supply" (Samuel Roth, as paraphrased by his attorney, Charles Rembar, in his The End of Obscenity).

Sam Roth (1893-1974), if he is remembered at all, is infamous for his literary piracies. After he serially published twelve excerpts from Joyce's Ulysses without authorization in Two Worlds, Sylvia Beach, who had published the first edition of Ulysses in Paris, at Joyce's behest organized an international protest in 1927 against Roth with 167 internationally respected intellectuals and artists signing the document, including Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, and Albert Einstein. He was immediately vilified. This incident has deeply scarred Roth's legacy. Jay A. Gertzman, with evidence not available to earlier scholars, makes a strong case for reappraising Samuel Roth's guilt, both legal and ethical, in a new and definitive biography.

Issue 1, No. 1, December, 1925.

Gertzman, who in his Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica 1920-1940 (1999), exposed the edgy world of the clandestine, East Coast-U.S. publication of sexually-themed literature, has now, after at least fifteen years of research, published this long-awaited biography of Roth, Samuel Roth: Infamous Modernist, the first deeply researched, full-length investigation of the man and his milieu.

Samuel Roth.

Grade C-Z moviemakers were once consigned to Gower Gulch, a low-rent, run-down section of Hollywood near the major studios but a light year distant from their  superior quality; it was also known as Poverty Row. Brazen upstarts, outsiders, and finaglers with ambition but little money and desperate to distribute their product through a system dominated by the big studios vied for the eyeballs of movie-goers. New York publishers short on cash but long on brash found themselves in similar circumstances. Being proudly Jewish and thus not well-connected to or well-perceived by book publishing's elitist, gentile power-centers didn't help. Having a constitutional attraction to literature, modern and classical, fiction  and non-fiction that defied contemporary moral standards was certainly a disadvantage. A strong anti-authoritarian streak and determination to publish and accept the consequences (but not without a fight) in concert with a fundamental aversion to censorship in a free society only made matters worse. Being a blatant huckster came with the territory; publishing was a Darwinian business. Easily victimized, you did what you had to do to survive. Roth, a downtown publisher with uptown aspirations, was all of these things, and a writer, too, a brilliant Columbia graduate with artistic pretensions and a voice for self-pity. Born in Galacia, he was raised on New York's Lower East Side, where chutzpah was sliced thick and Roth's portion super-sized.

Roth's mug shot, 1930, upon beginning his two-month prison
sentence for selling copies of Joyce's Ulysses in Philadelphia.

An outsider to begin with, the Ulysses controversy made him an outcast, a  pariah for his sin as "desecrater of literary expression." Gertzman carefully mounts a strong case that Roth was not the philistine he has been made out to be. 

• Roth did not "pirate" Ulysses. Because of a clause in contemporary U.S. copyright law written to protect the domestic printing trade, books that were not printed on an American-based press were not granted copyright protection. Ulysses was, within the U.S., in the public domain. Blame Congress.

• There is evidence that Joyce and Roth's mutual friend, Ezra Pound, acting as Joyce's literary agent, gave Roth the go-ahead, and that arrangements for payment had been made.

• Joyce's outrage was disingenuous. While sincerely trying to protect his image as avant-garde genius he was also a shrewd businessman not without keen commercial instincts. The furor of his friends and supporters was exaggerated. Edited excerpts of Ulysses had been previously published and no one complained about it. A managed protest could only increase awareness and build demand for the book's ultimate legal publication in full in the United States (Random House, 1934). Genius aesthete versus greedy capitalist barbarian always makes a good story.

• Joyce's concern that sales of the Beach edition of the book would be hurt by Roth's excerpts to a broad audience (Roth wanted his publications bought by the average man on the street; his overriding goal was to popularize literature of all kinds and get it to the hinterlands) was groundless and something of a canard. With its limited press run and price the Beach edition was never meant or expected to attract a broad readership beyond wealthy collectors.

Gertzman goes on in depth and what we take away is that there is plenty of blame to spread amongst the actors in this bit of literary theater. Roth was not a boogey-man. He was, to a large degree, the perfect scapegoat.

Sketch, undoubtedly by Mahlon Blaine, for an advertisement.

Are you aware that Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a memoir concerning his incestuous relationship with his sister, Elisabeth? In 1951 Roth published My Sister and I (NY: Boar's Head) based upon a manuscript in Nietzsche's hand that fell into Roth's possession in 1924. Its first edition went through fourteen printings. He initially advertised its publication in 1924 but ran out of money (Roth never got rich publishing anything, much less Ulysses, and was always in a financial bind of some sort). After a raid on Roth's offices by John S. Sumner in 1929 the manuscript was thought lost. It resurfaced during a 1940s inventory. Real or apocryphal Nietzsche? Gertzman presents the critical arguments, strong on both sides. The jury remains out.

Roth was a big cat who, when wounded, roared and attacked, a Lion of Judah. He was a "steadfast Jew and Zionist...who became so distressed by what he felt was lack of support from his co-religionists that he, after claiming to be instructed by Jesus in a vision, wrote Jews Must Live: An Account of the Persecution of the World by Israel on All Frontiers of Civilization, a vicious 325-page anti-Semitic tract that was used by Nazis for propaganda and is kept in print by right-wing white-supremacist groups today" (Michael Bronski).

NY: Golden Hind Press, 1934.

• • •

Thrill of the Trade Department:  around ten years ago I had Roth's personal copy of another publisher's piracy of A Scarlet Pansy (NY: Nesor [Rosen, backwards], 1937) pass through my hands. Within, Roth made penciled revisions, cuts, and expurgations for his planned reissue (NY: Royal, 1940). The book also possessed subsequent annotations by sexual folklorist and bibliographer Gershon Legman, who worked for Roth during the 1930s, recording what Roth was up to with this book, from Legman's library, acquired directly from his widow, Judith. I felt as if I was sitting next to Roth as he worked on the book. Thanks, GL.

• • •

Roth lost his 1957 appeal to the Supreme Court to vacate his 1956 conviction for obscenity; he went to jail. But he won the war. The Court's Constitutional test in Roth v. United States - that for a work to be judged obscene its "dominant theme taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest" of the "average person, applying contemporary community standards" without any redeeming social value whatsoever opened the door to soft-porn. Soon, "redeeming social value" could be found in anything no matter how hard-core, particularly if publishers hired medical professionals or literary critics (real or otherwise) to write prefaces explaining why Doing It With Dad and Brother Dan While Mom Sings Hawaiian War Chant presents an intimate family interpersonal dynamic with deep psychological insight into the human condition and a penetrating sociological view of the exotic byways of love in an All-American metropolis, thus saving it from  Vice Squad condemnation.

Scholars and citizens with an interest in modern literature and the struggle for frank expression and publication of  candid material in a free society will be captivated by Samuel Roth: Infamous Modernist. I believe every library should own a copy; it's a must-acquire. For those fascinated by the shadow world of clandestine publishing and modern lit. in the U.S. it's a must-read.

But it's not a free read; you have to pay for it and that's how it should be. Yet at $74.95 it may be a bit too un-free. Issued by University Press of Florida it's a case study of what has gone so wrong with university press and books-on-books publishing. While the volume is very attractive its production quality is not what you'd expect from a book costing $75. And the $75 cost is likely connected to its print run, which, given the current state of the market (dismal), cannot have been more than 500 copies.

I can't help but think that if Roth were alive and the publisher, the book would have been issued as a fine trade paperback for $25 in an initial print-run of 2,000 copies and distributed via mail order and through every newsstand location in the country with accompanying hard-sell suggestive and sensational hoopla and ballyhoo using every free marketing tool available to spread the word that this is a sizzler, a book the major publishers found too hot to handle, an important book on American literary and publishing history about the man who died so that Ulysses, Casanova Jr.'s Tales, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Pageant of Lust, and The Strange Career of Mr. Hoover Under Two Flags (Roth's best-selling exposé of President Herbert Hoover, 1931) could live, and made it possible for the huddled masses to not only breathe but read free.

GERTZMAN, Jay A. Samuel Roth: Infamous Modernist.  Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013. xxviii, 387, [1] pp. Illustrations throughout. Illustrated boards. $74.95. Release: 4/23/2013.

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Chapter One: 1893-1916: From a Galician Shtetl to Columbia University.

Chapter Two: 1917-1925: Prelude to an International Protest: A Rising, Pugnacious Man of Letters.

Chapter Three: 1925-27: “Damn his impertinence. Bloody Crook”: Roth Publishes Joyce.

Chapter Four: 1928-34: Roth Must Live: A Successful Business and Its Bankruptcy.

Chapter Five : 1934: Jews Must Live. “We Meet Our Destiny on the Road We Take To Avoid It”

Chapter Six 1934-39: A Stretch in the Federal Penitentiary.

Chapter 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.

Chapter Eight: 1949-1952: Times Square, Peggy Roth, Southern Gothic, Celine, and Nietzsche.

Chapter Nine: 1952-57: The Windsors, Winchell, Kefauver: Back to Lewisburg.

Chapter Ten: 1958-74: “It Had Been a Long Time since Someone Like You Had Appeared In the World”: Roth Fulfills his Mission.

Appendix: Samuel Roth’s Imprints and Business Names.



Other books by Jay A. Gertzman:

A Descriptive Bibliography of Lady Chatterley's Lover. With Essays Toward a Publishing History of the Novel.

Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica 1920-1940

Full Disclosure: Mr. Gertzman and I are friends, and he kindly acknowledges me in the book as a source, however modest my contribution - and it was, indeed, very modest.

Image of My Sister and I advertisement courtesy of Mr. Gertzman's website, with our thanks.


  1. Sounds like a great book. Too bad they decided to publish it in a ridiculously expensive edition.

  2. What a wonderful post Stephen. Thank you. Must interview Gertzman at some point.

  3. A fantastic post and what looks to be an outstanding biography. If it is half as good as Mr. Gertzman's last book, is is essential for every library and every reader interested in both censorship and intellectual freedom.


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