The man who introduced to America two of the early 20th century's most sexually explicit, ground-breaking books was a Jewish poet, pirate and a pornographer. He was a man of immense contradictions -- publisher of erotica and author who envisioned himself with Jesus during his last visit to Jerusalem.
Samuel Roth, the son of poor, Jewish immigrants, grew up in New York City's Lower East Side, made a name for himself in the early 20th century as a poet, author and a publisher. He provoked international ire in the publishing world, and, legally and illegally, changed American culture.
He paid dearly for his actions, spending five years in prison for breaking obscenity laws that were later overturned, according to Dr. Jay A. Gertzman, in his biography, Samuel Roth: Infamous Modernist.
Gertzman, professor emeritus of English at Mansfield University and respected scholar was asked by Roth's grandchildren to write an accurate biography. The work is a fascinating look at the Jewish experience, censorship, government repression and conflicts between Christianity, Jewish religion and the American dream.
I interviewed Gertzman to better understand Roth, a brilliant, tormented literary pioneer.
It's ironic that Roth, a smart but somewhat seedy character, working both sides of the law, is responsible for introducing two great works of literature to American audiences. What's the significance of that?
Ironic indeed. Roth did what he did, risking prosecution for Chatterley (not for Ulysses, because he expurgated it for his magazine ), because he was willing to risk the status of scoundrel and outlaw. The irony was that only a person who did not abide by gentlemanly traditions could bring such avant-garde, sexually subversive work to the general public. Roth did not obey the ethics and parameters to which publishers adhered at the time. There was no international copyright agreement, so in fact Roth did not have to pay James Joyce anything. But, Roth at first tried to abide by the traditions of "trade courtesy" by paying Joyce for four excerpts from "Work in Progress" (published as Finnegan's Wake in 1939).
Then, Joyce began to suspect that Roth's magazines were at least a little bit "disreputable," and boldly prurient. He appealed to "low" tastes. Joyce needed to keep his reputation as a literary giant. He could not afford to embarrass his academic and wealthy clientele, especially the collectors of finely printed Modernist works, by being connected to a man of questionable honesty. Roth did not have the "cultural capital" Joyce needed, despite the latter's scatology and sexual explicitness (excused because of his status as a High Modernist writer).
After Joyce turned away, Roth published, without permission or payment, excerpts from Ulysses in 1926-27. An International Protest exiled him from the literary profession. He published Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1928, and an expurgated edition in 1930, without permission, again violating the Men of Letters' protocols, as did his book-length unexpurgated Ulysses in 1929.
Did Roth understand the importance of these works or was he just in it for the buck?
Definitely yes to both. He was desperate for solvency, having a wife and two children. A poet and short story writer himself, and someone interested in the repression of sexuality that ruled the public ethics of Britain and American society, he appreciated both Joyce and Lawrence. He had published some D. H.Lawrence poems when editing a successful Little Magazine while a student at Columbia. He kept that magazine going after the War, and founded a bookshop in Greenwich Village where he met and shared his work with the avant-garde writers of New York City. He was a rising young poet before the Joyce fiasco. Finally, he impressed everyone with his voracious reading. A compulsive writer himself, he worshiped the creativity he himself could not sustain except in his most inspired poems.
You spent seven years working on this biography. Why?
I had to read the large and rich archive Roth's grandchildren donated to Columbia. They asked me to write their grandfather's biography, wanting a full and fair depiction of who he was and what he did. The curator and staff at the Rare Book and MS Library at Columbia were wonderful.
Because Roth was an enemy of the post office for almost 20 years, I needed to understand how the postal bureaucracy of interdicting "obscenity" and "indecency" in the mails worked.
Roth used Freud's analysis of "scopophilia" (voyeurism) to explain the success of his prurient advertising. It was necessary to pursue the resonant cultural implications of this.
I needed to understand not only the principles of First Amendment law, but also the American suppression of sexual expression, the background of Jewish life in eastern Europe, where Roth was born, and the principles of Hasidism to which Roth adhered to his whole life (although he also searched out the methods of making money, the key to the American Dream).
I had to understand why Roth wrote an anti-Semitic book in 1934, and what the antecedents of anti-Semitism were as related not only to the Jewish religion, but to the ways Jews were resented by German nation-builders as morally and spiritually unable to attain Teutonic and Christian values. His book was an act of self-hatred, of course. The psychological explanations of the phenomenon have been the subject of a lot of research.
I needed further to understand the literary background of Roth's final novel, in which he imagined himself present at Jesus' last visit to Jerusalem. The concept of reconciliation of Jews and Christians after 2000 years was not Roth's alone -- it was a fascinating genre of Jewish American literature.
Finally, I had to understand the Psalms of David, since Roth's final poem was a moving retelling of the Psalms, from his own perspective as a 20th century Jew and businessman.
Why should Samuel Roth be remembered?
Roth was a man with an uncanny ability to recognize good contemporary writing and make it accessible to popular audiences. Ultimately, his dedication to the publication of these works broke down many of the censorship laws of the time, though he suffered greatly for his efforts.
His story portrays a struggle with literary censorship in the mid-twentieth century, culminating in perhaps the most significant court case on literary censorship in the 20th century, Roth v. US (1957). Roth lost the case and served his full five year sentence. While he was in prison, the minority opinion in his case was used by the Grove Press to win the right to publish, and send through the mails, Lady Chatterley's Lover--which Roth had been vilified and jailed for publishing 30 years earlier. He deserves a major place in the history of censorship and literary publishing in the US.
He was an example of how subversion of existing values is both a criminal and an intensely creative enterprise. He was a perfect example of the contradictions of the American Dream: its promises, its reinvention of the idea of individual power and of the personality, and the loss of moral and spiritual confidence in oneself which is a price of material success and community trust.
Roth, almost alone, introduced common people to iconoclastic writings, including an early gay classic, a study of Céline, a bibliography of "Forbidden Books," and a controversial book on Nietzsche's incest with his sister. This was at a time when hoi polloi were thought unworthy of understanding literature. Sexually explicit writings would only "debauch" them, thought the legislators, postal authorities, clergy, and political demagogues of our "democracy."
Finally, the career of Samuel Roth embodies painful contradictions: poet, publisher, social critic, reputed "King of the Jews," self-hating writer of a notoriously anti-Semitic book, and later, author of a visionary novel about his own journey with Jesus to Jerusalem. It's a fascinating kaleidoscope of elements that compose the social and spiritual Jewish American story.