Samuel Roth  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

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.



Samuel Roth grew up in poverty, at first in a rural village in eastern Europe (now part of Poland) and, as a teenager, on the Lower East Side of New York, where he sometimes slept in the streets below the newly constructed Williamsburg Bridge. He was brilliant and ambitious, with that powerful allegiance to divine destiny Jews call taklis. [?] He had no financial, social or intellectual status, so – at great personal cost – he tried fervently to invent it. Thanks to a close friendship with social activist Frank Tannenbaum, he met most of the left-wing activists in the Village, including Emma Goldman and Ben Reitman. Because of Tannenbaum’s influence, he went to Columbia University on a scholarship in 1916, where he edited a little magazine, The Lyric, which printed some of the finest contemporary American poets.

Career as a Man of Letters and publisher

A fine poet in his youth, Roth's work was praised by Edwin Arlington Robinson, Louis Untermeyer, Maurice Samuel, and Ezra Pound,among others. 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. Roth's poetry 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 a skillfully organized and moving elegy to his home town in Galicia. It is a neglected classic of Jewish-American immigrant poetry. His “Sonnets on Sinai,” in The Menorah Journal are also impressive for their plainly expressed, and therefore eloquent, statement. 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.

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 best 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 (1927) against Roth, although the nature of copyright law at the time made the charge of piracy debatable. The results were Roth, due to the well-organized Protest of 167 authors against him, becoming an international literary pariah,and Random House’s winning its case to "de-censor" Ulysses (1934). Roth soon after published pirated editions of Lady Chattlerley’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.

Sam 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 and therefore had some part in Hoover's loss of the Presidency.

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. This was his infamous anti-Semitic tract, Jews Must Live (subtitled “The Persecution of the World by Israel on all the Frontiers of Civilization”). It was self-published in 1934, coincidentally at the time when it would be most help to the Nazi movement. 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. He later renounced the work, and started to write an (unpublished) revision.

Jail time

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. In addition, there were the following incarcerations (NB: Prior to the dates below there were several suspended sentences and fines):

  • 1928: three months in the "workhouse" in New York in 1928 for possessing indecent materials with intent to sell.
  • 1929: six months imprisonment in the "Detention Headquarters, NYC" for violation of parole. This occurred after the NY Society for the Suppression of Vice raided his 5th Avenue warehouse and found copies of Lady Chatterley's Lover, Ulysses, Fanny Hill, other titles and pictures.
  • June 1930: 60 days in Moyemensing Prison, to which Roth was remanded after serving his time in New York. Charge: selling obscene books (Ulysses) in Philadelphia.
  • 1934: $100 fine or 20 days in jail (paid fine)

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 DA'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, along with its companion case, Alberts v. California, was a landmark case before the United States Supreme Court which redefined the Constitutional test for determining what constitutes obscene material unprotected by the First Amendment.

Mail order

After 1940, his audience was mostly a mail order one. 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 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’s 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.


  • Jay A. Gertzman, Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica, 1920-1940 (Phila.: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), Chapter 6.
  • 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-Rackt 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).
  • Gay Talese, Thy Neighbor's Wife (NY: Dell, 1981), Chapter Six.

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.

See also

American Civil Liberties Union - James Joyce - Ulysses (novel) - Alice Prin - Alger Hiss - Comstock laws - Claude McKay - Roth v. United States - Ralph Ginzburg - Jerome Frank - Frank Tannenbaum - United States Penitentiary, Lewisburg - Maurice Samuel - My Sister and I (Nietzsche) - Marcus Eli Ravage - Hester Sainsbury - Brent Hayes Edwards - David George Plotkin

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Samuel Roth" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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