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Roth's Two Worlds II

Proud of the Roth family’s contribution to fighting Hitler (he knew what WWI had done to his birthplace, and could not yet imagine what WWII had done), Sam wrote a small book _Dear Richard: A Letter to My Son in the Fighting Forces of the United States_ (1942). His powerful poem in his late (mid-1960s) redacted PSALMS OF DAVID (_Israeli Davidia_) , no. 21, reimagines Jacob’s deathbed prophecy to his sons, to become the Children of Israel (Genesis 49:1–2). In Roth’s version, the patriarch finds that he cannot predict the ultimate future, for God’s vision (mercifully) at that moment departed from him.

Roth tells us what Jacob saw but could not report: six Jew-killing monsters, including Hitler and Stalin, a “monumental meanness.” Could the battle God Jehovah, the earthshaker who so gloriously vanquished the pagan idols, let his Children of Israel contemplate such a desultory future? Roth seems close here to what James Kugel described, apropos of the Book of Lamentations, as “God as the enemy. Jeremiah “unflinchingly” stares at the possibility that the Lord, if responsible for everything, is responsible for “even the cruelest evil.” Yes, and remember the Bible, as the present, demonstrates many such meannesses by Israel as well as its enemies.

Sam’s most intense work on the Hitler period is his unpublished TRANSFIGURATION, written while he was at Lewisburg in the late 1930s. He wrote some of it in the early morning hours, by the light of a bathroom ceiling lamp. In this novel, set in 1948, the Second World War DID NOT TAKE PLACE!

Instead. Yeshea appeared one night to Hitler and, reviling the “master of Europe” for the most monumental meanness, took his place. Yeshea proceeds to extricate Germany from the grip of the Nazi imperialists and their newspaper propagandists, with the support – get this – of a beautiful movie star, Madeline (I bet he had in mind Madeleine Carroll) who is enamored of Hitler ( and even more so since "he" has turned benevolent).

First, this was before Hitler’s full plan for the Jews became known. In the novel, he is not a monster, but rather a man who has done great harm and is mesmerized by a group of sinister advisers. Second, Sam was thinking not only of a blockbuster spy- and –romance thriller, but probably of a film, as he was with for example, his Faro imprint’s THE MAN WHO KILLED KITCHENER.
The wind-up: a fight between the Jews of Germany and Poland to establish immigration quotas to the new land. It has created a Gordian knot, to disentangle which a transfigured Hitler rose in the League of Nations, to announce that the Jews of Germany will be able to establish a country of their own in Africa, with which the Master of Europe would cooperate in establishing international trade. That way, the new nation, with all the idealism of Jewish philosophy and theology aimed at preparing for the Messiah, would not be under the thumb of an imperial power, as it might be if it were a bulwark against the oil-rich Arabs in the Middle East.

Once again, as with his reverential early poetry about Moses, Sinai, and Kol Nidre, Roth can write about humility and the quest for peaceful wholeness. He distills into parts of TRANSFIGURATION a pious meditation, affecting in its plainspoken renunciation of the power to harm, and offering in the place of power politics a benevolence glowing with the clarity of pure winter sunlight (the novel ends with Hitler-Yeshea and Madeleine on the steps of the Reichstag), which might be an allusion to Shekinah, the light of God’s presence. Double Wow.
Too bad Sam did not get an illustrator for his MS. That would have been interesting.

"At the Sign of the Mocki-Grisball"

The word “mocki” is pejorative for a Jew who speaks in a Yiddish accent. It may be similar to the Hebrew “machos,” which denotes in the Passover Hagaddah the ten plagues. There may be a suggestion of the libel on a Jew as him/herself being a plague. Roth's use of the phrase on the title page of his first magazine publication is declaration of his disreputable status, and an irritating dare.

Roth enjoyed this role as outsider, gadfly, and truth-teller. Indeed, he produced works which only an underground, and disreputable, publisher with a shrewdly iconoclastic sensibility would dare distribute: “If not I, who,” he said. These books included a very good early gay novel, a scandal book on Pres. Hoover that did contribute to his failure to win re-election, a delightfully ironic Southern Gothic, a book on Celine by a young Brandeis U. scholar trying to fathom how Celine's Antisemitism, and a supposed memoir by Nietzsche about his childhood affair with his sister. The latter is lurid, but so convincing that some careful readers believe it might be authentic.

The other side of this outsider status was his circulars by means of which he supported himself and his family. He sold borderline erotica of various sorts, offering books too innocuous to sustain prosecutions but nevertheless denied distribution by mail. He advertised Dubliners as “the book which had to be banned,” and Women in Love as “danger in a mother’s caress.” Roth knew the subjects that aroused the most prurient curiosities of the American male of the 1950s. He stressed flagellation, S-M, homosexuality, and pedophilia in advertising books that in fact hardly hinted at the subject, telling his customers not to pay attention to the “blue noses” at the post office who marked many of his books and circulars “unmailable.” “Don’t worry about them,” he said, “Your morals are all right.”

One of Roth's best selling books, which he advertised not only in mail order circulars but in magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly
A Roth advertisement from the 1950s, appearing in his magazine Good Times
The photo of Samuel Roth which he wanted used in advertisements for My Friend Yeshea

"At war with himself and his race”


Jews Must Live: An Account of the Persecution of the World by Israel on all the Frontiers of Civilization, self-published in 1934, was an impetuous and spiteful revenge of Jewish colleagues in the publishing business whom he thought had conspired to subvert his orderly bankruptcy proceedings and steal his copyrights. A boon to the Nazis, and the ruination of Roth with the Jewish community, there is only very slight chance that it contained a level of meaning behind the surface one. Only one passage, where the writer tries to injure Judas and sees his own image in a mirror, can qualify. The contents of the book include Jewish people's conduct as lawyers, entertainment entrepreneurs, physicians, landlords, and writers.

Samuel Roth might have served as a prototype for Otto Weininger’s analysis (Sex and Character, 1903) of the insecure minority businessman; he called it the “Jewish spirit.” Writers such as Kafka, Freud, Karl Kraus, Arnold Schoenberg, and Ludwig Wittgenstein read Weininger’s book carefully. What the author describes as in that “spirit” is exemplified by Roth’s bitter attacks on rivals, real and perceived; his multiple excuses for extreme responses; his exploitation of popular entertainment and the “woman market”; his various self-images; his resentment and insolence; his penchant for “showing off” his well-placed, non-Jewish friends, his dress, manner of, and symbols of erudition such as the gentleman’s library and the home office; and his respect for ancestors because they could support what Weininger says are irrepressible “new hopeful dreams.” Weininger had Roth’s number. So did the New Yorker columnist who wondered “who might Samuel Roth be. Maybe he doesn’t know himself.”

That was the worst one could say. Weininger was a Jew who was convinced that he needed to shed himself of his Jewishness, so as to regain pride, bodily and spiritual wholeness, and the respect of Germans in the time when Bismarck was the image of the Teutonic nation state. Self-loathing, and despairing of scouring himself of his Jewish cast of mind, Weininger committed suicide in Goethe’s house a year after his book was published. During the Nazi rise to power, his work “enjoyed” acclaim.


In his autobiography, Roth depicted his life as a spiritual mission. Whenever he defied the censors, political authorities, or the literary establishment, the immediate result was never admiration or vindication. Instead, he garnered increased hostility and further ostracism. As with Two Worlds, or The Strange Career of Mr Hoover, so with Jews Must Live. It was as if he was exemplifying La Fontaine’s observation that “a person often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it.” Yeshea Himself had prophesied to him that part of his destiny was to be hated.

If the struggle in the marketplace of ideas and the book trade was not enough to insure a frenzied life, there was another string to Roth’s bow. He took arms (he used such military metaphors often, as American business and politics does) in the most frenzied skirmish of all for a Jewish American immigrant, the enmity between his faith and Christianity. Visions of a Jesus-ordained mission to reconcile the two faiths added to his inner turmoil at various low points of his career. “If not I, who?” That was his mantra, used conspicuously when he published an attack on Herbert Hoover during the 1931 campaign. It was a kind of trademark of Roth’s unique fight to express himself so people would hear him. It helps explain his final atonement for Jews Must Live, a 600-page novel, My Friend Yeshea (1961), in which he accompanied Yeshea (Jesus) on the journey to Jerusalem and crucifixion. Roth writes that Yeshea transported him to heaven for an audience with Yahweh, Who appointed the publisher as one of the 36 tzaddikim, or just men in his generation. He was charged with bringing peace to a world at cold war. Sam tried to publicize this mission, advertising as he best knew how, on subway streamers, by circulars advertising the book as a “last hope” for spiritual renewal, and by a (proposed) talk in Times Square—ironically, the mass entertainment zone with its titillating films and porno book stores that Sam had mined for his own mail order erotica business but now wanted to be the setting for his talk on “The Real World” of divine justice.

Roth's Contribution to Freedom of Expression--and of Freedom to Read Without Bona Fides

For Roth's arrest record click here.

Roth served two terms in federal prison for distributing obscenity. After his bankruptcy in 1933, he sold what were strictly banned books, resulting in FBI surveillance. In 1957, his conviction was for pandering to customers through prurient advertisements as well as for “obscenity” such as Beardsley’s “Venus and Tannhauser.” But motivational forces for this trial (“The Roth Case”) were the following: his constant flaunting of the Post Office; and his disregard for pressures applied by New York City’s District Attorney (due to his refusal to withdraw a book accusing the Duke of Windsor of masochism), J Edgar Hoover (due to his scandal book on Walter Winchell), and Sen Kefauver (during his appearance before his committee investigating causes of juvenile delinquency).

The Roth Case (1957) sent the publisher to jail for five years. Meanwhile, The Grove Press was successful in winning their case against the Post Office for mailing Lady Chatterley’s Lover to customers. Their brilliant lawyer proved that Grove did not appeal to prurient interest, but to people who wanted “erotic realism.” Such readers are above base, self-indulgent motives (although the distinction between prurient and simply erotic interest in sex is fuzzy at best). They are exempt from an “average” idea of what is indecent, and they know literary value when they see it, as the hoi polloi, susceptible to vulgar entertainment, do not.

When he heard about the de-censoring of Chatterley, which he published (without permission) as early as 1928, he thought, as he arrogantly told Kefauver, that the laws eventually get around to believe he was right. But he added, “whereas the books are good I am bad.” As disingenuous as that statement is, its irony is justified. Censorship has everything to do with “the man” [publisher or writer], more than the “work.”

Even Roth’s most sensational sales pitches involving prurience and subhuman violence provided a fittingly iconoclastic context for the erotic and political eccentricities in his offerings. See the drawing at right from his book on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Of course, this advertising was both manipulating and ugly. So was the culturally and politically sanctioned behavior some of his publications revealed: the pimping of children in Sadlier's Forlorn Sunset; the cruel prison system presented in Jamison's Devil Law; and the social exclusions that gave "Scully's" [Robert McAlmon's] A Scarlet Pansy and Donna McKay's Gentleman in a Black Skin their creative energy. These examples of exploitation and betrayal inspired the novelists to show how their protagonists’ humanity was violated by a corrupt and indifferent society. These writers did so without good taste and other palliatives. Their work was authentic. More established publishers would not risk losing readership and status by issuing it. They therefore turned to Roth. So did young scholar Milton Hindus. Roth published his painfully honest study of Celine, The Crippled Giant in 1950. He knew Roth had had the guts to publish a book criticizing President Hoover in 1931, which occasioned sub rosa violations of his privacy and finances by Republican operatives. "If not I, who," asked Roth. The statement is self-aggrandizing, and, equally, quite true.