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Samuel Roth: Poet, Pirate, Pornographer

*Introduction* (for details click on "Works")

Sam Roth, right, in his Poetry Book Shop in Greenwich Village, 1920

Sam Roth’s daughter knew her father was unusual. How many teenagers are told how to respond when an FBI agent, or a process server, comes to the door? What does a pre-teen son or daughter do when a classmate taunts them with “your father’s in jail”? How does a 14- and 16-year old avoid fearing they have betrayed their father while testifying that they worked with him, opening, sealing or addressing packages in his office? Family life revolved around defending him and coping with the reputation which with he had burdened himself and his family. Roth spent about of one-ninth of his adult life behind bars. He was a bold literary “pirate,” issuing unauthorized editions of magnificent sensations such as Ulysses, My Life and Loves, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He was the chief mail order distributor of borderline erotica during the 1940s and 50s. He had been vilified by the literary community of two nations in the 1920s for the Lawrence and Joyce publications. In the absence of an international copyright agreement and because works deemed obscene could not be copyrighted, what Roth did was not illegal. It was in violation of the protocols of mutual fair dealing between publishers and authors. The Ulysses “piracies” got him drummed out of legitimate professional standing in a way that had never before happened: an International Protest signed by over 160 fellow writers. Even more infamous was a book he wrote in a fit of spite at booksellers and lawyers after his bankruptcy in 1933. It was titled Jews Must Live: An Account of the Persecution of the World by Israel on all the Frontiers of Civilization (1933), and offered the Nazis a serendipity when they most needed it. A generation later, Roth was again held up to widespread public ridicule, by a Senate investigating committee, Walter Winchell, the FBI, the Post Office, and the legendary New York D. A. Frank Hogan, for supposedly inciting juvenile delinquency by targeting teenagers for his book and magazines.

He spent nine years in jail on state and federal obscenity convictions. His contribution was exceptional, and not recognized for why it was. The liberalizing first amendment decisions of the 1960s assumed that books published without a prurient intent were literature not obscenity. Roth, on the other hand, prepared people who did not have cultural bona fides, whose motives could not be verified by guardians of culture. As William Burroughs and Henry Miller knew at the time, that was preferable.

In his youth acknowledged as a promising poet, he returned to this form of very personal expression with his own version of the Psalms of David. Despite the venality and self-aggrandizement, and despite the self-hatred of Jews Must Live, he had an intense personal relationship with God and the Hassidic eastern European pre-modern perspective.



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

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

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

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

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

Six 1934-39: A Stretch in the Federal Penitentiary

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

Eight: 1949-1952: Times Square, Peggy Roth, Southern Gothic, Celine, and Nietzsche (pp.462-512)

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

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