Selected Works

Biography
The life of a man of various personae: religious poet, erotica dealer, jailbird, and scapegoat.
"Absorbing account of an often overlooked corner of American publishing history. . . . Only by understanding the quintessentially American nature of the business, [Gertzman] argues, can we understand the eroticized culture we inhabit today.” Publishers Weekly, May 3, 1999

Quick Links

Roth's Two Worlds I

**SEE "WORKS" SECTION (ABOVE) FOR GENEROUS PRE-PUBLICATION DISCOUNT**

At age 8, Roth saw a monster rising from a pool of water at the moment he first felt sexual desire. This drawing of his home town, including the spring where he found his first girlfriend drawing water, was made by the artist Mahlon Blaine in 1952.


Click and type in a question or comment

Boyhood: The Shtetl and the Lower East Side

A sthetl (Nuszcze in Galicia) was a pre-modern community of middlemen selling the clothing and implements customers, mostly peasant farmers, needed. The Jews in the town were Hassidic, and resisted the enlightenment which had allowed a measure of integration into Christian society. Sam Roth was exorcised by the Rabbi in his sickbed when he "saw" at age 8 a Demon at the moment when he first felt desire. He resented that, and also wondered why wealthier shtetl residents had the best seats in the synagogue, and received more visits from the Rabbi than poorer people.

Here was the start of Sam's two worlds--the one where sex meant the intrusion of the Rabbi to cleanse him of Evil and his private one which flooded him with irritation as well as guilt at not being able to express desire. His father slept with him to prevent the return of that demon (i.e., the impulse to masturbate).


His father, Yussiff Leib Roth, had to leave for America after an argument with the Lord of the Manor. Almost two years of poverty followed before the rest of the family received money for steerage to NY. Once there, Samuel fought the Irish boys on the Lower East Side, developed his first crush on a movie star, encountered porno below the counter of the man he worked for, and grieved for girls who had to become prostitutes to survive. "If you say one word about love," one told him when he tried to "save" her, "I'll break your head open."

Poverty: "the red ribbon on the white horse"

This Talmudic phrase connotes poverty, which for Hasidic devotion is the pious man's crowning glory. But for immigrants to the Lower East Side, , the pious ascetic found little place, for he could not support himself. No source of charity, no tradition of support for the community's scholars of Pentateuch and midrash, had outlived lack of money. As Roth's father put it, "We are poor, we must work." Poverty in America meant the opposite of holiness. It meant living death, humiliation, emasculation. To avoid it, Roth published works without the authors' permission, distributed porno and tons of borderline "schmutz," and finally made a small fortune writing teasing mail order circulars.

But his self-image, the "still small voice within" (largely in the heavenly timbres of Yeshea) would not let him rest with venality. He understood too many of the social and emotional results of entertaining people with appeals to their prurient minds and compulsive fears of unchaining themselves from its solitary comforts. God says to us, "Where are you?" Roth answered with a life-long struggle towards fulfilling the destiny forged for him in the "True World." But with how much suffering? That red ribbon was terrifying to him--it meant holiness through washing away all the worldly benefits of the American Dream in which he had indeed invested everything. Like almost everyone else, he nursed that investment with heart, hands, and a very American ingenuity.

A Roth-Wracked James Joyce posts an International Protest

Roth’s publications of Ulysses, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and other British writings of an erotic nature were not piracies: they were in the public domain in the US because of the lack of an international copyright agreement and because works considered obscene were not granted copyright. Joyce’s supporters devised an International Protest against Roth after portions of Ulysses appeared in Roth's Two Worlds Monthly, which over 160 writers signed, stating correctly that acts such as his, offering a writer a fee after the work appeared, were dishonest.

His recklessness made him an international literary pariah. Joyce and his circle had literary “capital,” to use a word that refers to the business of publishing and of celebrity. Roth did not. They spun facts in their favor as much as Roth spun the legalities of copyright in his. Newspapers and literary magazines reported that Roth “cruelly bowdlerized” Ulysses (he changed less that Pound did for The Little Review a few years earlier), and that he published excepts from Work in Progress without payment or permission (both false).

When he expurgated Lady Chatterley’s Lover so that he could publish it for general readers without being arrested for obscenity, he admitted not getting permission (“to ask would have been to be denied” since he could pay much). He wrote to Lawrence’s widow saying he would send her royalties as soon as she ok’ed his edition. That, and his high-handedness with Ulysses, is the sort of CHUTZPAH that cemented his reputation, especially since he copyrighted his barbered version.

Roth’s “piracies” took place in the 1920s and 30s. After that, he published very good writers in remainders acquired from the original publisher. Even Ezra Pound acknowledged that he brought to a large readership literature they would not have been exposed to at a price they could afford. Roth knew good writings intimately—and loved it.

Roth took whatever advantage he could of lack of copyright, but he did pay writers, although at the lowest rate he possibly could. Sometimes, good young writers started their careers with him, for the same reason they did with sex pulp and mystery paperback publishers in the 40s and 50s.


"A Perversion in the Mind of Sam Roth"

Roth’s literary perversion was the opinion of the writer, and Roth author, Harry Roskelenko. He was referring to Roth’s need to include himself and his ideas in books he published. The following have interpolated passages doing so:
Kiki’s Memoirs
Maxwell Bodenheim (?), My Life and Loves in Greenwich Village
Havelock Ellis, Kanga Creek

Roth never stopped talking about himself. His own novel Bumarap has an Afterword “Introducing the Author.” His edition of Havelock Ellis' Kanga Creek contains an essay published under one of his pseudonyms, "Norman Lockridge," Lockridge has Ellis state that his close friend Olive Schreiner will become a muse or inspiration to men and women struggling with “brutal and reckless forces.” One of these is “an Austrian Jew" (Roth, treated brutally and ostracized by Joyce and his friends).

On two occasions Roth interpolated passages about himself into books written by his ghost-writers. The most remarkable is a book purportedly a recording of notes written by Nietzsche after his emotional breakdown: My Sister and I. This fascinating work was probably a hoax (although some careful readers, including Wilhelm Reich, thought it genuine). A talented ghost-writer, David George Plotkin, is a strong candidate for author. Some passages are, however, clearly in Roth’s style, and indicate Roth’s self image as iconoclast and prophet.

As he approached retirement five years before his death, he wrote three “redactions”—that is, his own versions—of three strange and powerful works, each classics of agonizing self-awareness, strident challenges to restraints on human desire. A fine poet in his youth, he regained his skills in some of his versions of Heine and the Psalms.

Heine’s Jewish Melodies

Artaud’s Heliogabulus: The Crowned Anarchist

The Psalms of David




ANOTHER FLORENZ ZIEGFELD-- Roth stated Florenz Ziegfeld displayed female beauty as fantasy object that substituted solitary joy for the strains of mutual togetherness; i.e, masturbation for intercourse. This maintained order, shame, and obedience. He also commented that Ziegfeld selected women who stimulated his own “organic need.” Roth did that also—with the possible difference that he loved the company of women as a reason in itself to be with them. That is why he was so successful with actresses, showgirls, and writers. It also meant serial unfaithfulness to a loving wife. As an erotica merchant, serving the same needs he said Ziegfeld did, He published many photos and drawings of beautiful women, and made money. One of his books (published anonymously) was a list (fake names) and description of some Broadway impressario's (not Roth's[?]) sex partners with the subtitle “The Stories of 99 Models on the Streets of Gotham from the dairy of a Flesh Peddler".'

Gallery of pictures of Samuel Roth


Roth at 11, newly arrived in the Golden Land

Roth as a young poet

Sam and Pauline Roth, c.1918

Vanity Fair used this photo when it "nominated [Roth] for oblivion" in 1932 because he had been in jail for "pornography" and dared publish a book about Pres. Hoover that VF called "scurrilous" but helped FDR defeat the sitting president.

In despair after being tricked (as he saw it) into losing his publishing house in 1933, Roth found himself in a Bowery flophouse. There, a vision of Yeshea appeared to him, telling him his fate at the present time is "to be hated, not feared." He went home and wrote _Jews Must Live_. See Roth's Two Worlds II, "The Depths."

Sam Roth testifying at the Kefauver Committee investigating the effect of mail order erotica on "Juvenile Delinquency," 1955

A peaceful, reverential Samuel: The photo of Samuel Roth which he wanted used in advertisements for My Friend Yeshea (1961). See Roth's Two Worlds II, The Heights.
Hasidic lore, and the stories by numerous Yiddish writers (see I B Singer), are full of demons. The sexual instinct was called "The Evil Inclination." A demon such as Roth describes had both physically and emotionally harrowing features--it had a fiery red underbelly and feverish eyes. It looked with a kind of lonely, grieving yearning at him. The Rabbi's exorcism--using the mystical texts known as Zohar--was needed to cleanse the boy's soul of the power of lust, before he could rejoin his family and community. Young Mishillim (Sam's Hebrew name) had been the victim of an age-old catastrophe: Adam and Eve first had intercourse under the spell of the Evil Inclination, as Paradise degenerated into nature around them.

Nature was cursed, and myths embodying what that meant were holy.



















“the shamelessness of a highwayman but quite without the highwayman’s courage, since the law grants him a temporary immunity." --from Ludwig Lewishon's draft of the International Protest against Roth's publication of Ulysses. Joyce excised this, to avoid libel, although the language is typical of that used against the pariah middleman.
















Sketch for an advertisement for My Sister and I. A woman (his sister?) peers intently over Nietzsche’s shoulder. In the background are the mountains the philosopher loved, and a sphinx—his symbol of the joy and danger involved in saying “Yes to life.” Below the desk, a snake winds around the torso of a figure seeking to disentangle himself from its length while its head approaches his. An irresistible sales pitch which shows a sophisticated knowledge of Nietzsche..





































Both Leopold Bloom (Joyce's _Ulysses_) and Samuel Roth are representative members not of a heroic age but of modern times. Both were more advertising man and girl watcher than warrior, and neither were capable of making their contemporaries fear and respect them. But they could directly confront Amalek (biblical archetype of enemy of the Jews) , in American courtrooms or in an Irish pub. They never lost their guilt, humor, sense of adventure, love of sensual and divine beauty, their curiosity (note the mutually irresistible topic of the transmigration of souls), and, even more importantly, their seeking to realize their destinies in squalid and hostile circumstances.

Joyce's Ulysses, Leopold Bloom, flanked, perhaps, by guiding spirits from the worlds of Hasidic wisdom and business acumen, as was Samuel Roth, who also had a walking stick.

Excellent drawing of Leopold Bloom (Joyce's 20th century Ulysses) from the graphic novel _Ulysses Seen_ by Robert Berry (http://ulyssesseen.com/). The face is that of a man intent on explaining himself, while the eyes reflect introspection and sadness. Bloom does a lot of talking, and even more thinking: about his sado-masochistic porno and his wife Molly's erotica; his father's suicide, his letters to a possible mistress; his wife's letter from her boyfriend about their assignation; his fellow Irishmen's contempt for "the Jewey"; the death of his 11-day-old son. He also reflects on the intimacy and "yum" of the day he proposed to Molly. "I was kissed." "Me. And me now." The sadness, determination, self-doubt, and love/hate affair with Jewish destiny were also Roth's.