Rare Book Library Highlights Renegade Publisher Who Roiled Literary Landscape
Samuel Roth has faded from history, but the books he published are hard to forget. This literary renegade, who studied at Columbia nearly 100 years ago, printed prurient novels, political exposés and foreign authors—often without their consent—and later in his life was known as the “smut king.” He became a pariah in the literary world he longed to join and spent nine years in prison for sending obscene material through the mail.
Roth’s lasting legacy, however, stemmed from the legal fight over his conviction on obscenity charges. In 1957, ruling in Roth v. U.S., the Supreme Court set a new legal standard on obscenity charges, even as it declined to overturn Roth’s conviction. The opinion led to the eventual relaxation of obscenity laws in this country.
“Roth was a man who collided with law, literature, publishing—really, with history itself,” said Robert Spoo, a Joyce scholar and law professor at the University of Tulsa, speaking at the Jan. 23 opening of the Columbia Rare Book & Manuscript Library exhibit “Publisher as Provocateur: Samuel Roth in Context,” which runs through May 30. Born in Galicia in Central Europe, Roth grew up in an observant Jewish family on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. An aspiring poet, he was frequently at odds with his father over his prospects for employment.
Roth attended Columbia on scholarship for three semesters in 1916-1917, where he poured his energy into a student poetry journal called The Lyric. But he alienated both his co-editor and the faculty adviser with his unwillingness to heed their advice.
“Roth’s ambitions and irascibility were already apparent at Columbia,” said Karla Nielsen, curator of literature at the RBML and co-curator of the exhibition.
In 1919, Roth opened a bookstore downtown that he advertised “will reconcile mankind to Greenwich Village.” He had a flair for marketing copy, Nielsen observed. “He was a decent poet but an extraordinary copywriter.” Roth ruffled feathers early in his career. In 1926 and 1927, he published installments of Ulysses in the United States that James Joyce swore appeared without his consent. In 1927, Joyce, his publisher, and some friends launched an international protest against Roth’s unauthorized publications that branded him an outcast in the literary world. W.B. Yeats, Virginia Woolf, H.G. Wells, Sherwood Anderson, Thomas Mann, E.M. Forster, Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence and even Albert Einstein signed a document intended to discredit him, which is on display in the exhibit. Ezra Pound refused to sign, arguing that U.S. capitalism was the problem and Roth a mere symptom.
Roth, however, was on safe legal ground in publishing such authors as Joyce and T.S. Eliot. At the time writers had no copyright protection in the United States unless their publishers complied with very exacting requirements. “It was a loophole the size of a nation,” said Spoo.
“Roth was a man who collided with law, literature, publishing—really, with history itself”
Jay A. Gertzman, whose book Samuel Roth: Infamous Modernist has just been published and who spoke at the Libraries’ Roth exhibit opening, says Roth so defied obscenity laws that the U.S. Postal Service created a team to handle complaints against him. In 1956 he was convicted of mailing material deemed “obscene, lewd, lascivious or filthy.”
The following year the Supreme Court ruled that “all ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance…even ideas hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion” were protected under the First Amendment. But since obscenity was not constitutionally protected speech, the court upheld Roth’s conviction.
The collection of Roth’s papers held by the Rare Book and Manuscript Library includes annotated books, court documents, correspondence and business records. It also has manuscripts by other authors, including one discovered in 2012 by a Columbia graduate student that turned out to be a previously unknown, unpublished novel by the Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay.
In his later life, Roth saw himself as a wise man or “tzaddik” in Hebrew, a leader and a teacher with a prophetic mission. Two years after the Roth Supreme Court case, a federal appeals court extended First Amendment protections to “explicit material that had redeeming literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” That decision was based, in part, on Roth’s case. The Columbia dropout did have an outsized influence—just not how he expected.
—by Gary Shapiro
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