Samuel Roth gave James Joyce "the jawache" with his piracies of Ulysses, both in expurgated and complete editions: "Rothim! . . . With his unique hornbook and his prince of apauper's pride, blundering all over the two worlds." He openly issued an "exposé" of Herbert Hoover which was taken seriously enough to occasion secret investigations of his income sources by the President's supporters. Throughout the forties and fifties, he engaged the attention of squads of postal inspectors with circulars and books declared "unmailable" either for their obscenity, or their fraudulent promises thereof. He indignantly defended, before Senator Kefauver's 1955 investigating committee, the titillating books and magazines he mailed in great numbers, denying that they either reached or influenced teenagers. Rewarded with a federal indictment, he became absolutely identified with "the virulence of sex." On one occasion he was dubbed "the dirtiest pig in the world" for contributing to juvenile delinquency, on another, "the louse of Lewisburg" (he was an inmate there during 1936-39 and 1957-61).
On no one did the traumas of between-the-wars erotica distribution leave more scars. He is generally considered the most resourceful and daring erotica dealer of the entire period. He was certainly the most notorious and the most frequently incarcerated. By concentrating on the way this complex individual advertised his books, defined himself, and defied authority, I show the conflicted motives and psychic pressures of dealing in erotica in those years.
Especially interesting is Roth's personal response to the adversarial yet symbolic relationship he found himself involved in with the forces of cultural authority. He made his living by publishing some very good literature, as well as tons of mediocre stuff, peddling classics and trash in a uniformly titillating manner. Neither as a publisher nor a writer did he manage a truely subversive critique of the conditions which embedded prurient obsessions in the fabric of American social life. The authorities punished Roth; Roth, wishing acceptance as a responsible publisher, and unable to cope with insecurity and alienation, responded by defining himself as a martyr to free speech, a subversive, which at best he only imperfectly was. His defiance of authority was never free from the economic reality of selling the prurience which his prosecutors, the moral entrepreneurs, themselves help perpetrate. The financial motives would not have coexisted logically with the idealistic defiance in a person able to judge himself rationally. But Roth could neither free himself from the self-image the censors crafted for him, nor from the need (practical? emotional?) to deal in erotica.
The proof is his Jews Must Live (1934), which stated that fellow Jews had cheated him of his publishing business when the Depression caused him to try to sell it in 1932. He presented himself as a martyr, not of the censors, but of colleagues infected with Jewish venality, of which he himself was free. Roth, as profoundly conscious of himself as a Jew as he was of himself as an erotic bookseller, wrote this ugly anti-Semitic tract just at the moment when the Nazis could make the most use of it. It presented many kinds of Jewish middlemen as heartless predators. To his colleagues, this book defined him once and for all as a scoundrel and a liar. Temporarily, it made him feel that he was a martyr. For my study, its importance is as an example of how the stigmas of dealing in erotica could unsettle someone, and generate an insidious self-hatred, for to alienate onself from one's fellow Jews by confirming for non-Jews their moral degeneracy is surely a form of self-hatred. He had internalized the stigmatizing judgements of the moral authorities.
And yet, he continued to publish erotica and be punished for it. His career started in the early 20s, and by 1931 he had served 3 jail terms. Below is a mug shot from Philadelphia police files, where he spent 60 days in prison for circulating his underground edition of one of modernism's great works, Joyce's Ulysses:
In 1936 he was sentenced to 3 years in Lewisburg penitentiary for mailing some of the most strictly banned pornography available at the time. The famous "Roth case" resulted in a minority opinion by the Supreme Court which liberalized obscenity legislation and allowed the publication of Tropic of Cancer and Lady Chatterley's Lover in the U.S. Roth, however, was sent back to Lewisburg for 5 years.
"Stop, Thief!" An International Protest"
From "Cosmopoli" to "the Workhouse," and Moyemensing Prison
The Birth of William Faro, Inc.: A Barbered Lady Chatterley
From Phallic Subversiveness to Pulp Romance
The Faro List
Roth Beats Sumner "Beautifully and Decisively"
The Herbert Hoover Expose
The Pirate Pirated
Jews Must Live
"I Went To Prison That Year"
The End: Back to Lewisburg, and a Sequel to Jews Must Live
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