Roth became so notorious as both literary pirate and smuthound (the word in use at the time) that he was attacked in the Nation and the New Yorker as a literary fake and social nuisance. Vanity Fair included him, along with the up-and-coming Adolf Hitler, in its 1932 photo essay titled "We Nominate for Oblivion." As the number of Roth’s arrests rose and his reputation grew, he became nationally infamous — and mostly despised. Literary people disliked his reputation as a pirate; heavy hitters in the publishing world frowned on his reprinting Joyce and Lawrence without permission. (Roth, however, saw himself as a friend of these authors, since they couldn’t get published legally.) And many people in the mail-order and underground-erotica business saw him as a liability because, rather then avoid the law, he kept challenging it.
After the 1932 publication of Jews Must Live, Roth’s fellow Jews had little sympathy for him. This situation was complicated by the fact that most of the erotica business in New York was Jewish-owned and run in mom-and-pop-store fashion. Indeed, an increasing number of New York publishing firms were Jewish-owned during this period, including Alfred A. Knopf, which specialized in avant-garde European literature — much of which was seen by American moralists as obscene. (Knopf got into serious legal trouble, for example, for publishing D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow.) By the mid 1930s, the mainstream media, as well as the NYSSV and a host of other religious watchdog groups, had pretty much convinced the public that American culture and morals were being destroyed by filth and smut published by Jews. By virtue of all the attention he attracted, Roth became a very visible figurehead — an object of vengeance among (mostly anti-Semitic) vice-squad types and of aversion among Jews.
Part of the intense antagonism Roth generated from law enforcement during the 1920s and 1930s was caused not only by the fact that he was irredeemably unrepentant, but that many of his challenges to censorship — state-sponsored or instigated by the NYSSV — were successful. Time and again, Roth went to court seeking personal vindication and to get his books declared not obscene. His insistence on taking on the legal system — as well as popular opinion — escalated the destruction of his reputation even as it gradually cleared the way for narrowing censorship laws and expanding freedom of the press. Roth, in a speech he once gave to a hostile audience, described himself as "a lion in a den of Daniels." Unlike his biblical antecedent, however, he may have escaped undaunted, but not unscarred or unharmed.
By the mid 1950s, Roth was selling through the mail books from 62 imprints or "book services" — all of which he owned and ran. Many of these tomes were remainders, small paperback digests, and "flip through" nude-y books in which women seemed to undress. In 1955, he was called in front of a Senate subcommittee investigating links between pornography and youth crime. He made no friends when he announced, "Anyone who places me among the publishers of pornography should be compelled to take a literacy and an intelligence test before being allowed to perform public duties."
Roth’s insistence that he was a literary publisher rather than a pornographer would be charming if it weren’t delusional. For while he was an author of some note — or notoriety — and did publish some works of literature, it was foolhardy of him to taunt the subcommittee with an argument so brash and lacking in credibility. Not surprisingly, in 1956, he was sentenced under federal law to five years in prison and fined $5000 for selling through the mail his magazine American Aphrodite, books of female nudes, and an edition of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrated The Story of Venus and TannhŠuser. The mix of materials were pure Roth — American Aphrodite usually featured things like mild erotic line drawings, some piece of long-out-of-print British literature (the "scandalous" 17th-century plays of Aphra Behn appear in many issues), a "bawdy" new translation from Chaucer, and something truly shocking, like nude photos of 10-year-old girls taken in Victorian brothels.
Unrepentant as always, Roth appealed, and when his now-famous case went to the Supreme Court (along with Alberts v. California, another obscenity-through-the-mail case), he lost the battle but essentially won the war. The Court’s decision that obscenity had to be "utterly without redeeming social importance" fundamentally changed how the US legal system viewed censorship. Unfortunately, the material on which Roth was indicted fell into that unprotected category.
When Roth was released from prison, in 1961, he went back into publishing for several years. He also wrote — after yet another visitation from Jesus while in prison — a new work titled My Friend Yeshea, which sought reconciliation between Jews and Christians and served as an apology for Jews Must Live. But once out of prison, Roth also encountered a new world. The business had already changed — the limits on what was permissible to publish were much broader and more open. Some publishers, such as Barney Rosset and Grove Press, had gone more legit, publishing (or attempting to publish) sexually explicit literary authors like William S. Burroughs and Henry Miller, along with highly regarded writers such as Samuel Beckett, Marguerite Duras, Jean Paul Sartre, Brendan Behan, and Bertolt Brecht.
Moreover, in 1964, the Supreme Court issued another decision. In Jacobellis v. Ohio, it reaffirmed Roth and went one step further: it watered down the concept of "community standards," which had been so integral to prosecuting local obscenity cases, by holding that such standards should be interpreted nationally. Within five years, censorship standards were so loosened that Roth’s dream of a completely free press was almost fully realized. But by the late 1960s Roth had stopped working, and in 1971 he died — surrounded by his loving wife Pauline and his children.
IT’S NO SURPRISE that Samuel Roth’s story is now mostly lost. Except for occasional footnote references in works on the history of censorship and coverage in Jay A. Gertzman’s superlative book Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica 1920-1940 (University of Pennsylvania, 1999), Roth is not remembered at all. This is due, in part, to the fact that Americans have a short historical memory. It’s also due to the fact that once freedoms are secured, we often don’t question how life was different in the past. It is amazing that not half a century ago, Roth went to prison for publishing materials that now seem innocuous — books of fake anthropology that discussed "native fertility rites," smutty playing cards, elegant woodcuts that featured bare-breasted women illustrating The Heptameron by Margaret of Navarre, and handbooks advocating family planning.
Of course, the other reason for Roth’s obscurity is that he is not an easily venerated hero, or a simple one. He was a successful businessman — making $270,000 in 1955 — but also a ruthless one who published Joyce and Lawrence by stealing their work. Complicating matters further, he demanded to be taken seriously as an artist. Yet Roth’s ideas often verged on the stupendously crackpot, as when he offered to write a play about the life of Nancy Hanks, Abraham Lincoln’s mother, for Mae West (she refused sweetly by claiming that her audiences always wanted her to be "bad," which wasn’t right for a president’s mother). He was a rascal who once put the return address of Alfred A. Knopf Inc. on mailings for some of his more prosecutable books. He penned a "memoir" of his friend, author and bon vivant Frank Harris, in which he made up an entirely fetishistic sex life for the man. He was a Jewish immigrant who, for Christian Americans, embodied the worst stereotypes of Jews and yet fulfilled the great American dream of the self-made man.
But we should remember Roth for his most American trait: his refusal to countenance laws he intuitively understood to be wrong. Because of Roth’s constant battles with authority, we have many of the freedoms to read and publish that we enjoy today. His example of fighting against all unjust forms of state control — no matter what moral or patriotic effect they were intended to establish — is needed now more than ever. It would be a grave mistake to think that free speech is not intimately connected with the other freedoms we prize under our unique, if fragile, democratic system. Indeed, free speech is the fundamental core of all our other constitutional rights. As Roth learned, the religious and social mania that suppressed his work was intimately linked to a corrupt legal system that trampled on his right to a fair trial, one without prejudicial publicity or judges and juries who were more concerned with his reputation than with his civil rights. The persistent harassment he faced by state and federal officials (fueled by anti-Semitism, as well as the peculiarly American erotophobia that persists to this day) is antithetical to any notion of democratic justice.
It’s an example with particular relevance today. In post–September 11 America, we are seeing similar efforts to silence free expression. Even a person with as much cultural power as Susan Sontag found herself accused of "sedition" by Andrew Sullivan after she wrote a New Yorker piece critical of US culture in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Writers such as Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky are routinely attacked for being anti-American in their recent writings. Sure, they still get to publish, but that is precisely because they are Sontag, Zinn, and Chomsky. The impulse that tried to silence Samuel Roth is the same one that now demands that those who criticize government policy be silenced. Roth’s stand for freedom of the press and free expression is not simply a stand for the most basic civil liberty — it is inextricably bound up with all civil liberties: citizenship demands the full range of expression. Without that we have nothing.
Michael Bronski is the author of The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom (St. Martin’s, 1998). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org