Written by Alexandra M. Wilder
Samuel Roth (1893 –1974) was an American publisher and writer. Yet, he was so much more, as I discovered when I processed the Jay A. Gertzman collection on Samuel Roth, 1926-2014, Ms Coll. 1315. Jay A. Gertzman, Professor Emeritus at Mansfield University, describes Roth:
“Samuel Roth publicized himself as a literary Johnny Appleseed, bringing to ordinary Americans the modern literature of two continents, despite its sexual explicitness. He was also a master of prurient advertising of borderline mail order sex pulps and sensational human interest stories. He put himself in the direct line of fire that municipal, state and federal law enforcement officials and moral entrepreneurs reserved for pariah capitalists.”
Roth faced many legal battles and short periods of jail time over the course of his career. He is most well-known for his unauthorized publication of excerpts from James Joyce’s Ulysses in the periodical Two Worlds Monthly. This unauthorized release of Ulysses provoked an International Protest organized by Joyce and Joyce’s publisher, Sylvia Beach, in 1927.
The minority ruling from his 1957 Roth v. United States case provided the precedent for the 1959 case Grove v. Christenberry, which changed the definition of obscenity, making it easier to publish explicit material if it had artistic, literary, political, or scientific merit.
This collection features research that Jay A. Gertzman conducted in preparation for writing his book, Samuel Roth, Infamous Modernist, which was published by University of Florida Press in 2013. There are photocopies of Roth’s publications, prison letters, and legal documents, as well as original research notes by Gertzman. Roth’s other publications included Bumarap: The Story of a Male Virgin, published in 1947 (below left), and the periodical Good Times: A Revue of the World of Pleasure, published from 1954-1956 (below right).
Among the most entertaining correspondence in the collection is from “anthologist of erotic humor” Gershon Legman (1917-1999) to Gertzman, a sample of which is below.
This collection of research on Samuel Roth– aka the “Prometheus of the Unprintable,” as writer Robert Antrim referred to him in 1973– is now open for use. Researchers may also want to check out the Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which has in its holdings the Samuel Roth papers, 1907-1994.