Friday, April 19, 2013

Memories of a Not-So Shy Pornographer: Samuel Roth- Infamous Modernist

Written by Jay Gertzman, author of Bootleggers and Smuthounds- 1920-40: The Trade in Erotica, as well as an excellent essay on David Goodis, Infamous Modernist is the story of poet, novelist, pamphleteer, magazine editor and outlaw publisher Samuel Roth. But it's also the story of an era that stretches back to the early days of the 20th century, when the lower East Side of New York was a haven for Jewish immigrants- poets, Yiddish actors, trade unionists, journalists, with more than its fare share of anarchists, socialists and Marxists. Over the years that world has been documented by such disparate writers as Irving Howe, Luc Sante and Ed Sanders. But, to my knowledge, Roth has so far escaped scrutiny. 

From Gertzman's handsome but somewhat pricey volume we learn that the Galician-born Roth was more than a marginal figure. Emigrating to New York at the end of the nineteenth century, Roth was heralded as a promising young poet, and, in 1920, opened a bookstore that would become a meeting place for writers. In the ensuing years, Roth would be instrumental in fighting the existing censorship laws, paving the way for books like Burrough's Naked Lunch, Nabokov's Lolita and Ginsberg's Howl. Of course, this came at a cost. For his efforts, Roth would spend some nine years in prison, first in 1928, for distributing obscene material through interstate commerce. His final last stretch- over three years- began in 1958. A self-publicist, provocateur and literary hustler, he published two volumes of particular notoriety: Nietzsche's "memoir," My Sister and I, about the philosopher's incestuous relationship with his sibling, which might have been written by the philosopher, Roth, or someone else altogether, if not any combination thereof. The other volume was penned by Roth himself, the inflammatory Jews Must Live: : An Account of the Persecution of the World By Israel on all the Frontiers of Civilization, which would be taken up by the Nazis and still referred to in white-supremacist circles ("There is not single instance when the Jews have not deserved the bitter fruit of the fury of their persecutors...We come to the nations pretending to escape persecution, we are the most deadly persecutors in all the wretched annals of man."). Roth, in the absence of international copyright agreements, also produced unauthorised versions of books like Ulysses, Lady Chatterley's Lover and Harris's My Life and Loves. In doing so, he not only made such classics available, but inadvertently addressed issues regarding the ownership of literature and book-as-commodity. As well as being found guilty of distributing pornography through the US mail (obscene material falling outside copyright legislation), Roth  incurred the wrath of Walter Winchell (probably in response to Roth publishing The Secret Life of Walter Winchell) and New York D.A. Frank Hogan,  while a Senate committee would condemn him for inciting juvenile delinquency by targeting adolescents for the erotica.    

Scrupulously researched, including valuable information from Roth's daughter Adelaide Kugel (often entertaining, as in the story of  the woman walks into her father's bookstore and says in a Yiddish accent, "I want sex." Sam replies, you've come to the right place. All these books are about sex."  To which the woman answers, "Not books. Sex. Sex Fifth Avenue."), Gertzman makes an excellent case for giving Roth his due. With his numerous publishing house and book clubs, Roth epitomised the motto "publish and be damned." With the proliferation of porn on the internet and the sexualization of the culture, Roth's story, however tragic- his last prison sentence in Lewisburg was served alongside fellow inmate Wilhelm Reich- might seem quaint. However, through the 1950s, such activity was deemed highly subversive, even part of the communist arsenal. Which is ironic considering Roth's anti-communism and his occasional willingness to work for the state. In Gertzman's hands, Roth's story, depicting a world long gone, continues to resonate, even cited as  "a wall-eyed loser" in Michael Chabon's prize-winning Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.     

On a personal note, my father used to tell me about hearing Roth's cohort, the notorious Maxwell Bodenheim, read his poetry. Probably traveling down from Harlem to Roth's bookstore, though it could be that he heard Bodenheim in Chicago where he worked alongside Bodenheim's friend Ben Hecht. In any case,  Roth would publish Bodenheim's My Life and Loves in Greenwich Village, though it turns out Bodenheim was not the sole author of that volume. But, then, that  was par for Roth's course. Likewise, it was common  for Roth to insert himself into such texts. And sure enough, while perusing my Belmont edition of My Life and Loves..., I noticed the penultimate chapter  entitled  "public bohemian number one," which concerns none other than Samuel Roth. While the final chapter, on Bodenheim's last days, was written by S.R., presumably Samuel Roth. 

As for Roth's noir credentials, what could possibly be more noir  than the sleazy world of underground publishing and book-selling, even more so when pursuing free speech, whether in the guise of erotica, porn life or high-class literati like Celine, Henry Miller and Joyce. And to add to his noir credentials, Roth distributed remaindered copies of Gresham's Nightmare Alley in 1947, a book cited in the case, Roth vs Goldman. Moreover, among Roth's ghost-writer of erotica, one of the most adept was his daughter-in-law Peggy Roth who, as Margaret Gruen, and before she was blacklisted, received a story credit for Ida Lupino's 1948 film noir Road House, and contributed to the screenplay for Michael Curtiz's 1945 Mildred Pierce. This is a book overflowing with such information. Not  only a literary con-man, extremist and free-speech advocate, Roth was probably, to usurp James Brown's title, the hardest working man in publishing.


Unknown said...

Hi Woody, Great post. I assume that you know that "Memoirs of a Not Altogether Shy Pornographer" is an actual book written by the great Bernard Wolfe, who profiled his year as an unemployed Yale grad at the tail-end of the Depression, writing erotica for some desperately-needed cash. Cohiba

Woody Haut said...

Glad you liked the post. And thanks for pointing out the similarity to the Wolfe title, which I hadn't been aware of (though I've read others by him, such as Limbo 90, The Great Prince..., Really the Blues). I was thinking more about Kenneth Patchen's Memoir of a Shy Pornographer, which I'm sure Wolfe was referencing in his title. His book sounds interesting, and at some point I'll definitely track it down.