Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Interview With Author Jay A. Gertzman On Book About Anti-Censorship Crusader Samuel Roth


In Samuel Roth: Infamous Modernist, (
University Press of Florida, 2013) Professor Jay A. Gertzman presents the fascinating biography of Samuel Roth, the pariah publisher notorious for circulating banned and  “obscene” works of fiction, many of which (including most famously Joyce’s Ulysses and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover) have since become classics of modern literature.  

Roth’s 1957 appeal to the Supreme Court against charges of obscenity (Roth v. United States) proved a landmark case in the fight against censorship, and paved the way for the freedom of expression we enjoy today.

Here is author Jay A. Gertzman:

1.   Why did you choose to write about Samuel Roth? In my book on the distribution and prosecution of erotica in the1920s and 30s, I treated him as a key figure, because of his knowledge not only of how to appeal to men’s prurience, but also due to his deep knowledge of the importance of sexual explicitness in modernist literature. He was a writer himself. Paradoxically, he did not write erotica, but sonnets and deeply felt poems about Hasidic piety, one of which was printed in the most prestigious magazine in its field, Poetry, in 1920. I treated him as a complex figure with a high purpose. That pleased his grandchildren, who asked me in 2006 to write an account of his life. I was well prepared to do so, having written extensively on his piracies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

2.   Do you feel your book vindicates him? No, and I did not intend it to. I wanted to show the complexity of his character: a publisher of a lot of books that teased customers with promises of inside gossip, and also some that were modernist classics.  He was a fine poet who could not get acknowledged because he was a pariah. He knew a great deal about Hasidic Judaism, yet published an anti-Semitic book after he blamed business associates of double-crossing him. He was a sometime pornographer, yet finished his career by writing a novel in which he was given the God-inspired task of reconciling Jews and Christians. He was a philandering husband, yet a devoted family man who inspired, despite everything, the undiluted love of his wife, children, and grandchildren. 

3.   He died 40 years ago. How have times changed in terms of the distribution or prosecution of pornography? Technological advances have made it impossible to prevent people from accessing, either free or by payment, sexual explicitness of all kinds. The Internet is big business. There are major profits now in internet erotica. Back in Roth’s day, he and other distributors were outlasts, subject to jail sentences based on subjective postal and municipal authorities’ ideas of what was “obscene.” Now, the large firms are run by college business school graduates, with enormous capital and, therefore, political influence. Follow the money. Naturally, legal criteria have changed. Today, the “moral crusade” has largely shifted to child pornography. Any exploitation of children in sexual contexts is indeed criminal. Its negative effects on future development are objectively proven—unlike the case in the convictions based on the vague notion that nakedness, homosexuality, information about contraception or abortion, or stories of prostitution were all “obscene.”

4.   How much can sexuality become more open in society than it is today? This may seem flippant but it is not—read banned books and see films censored by “decency codes.. Or, since erotic expression in words (and even in most images) is no longer banned, read and view the classics—erotic and political—that were considered pornographic or a clear danger to public order in the past. D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover is about human sexuality as part of a natural process which he thinks has degenerated into a test of manhood and a way of escaping into orgasm. Anias Nin’sLittle Birds are poetic stories of love and its expression in sexual mutuality. Or try two books most frequently banned from schools:The Color of Earth (a coming-of-age graphic novel depicting a Korean woman making love, and her daughter’s first affair) or Bridge to Terebithia (two pre-teens retreat from the contentious worlds of their parents and create their own Earth with its own non Judeo-Christian diety).

5.   Samuel spent nine years in prison. Would he have served a day today for what he did in the 1920s and 1930s? Roth went to prison in 1957 due to concepts regarding obscenity that were based on the material’s effect on what fostered moral irresponsibly in people whom the authorities feared, due to gender, race, and income level. Two years later, expressive materials which was sexually explicit but had literary, artistic, political or social value in sexually explicit material were sanctioned. At Roth’s trial, these concepts were clearly stated. But he went to jail. The Grove Press had better lawyers, and more forward-looking judges.  However, there is another factor, and it works to show Roth’s freedom from intimidation. Many other booksellers, when warned, withdrew the books police or anti-vice societies cited. Rothwould not withdraw books. He was marked down as a trouble-maker and a law-breaker. That does not explain his 1937-39 time in jail, for he did publish what was then (not now) pornography. But it does explain his 1957-61 sentence.

6.   What can we learn from Samuel’s life and how society treated him? We can learn that a man who was irascible, spiteful, and given to self-indulgence at the expense of family and friends could also be a man with a singular courage. “I will continue to publish what appears to me true and beautiful if I have to make a barracks out of very jail in the U.S.” That is overblown rhetoric, but he did serve a total of 9 years in prison for books and advertisements whose “obscenity” was a matter of what people with status and power believed to be obscene—including modernist novels, material that would help poor women avoid having children they could not afford, and sympathetic studies of gay people and people of color. We can learn that the career of a poor immigrant without polish or politeness is much harder than that of someone who has cultural capital, be s/he a writer with rich and/or academic admirers, a publisher with university training, or a journalist who writes what readers, editors, and owners of newspapers want to hear. 

7.   What role did his Jewish faith play in how he lived—and how he was treated? Roth suffered from the stigma of Jewishness. His enemies referred to him as “King of the Jews,” and his birthplace as producing the lowest form of humanity ever reproduced (referring to the Jewish population of eastern Europe. But Roth was the writer of the anti-Semitic tract Jews Must Live, which itself repeated many of the racial insults directed at Jews as haters of Christianity, misers, exploiters of their customers, and as degenerate physically (carriers of TB) and sexually. His Hasidic piety surfaced in his powerful novel about his own mission to bring together Jews and Christians. His last set of poems, in imitation of the Psalms of David, describe movingly the history of the Jews (“a monumental meanness”) during the Diaspora.

8.   Do you feel you are an advocate for free speech? What would you speak out against today as it relates to freedom of expression? I headed a committee on freedom of expression at Mansfield University. We worked on issues such as the removal of posters that were deemed offensive to minorities, Christian fundamentalist students, and/or feminists.  Now, some schools want teachers to warn students that a certain lecture might be “offensive.” That is an abdication of responsibility on the part of the institution to make people think and argue.
The removal of books from high school libraries and classrooms is a chief problem today. Last year, the Chicago Board of bannedPersepolis: due to students’ “lack of intellectual skills for taking full advantage of the marketplace of ideas . . .” Set during the Iraq-Iran war, the graphic novel tells of the suffering of an Iranian family experiencing bombing, government-employed mercenaries, prejudice against Arabs, and the resultant breakup of the family unit– events students might compare to what has happened in Gaza now, and in the Middle East since our own decade-old “war of choice” there. This censorship teaches students that teachers and parents, uncomfortable with hard truth, can act in bad faith.Yhry blame their fears on the students’ lack of ability. That is the essence of censorship.

9.  Samuel Roth was a crook. Should we still see him as a hero? He was not a “thief,” as Joyce and his friends told the media. There was no international copyright agreement. But he was blandly unscrupulous, so he deserved to be vilified for his conduct regarding Ulysses. He was much less culpable in the case of his federal sentence for distributing obscene advertisements and books. The post office defined the vague term according to their own prejudices, and provided no chance for the accused to have a fair trial with a lawyer. Roth went to jail in1957 and the minority decision in his Supreme Court case was used two years later to win Grove Press the right Roth was denied. You might call Roth’s fight against censorship heroic. But can we see a man who made a lot of money with his mail order advertisements as a hero? Perhaps. He did show that people bought erotica due to a guilty fascination with sex, which the religious and legal absolutes of his society had installed in citizen’s heads. That is, accidentally on his part, heroic.

Please note that Jay Gertzman is a client of Media Connect.


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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer, Media Connect, the nation’s largest book promoter. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2014

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