Saturday, August 23, 2014

Samuel Roth, Infamous Modernist

Jay A. Gertzman

My name is Jay A. Gertzman. In April my biography of one of the most interesting Jewish American publishers was released by the Univ. Press of Florida. Its title is Samuel Roth, Infamous Modernist. The Press publishes a lot of James Joyce studies, and Roth was the first (unauthorized) publisher of Ulysses in the U.S.

My book’s genre is non-fiction, biography.

Describe your book please.

Samuel Roth (1894-1974) was an example of the American Dream as a tragi-comedy of commercial success causing a split between the spiritual and secular aspects of being a Jew.

As for the secular, money-making, side, Roth was very successful as a distributor of prurient borderline books, sold by mail order, as well as classical pornography, distributed through various underground sources.  Not even two consecutive jail sentences, and bankruptcy during the Depression, stopped him. 

and a self-promoter.

Ostracized from the profession of letters, because of his unauthorized excerpts fromUlysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover,   he became a pariah to the literary profession and also to moral crusaders. However, Roth claimed, with justification, to be one of America’s most important fighters against censorship (Roth v U.S., 1957).   If it would not have been for his appeal to the 
Supreme Court for a conviction for sending “obscenity” (Beardsley’s Venus and Tanhauser, with his classic Art Nouveau illustrations), the famous decision allowing the Grove Press to publish people like D H Lawrence and Henry Miller would not have happened.

What is the Jewish related theme in  your book?

Born in Galicia (now the western Ukraine), and immigrating to the Lower East Side at age 10, Samuel Roth grew up in poverty. Had he not left his shtetl, he would have become a rabbi. His father and his melamed agreed he was bright and intense enough. In the late 19th century, Hassidic Jews did not send their sons to a public school to learn German, because they wanted the focus of their education to be Jewish, not secular. In New York, he did not do well in school; the family was so poor his father wanted him to quit, and go to work.  One reason he signed up with a matchmaker (shadchan) was so that he would be invited to a meal at the home of a prospective bride.  But he overcame poverty with his skills as a writer.

Good at self-promotion, The latter, in the form of a letter to his first employer, got him a job in a drug store, from which location his observations of the life around him resulted in early stories. He published them in The Jewish ChildThe Menorah Journal, and The Jewish Exponent. His early poetry, secular and religious, brought him commendations from Louis Untermeyer, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Marie Syrkin, and Israel Zangwill.

His final work was his own version of the Psalms of David. Roth’s last prose work was a visionary novel (1962) about his being present at the last visit of Yeshea (Jesus) to Jerusalem. Many Jewish writers confronted this subject, the most important being Sholem Asch, in a series of novels. It took courage to do so.

The Messiah tells him his destiny is to bring Christians and Jews together after 2000 years. What he has to say about the Jewish experience, about God’s call to humanity “Where art thou,” about the “Evil Inclination” as Hassidic mysticism defined it, and about how to restore the world to prepare it for the Messiah, are all very well thought out and should be acknowledged as the modernist Hassidic ideals they make clear, in the language ordinary folks speak.

His most recent appearance in print was in Chabon’s Cavalier and Clay (p.614).

What do you write, what have you published, and what are your reasons for writing?

My writing is scholarly in nature. I have published three previous books, and about 25 articles in journals. This book is different. Samuel Roth’s story is an important Jewish American one.  It is a good time to be reminded of the materialistic and spiritual resources of Jewish immigrants in the early twentieth century. Jewish people are now integrated into post-Holocaust, post-industrial American society so completely that the character and passions of their grandparents are often lost to them. So my motivation for writing this biography includes telling American Jews about the kind of choices our people had when they were distinctly not assimilated into American society.

What formats are your book in?

So far, it is only in hardback. I hope it will be in paperback in about a year. Meanwhile, if you would like a copy at $30 (less than half the published price), email me

What do you like and dislike about writing and publishing?

My career is in academic publishing. I love the challenge of researching and orgainizing important but little-understood issues related to literature and cultural history, My pet p[eeve is the absurdly high price of university press books, the market for which is conceived as being for research libraries.

What prizes has you book won? Has it been reviewed yet?

 It has won the "Pick of the Month" award for May 2013 by American Booksellers Federation for Free Expression. Roth’s career is of the first importance in the story of our first Amendment freedoms

There are several reviews, all positive, to which I have added links on both my websites (listed below).

Websites for Samuel Roth, Infamous Modernistcan be found at