Samuel Roth, Infamous Modernist

Jay A. Gertzman

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"The first deeply researched and sustained biographical treatment of a man who has become recognized as a significant figure in American publishing, transatlantic modernism, and the development of obscenity law. Gertzman’s wide-ranging knowledge of Roth and the startlingly diverse contexts in which he lived and worked makes this a penetrating and unsurpassed portrait not only of Roth but of the country he inhabited."--Robert Spoo, coeditor of Ezra and Dorothy Pound: Letters in Captivity, 1945-1946

"Gertzman is to be commended for braiding together so many underappreciated strands of twentieth-century literary, legal, and cultural history."--Paul K. Saint-Amour, editor of Modernism and Copyright


Samuel Roth is known to most literary scholars as a bold literary "pirate" for issuing unauthorized editions of modernist sensations, including Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

In the absence of an international copyright agreement and because works deemed obscene could not be copyrighted, what he did was not illegal. But it did violate the protocols of mutual fair dealing between publishers and authors. Those publications provoked an unprecedented international protest of writers, publishers, and intellectuals, who eventually vilified Roth on two continents.

Roth was a man with an uncanny ability to recognize good contemporary writing and make it accessible to popular audiences. Ultimately, his dedication to the publication of these works broke down many of the censorship laws of the time, though he suffered greatly for his efforts. His story portrays a struggle with literary censorship in the mid-twentieth century while providing insights into how modernism was marketed in America.

Jay A. Gertzman, professor emeritus of English at Mansfield University, is author of three books, including Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica, 1920-1940.
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"Scholars and citizens with an interest in modern literature and the struggle for frank expression and publication of candid material in a free society will be captivated by Samuel Roth: Infamous Modernist. For those fascinated by the shadow world of clandestine publishing and modern lit. in the U.S. it's must-read." Booktryst (blog)

"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, socialist and Marxists." Woody Haut's blog

"A full biography of a publisher who challenged American censorship laws by printing some of the greatest banned books of his time" American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (blog)

"A fascinating look at the Jewish experience, censorship, government repression and conflicts between Christianity, Jewish religion and the American dream." Huffington Post

“It is once a piece of pure scholarship, while at the same time being an analysis of why Eros threatens and when. Richard Godwin's blog

“Jay Gertzman is to be congratulated for writing a lively biography of a kind of life so often neglected.” Jewish Daily Forward

“A fascinating and highly detailed biography of one of the strangest characters in American literary history.” Journal of American Culture

“Samuel Roth: Infamous Modernist makes a very valuable contribution to the history of censorship in twentieth-century America, to the publishing history of modernism and indeed to book history more generally.” Literature & History

Gertzman neither obscures nor apologizes for Roth’s eccentricities of the vile aspect of his character...Gretzman’s assiduousness in attending to even the bizarre literary side-lights of Roth’s career is admirable. -- Michigan Quarterly Review

The first comprehensive biography of [Samuel Roth]. Gertzman brings to the task plentiful relevant experience.-- James Joyce Quarterly

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