On this day…3 July

On 3 July 1974 Samuel Roth died.

Samuel Roth, a New-York based publisher of literature and erotica, pirated some of Joyce’s works and was responsible for publication of the first complete, albeit corrupt, text of Ulysses in the US.

Born in 1893, Roth grew up in New York, the son of migrants from Eastern Europe. Working in a variety of jobs from an early age, Roth eventually found work as a journalist, and won a scholarship to attend Columbia University for a year.

In 1921 he went to London and from there he wrote to Joyce in Paris asking about Ulysses. Returning to New York he ran a bookshop, and in the mid-1920s started publishing two magazines: Two Worlds – A Literary Quarterly Devoted to the Increase of the Gaiety of Nations, and Two Worlds Monthly. In 1925 Roth started publishing parts of what was then Work in Progress, and paid Joyce $200, promising more payments in the future. This was the first publication of any part of what became Finnegans Wake in the US.

Joyce later heard from Ernest Hemingway that Roth was only using Joyce’s name as a way to attract subscribers who, he hoped, would be attracted to buy Two Worlds by Joyce’s reputation for obscenity. Even so, Roth continued by publishing extracts from Ulysses in his Two Worlds Monthly magazine between July 1926 and October 1927. Two years later, he published a complete text of Ulysses, the first in the US, but with a text that was full of errors and that didn’t have Joyce’s approval.

After the initial $200, Roth did not pay anything further to Joyce for publishing his work, nor did he have Joyce’s permission. Recently, Roth’s daughter, Adelaide Kugel, has claimed that Roth may have had permission from Ezra Pound to publish at least some of Ulysses, but there is no evidence for this.

In December 1927 Eugene Jolas’ magazine transition published an article entitled ‘King of the Jews,’ vilifying Roth for his piracies. At the same time, Joyce was orchestrating an ‘International Protest against the Unauthorised and Mutilated Edition of Ulysses in the USA,’ which was published with over 160 signatories on 2 February 1928. The ‘Protest’ was unprecedented and Roth’s reputation as a publisher never recovered. Unfortunately for Joyce, when the first authorised text of Ulysses was published by Random House in 1934, the text was based, accidentally, on Roth’s pirated corrupt edition of 1929, and this text remained in circulation until the end of the 1930s.

Roth made a considerable amount of money by publishing and distributing salacious titles, but he was hounded by John S Sumner of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and regularly suffered having his stock confiscated. On several occasions he was prosecuted, fined, and even imprisoned for publishing and distributing obscene material, though these prosecutions were not always successful. In 1931 he was successfully defended against charges of mailing indecent material by the firm of Greenbaum, Wolff, and Ernst, the same firm that defended Joyce at the trial of Ulysses in 1933.

Roth’s unpublished autobiography starts with an account of a presentation he gave to the James Joyce Society at the Gotham Book Mart in New York where he likened himself to “a lion in a den of Daniels.” Roth continued publishing into the 1960s before retiring. He died on 3 July 1974, aged seventy-nine.


Sources & Further Reading:

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce, new and revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Gertzman, Jay A: Bookleggers and Smuthounds – The Trade in Erotica 1920-1940, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

– -: Samuel Roth – Infamous Modernist, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013.

Kugel, Adelaide: ‘Wroth Wrackt Joyce: Samuel Roth and the “not quite authorised” edition of Ulysses,’ in Joyce Studies Annual, no. 3, 1992, pp. 242-8.