Counting James Joyce and the Supreme Court among his rivals, former Columbia student Samuel Roth’s literary career was anything but conservative. The Rare Books and Manuscript Library pays homage to one of Columbia’s more salacious students in its newest exhibit “Publisher and Provocateur,” exploring the rise and fall of one of the United States’ most controversial publishers.
Born in 1893 in Eastern Europe, Roth is known for exploiting international copyright law, and his unauthorized publishing of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” sparked an international protest in 1927. The document of protest, which was signed by prominent individuals including Albert Einstein, is on display in the exhibit along with several editions of the “Ulysses.”
In 1917, Roth started at Columbia on a scholarship. During his year and a half at the school, he started a university poetry journal with his friend Frank Tannenbaum called “The Lyric,” which Roth eventually took off-campus. Issues of “The Lyric,” along with some of Roth’s early writing, serve as an introduction both to the exhibit and Roth’s later controversial work.
The main focus of the exhibit—which features materials acquired in 2006 from Roth’s grandchildren — is Roth’s infamous publishing endeavors.
“He kept founding companies, and then he’d get in trouble with the law and fold,” said Karla Nielsen, curator of literature for the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, referencing a list of Roth’s businesses. “He pushed both what was permissible to do because of copyright restrictions and then what was considered too obscene to publish.”
In 1957, Roth appeared before the Supreme Court in Roth v. United States for publishing the magazine “Good Times.” The 6-3 ruling against Roth helped establish the definition of “obscenity” in the American legal system.
“This case ends up having a really important legal ramification, because there is a dissenting opinion from one of the justices in the Supreme Court who gives later lawyers room to argue that [with] something that is going to be judged obscene, you don’t just have to look at the vulnerable members of society,” Nielsen said. “You can think about who the audience is.”
The exhibit includes later documents from publishers like Grove Press and Lyle Stuart, subsequently involved in their own court cases, whose rulings were directly influenced by Roth v. United States.
“It’s more important now, as publishing is changing, to think about all the work that publishers did to kind of change the landscape of what was considered expressible in the United States,” Nielsen said on the impact of Roth’s work.
More than 50 years since the landmark trial, Roth and his legacy are still very much relevant. In 2013, author Jay Gertzman published a biography on Roth. University of Tulsa professor Robert Spoo, who spoke at Columbia last week, also published a book that draws on Roth’s controversial life.
Although Roth’s actions were widely considered illicit, exhibiting the Samuel Roth papers today may lead viewers to different conclusions.
“He was considered a pirate, but he wasn’t really,” Nielsen said. “I think it was after Napster that we’re thinking about piracy differently. Almost everybody pirates material, and I think that it’s not so easy to cluck cluck and judge Samuel Roth anymore.”
The RBML will feature related programming until the exhibit closes on May 30, including a tour led by Gertzman along with Roth’s granddaughter.