He was perhaps the most multi-talented, and convicted, bookseller and publisher of the 20th century, and the one with the most enemies. His career started about 1917, and lasted until the early 1960s. Here are some brief highlights:
• Opened a bookstore in Greenwich Village in 1917 and met up with Frank Harris, Floyd Dell, Harry Roskolenko, and Sholem Asch.
• Traveled to Europe in 1920 as a free-lance writer and poet. Got Ezra Pounds attention and planned an anthology of recent American literature which Pound endorsed.
• After troubles with the police over publishing some Victorian pornography, he established a literary periodical in which he serialized a bowdlerized version of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Despite his claims that Pound gave him permission, this act resulted in an “International Protest” against his piracy signed by over 100 contemporary writers.
• Due to the notoriety, Roth began using aliases, eventually self-publishing his own work (he had at least 50 imprints during his career) under at least a half-dozen pseudonyms. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (again bowdlerized to get by the censors), with great success, under his Wm. Faro imprint. Also printed the first American unexpurgated piracies of the novel. Even wrote a play about it, in order to get hold of the copyrights.
• Responsible for The Strange Career of Herbert Hoover Under Two Flags, a “scandal book” published close enough to the 1932 presidential campaign to disturb the Hoover White House staff and to allow Roth to claim some credit for the election of FDR.
• After going bankrupt during the Depression, he blamed his colleagues, (possible the founders of Crown publishing, the Wartel brothers), and wrote one of the most anti-Semitic diatribes of all times, Jews Must Live, which repeats most of the worst cliches about Jews in business and politics. It was eagerly taken up by the Nazis, and Roth was ostracized by his community. He said his purpose was to provoke a re-evaluation of claims and counterclaims that would eventually reconcile the Jewish and Christian people. The book contained a drawing of Roth speaking with Jesus himself.
• Roth was caught purchasing pornographic texts (left for him in subway lockers) so he could reprint them. Spent1936-39 in federal prison.
• After World War II, developed a mail order business in borderline erotica under about 60 separate imprints and company names. The Post Office had to assign a small office staff exclusively to track down and prosecute his publications.
• Published a expose book about Walter Winchell, as a result of which its author is attacked by thugs and the NYC police raid his offices and apartment, throwing out on the street or confiscating everything in his office, including furniture.
• He testified before Kefauver Committee investigating obscene materials. Tells Kefauver that anyone who says he published anything but works of literary value should take an IQ test.
• In 1957, aged 60, he was convicted of mailing pornography and sentenced to five years in prison. Served the entire time. The Justice Sept. lawyer focused on his publication, with Beardsley drawings, of Venus and Tannhauser (“if you allow this to be published, I can assure you the sewers will open”). The minority opinion in this case sets up a three fold test of obscenity that allows for the open publishing of sexually explicit books of literary value, staring with Barney Rosset’s edition of Lady Chatterley’ Lover, while Roth is serving his last sentence.
Despite the self-hatred, piracy, pornography, and defiance of authority, Roth published, with their permissions, authors such as Milton Hindus, G. S. Viereck, Mark Hellinger, Maxwell Bodenheim, Ralph Cheyney, Clement Wood, and Gershon Legman. Because of his defiance of censorship over a 45-year career, culminating in the Roth Case, he is considered one of the legitimate champions of the First Amendment.