Samuel Roth: Infamous Modernist
By Jay A. Gertzman
University Press of Florida, 416 pages, $74.95
Biographies of book publishers are scarce, though the possibility of one or another is frequently announced, never to appear. Their lives, I once conjectured, had too many uncomfortable secrets that couldn’t be revealed, even after they’ve died. Consider that no biographies have appeared about Bennett Cerf, Alfred A. Knopf or James Laughlin, among other distinguished American bookmen, even though all of them had lives no less memorable than their most prominent authors.
Jay A. Gertzman’s “Samuel Roth: Infamous Modernist” is laudable initially for being not about a distinguished Jewish publisher, like Cerf or Knopf, but about a notorious one. Born in 1893, Roth went to jail not once but twice. He also differed from Knopf and Cerf, say, in that he wrote and self-published serious books, sometimes under pseudonyms.
The key to understanding how Roth differed from other noted publishers is that he was an Eastern European Jew, born in the Carpathian Mountains of Galicia, at a time, before World War II, when German Jews in America rigorously distanced themselves from Eastern Europeans. Once in New York, Roth matriculated into Townsend Harris, at the time the most challenging public high school ever in America, only to drop out. Knopf and Cerf, by contrast, descended from German Jews who arrived here in the 19th century, and they became gentleman publishers.
Knopf finished Columbia College before he turned 20; Cerf graduated when he was 21. By contrast, Roth got into Columbia University only to drop out. Even on the same campus, in the same city, these future book publishers moved in different worlds. Though Roth wrote acceptable English, he spoke it with a déclassé accent. Only recently did Columbia University accept his professional achievements.