Samuel Roth Biography


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Roth migrated to the United States in 1904 and began publishing a literary magazine called Two Worlds Monthly in 1925. Five years later he spent sixty days in jail for publishing uncensored portions of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. In the 1930’s he published two love manuals from India, the Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden and then spent ninety days in jail for violating New York State’s obscenity law. A few years later he sold an edition of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover through the mail and was jailed for three years.

By the 1950’s Roth had become known as America’s “smut king” and was still facing prosecution for his publishing ventures. In April, 1957, his name entered legal history in a U.S. Supreme Court decision titled Roth v. United States. By a 6-3 margin the Court established the “Roth” standard for obscenity. In this view the First Amendment protected all kinds of speech no matter how hateful. It did not, however, protect obscenity because obscene speech was “utterly without redeeming social importance.” After this decision a work could be considered obscene only “if taken as a whole” it appealed to the “prurient interest” of the “average person.” The idea that the whole work had to be considered, rather than isolated passages, created a more liberal standard for obscenity. Roth’s sentence of five years in jail and a $5,000 fine was upheld, however, and he went to jail again.