On Display: Publisher as Provocateur – Samuel Roth in Context in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library
NEW YORK, January 8, 2014 –

Columbia University Libraries/Information Services’ Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML) is pleased to announce a major exhibition focusing on the career of twentieth-century maverick publisher Samuel Roth. The exhibit opens Tuesday, January 21, with an opening reception and lecture by Robert Spoo, “James Joyce v. Samuel Roth: How an Author without Copyrights Sued a Publisher without Courtesy,” and is open through Friday, May 30, 2013.   


Samuel Roth

Samuel Roth’s first project as a publisher was a student-run poetry journal The Lyric that he started at Columbia with his friend Frank Tannenbaum in 1917. Over the next fifty years, he published hundreds of books and several literary and lifestyle magazines. A savvy exploiter of international copyright law, Roth repackaged European books and other material in the public domain, using his facility for writing advertising copy to market both classical and contemporary avant-garde writing as exciting and scandalous.

Roth also published original writing and hired authors to write books.  The previously unpublished Claude McKay manuscript “Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem,” discovered in Roth’s archive in 2009 will be on display in the exhibition.  

Roth’s career was punctuated by legal skirmishes and jail time. His unauthorized release of James Joyce’sUlysses provoked an International Protest organized by Joyce and Joyce’s publisher, Sylvia Beach, in 1927. The minority ruling from his 1957 case U.S. v. Good Times created the precedent for the 1959 case Grove v. Christenberry, which changed the definition of obscenity, making it easier to publish explicit material if it had literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. The exhibit shows the active role that publishers took to push the boundaries of the acceptable to current standards. 

“Roth is an important figure in the history of twentieth century publishing, even from the position he occupied in the margins,” said Karla Nielsen of the RBML, who curated the exhibition with her colleague Jane Siegel. “He ‘pandered to the prurient interest,’ but he also sought out the most interesting and challenging contemporary writers and was a worthy adversary for the U.S. Postal Service, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and the Courts.”

The exhibition includes materials related to the complicated publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses in Europe and the United States, and the repercussions of Roth’s court cases for later publishers such as the Grove Press and Lyle Stuart.  The broader context that the exhibition provides for Roth’s career includes the longer history of publication of sexually explicit material such as Fanny Hill, the publication of political exposes, and the use of subscription models and mail orders to avoid censorship. 

The exhibition includes materials from the Samuel Roth papers held by the RBML as well as other holdings, including the archives of Random House, Lyle Stuart, Barney Rosset, and the Vanguard Press.  These collections are part of the RBML’s extensive holdings of publishers’ archives, which also include the papers of Harper & Bros. and Harper & Row, the Kulchur Press, and more recent additions including the archives of theDalkey Archive PressKitchen Sink Press, the New Press, and Granary Books

In addition to the exhibit opening reception and lecture by Robert Spoo, the library will sponsor a series of events focusing on obscenity trials, censorship, and copyright law. For a full listing of events, please visit theLibraries Event Calendar

Columbia University Libraries/Information Services (CUL/IS) is one of the top five academic research library systems in North America. The collections include over 12 million volumes, over 160,000 journals and serials, as well as extensive electronic resources, manuscripts, rare books, microforms, maps, and graphic and audio-visual materials. The services and collections are organized into 22 libraries and various academic technology centers, including affiliates. CUL/IS employs more than 450 professional and support staff. The website of the Libraries is the gateway to its services and resources: library.columbia.edu.

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