The promising Jewish poetry of a Pariah: Samuel Roth.
Roth thought deeply about his youth in a Galician shtetl, the tenuous Jewish American moral balance in The Golden Land, the promises of Zionism, and Diaspora history as nightmare. His themes "anxiety and loneliness, the experience of spiritual sloth, messianic condemnation of moral expediency, the responsibilities of the future, and the ability to face God" are those of the Enlightenment, the Diaspora, and the Jewish American experience. One thinks of Kafka's phrase, "Writing as a form of prayer."
Roth indeed lived in two worlds. It was the venal one of borderline erotica with which most of his contemporaries identified him. After his ostracism from the literary community in 1927 due to his printings of Ulysses, Roth became an entrepreneur of popular literature, including the first American "men's magazine" and books about the "secret life" of celebrities. During the Depression, he turned to underground marketing of "porno." From 1929 to 1961, he spent a total of nine years in prison for distributing obscenity and for pandering to prurience in circulars for mail order books and pamphlets. Tragically, Samuel Roth wrote Jews Must Live: An Account of the Persecution of the World by Jewry on All the Frontiers of Civilization and self-published it in 1934. Furious at what he had witnessed as his publishing house was forced into bankruptcy, he responded with what he probably thought was a jeremiad meant for Jews whose cash-driven American dreams had undermined their sense of social obligation. With fangs bared, he excoriated Jewish physicians, real estate brokers, entertainers, bankers, and, of course, publishers. The Nazis quoted the work in propaganda speeches and even advertised it via sky writing planes over American cities. The work is, in fact, an intemperate and inchoate, if selectively well observed, study of the business tactics of Jewish middlemen and hostility toward them by the population of countries, especially America, in which they settled (Gertzman, 257-69). Roth spent the rest of his life trying to atone for "that tragic book of mine." That atonement possibly includes the revisions he made to the memoir of his boyhood, Count Me Among the Missing (hereafter CMAM), which was not put in final form until Viereck read it in the mid-1950s. The manuscript glows with reverence for Jewish faith and Talmudic laws, of which young Roth was a student.
Samuel Roth told his father at age fourteen that his ambition was to become a poet (CMAM 132). That was exceptionally strange for a Lower East Side boy, for it was hardly a way to the financial security that would mean escaping the ghetto. From 1915 to 1917, he was a member of a poetry club, the "Ugerki," which included Marie Syrkin (daughter of labor Zionist Nahum Syrkin) and Maurice Samuel (Kugel, "Higher Education," In a Plain Brown Wrapper [hereafter PBW] 14). Thanks to the contacts established by his friend and roommate, the labor activist Frank Tannenbaum (Foner, 4: 442-48; Maier and Weatherhead 4-9), early Anarchist as well as Zionist verses by Roth appeared in pamphlets and newspapers. He also wrote poems, stories, and an occasional book review for the Jewish press: The Jewish Child, The Maccabean, The Hebrew Standard. Roth met most of New York's downtown Bohemia during the years 1912-1916. They included Tannenbaum's many admirers and supporters in his Wobbly-inspired "direct actions" to help the unemployed: Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Max Eastman, Thomas Seltzer, Floyd Dell, and Arturo Giovannetti (Roth, CMAM 130-36; Kugel, "Friendships," PBW2-12). In 1916, Tannenbaum, then an honor student at Columbia, successfully advocated Roth's admission on scholarship. The two students founded The Lyric in 1917 ("Friendships," PBW, 20-24; CMAM 153-54; Hoffman, Allen, and Ulrich, 252).
Roth gained a reputation as a hard driving and discriminating editor, capable of bringing to people's attention some of the best poets in America and England. There were six issues, which included contributions from faculty advisor John Erskine, Robinson, Samuel, Clement Wood, Sara Teasdale, Amy Lowell, James Oppenheim, Leslie N. Jennings, John Gould Fletcher, Babette Deutsch, Clinton Scollard, William Rose Benet, and D. H. Lawrence, most by written permission from the poets. During the years 1917 to 1921, Roth was extremely helpful in Robinson's behalf both in America and England, arranging for the poet to be awarded The Lyric's five hundred dollar poetry prize, publishing a long appreciation of Robinson in The Bookman early in 1920 ("Edwin Arlington Robinson"), and writing to British critic J. C. Squire about arranging to meet him on his trip to England (Robinson to Roth, 17 May; CMAM219; Squire to Roth, 21 Feb.). Robinson responded gratefully to The Bookman piece, assuring Roth he read it "with a very real sense of obligation ... Your generally positive note is something very rare. That comes in most cases when a fellow is from a quarter to a half century dead" (Robinson to Roth, 8 Dec.).
Before the War stopped publication, Sam and Frank had done exceptionally well with The Lyric. A New York Times Book Review essay on recent poetry praised it for attempting "a higher and more ambitious flight than most [college magazines], and with considerable success" ("Some Recent Books of Poetry," 310). The reviewer liked the high standard set by both the younger and the previously published poets. Those who wrote directly to Roth congratulating him were just as impressed. Sam had sent some of the poet-editors he included (as well as Harriet Monroe of Poetry and anthologist William Stanley Braithwaite) his own verses. They must have realized that here was a promising young colleague (Braithwaite to Roth; Monroe to Roth). Giving constructive evaluations of The Lyric's contents and grateful of how their poems looked in print, contributors themselves were universally enthusiastic. The distinguished set of writers with whom they shared space especially pleased them. Roth continued to publish and edit The Lyric independently of Columbia in 1919-1920.
Charles Reznikoffand Louis Zukofsky were friends and employees in Roth's Lower East Side school for teaching immigrants English in the early 1920s. Roth published Reznikoff's third book of poetry under his Poetry Book Shop imprint in 1920. The vignettes and images of Lower East Side life in Reznikoff's Poems are full of the pathos of immigrants' struggles. Only because the images themselves imply more than pathos do Reznikoff's lyrics rise above sentimentalism. His subjects are a kitten's corpse twisted out of shape by push carts, sick and dying beggars and charwomen, a man who has a fatal heart attack while crossing the Brooklyn Bridge to his apartment where his wife has just set the dinner table, a father whose business has failed and who is a burden to his family taking the gas pipe, and a bedridden mother whose son had just been killed in the war. While the snow is "thick about the arc lights like moths in summer," her son's body is being sent home "through fields and cities cold and white." (1) Not even Zukovsky, much less Roth or other poets working with the power of the image, dared this kind of horrific melodrama, although they could have learned from Reznikoff how to convey with lyric precision shock, impotence, and despair at what they had experienced as ghetto Jews in New York.
Roth published two of Zukofsky's poems in his Two Worlds Quarterly in 1925. While sensuous imagery with symbolic resonance was not his forte, Roth did write some lyrics that take their place along with those of poets whose works included early examples of imagism and objectivism. In his Preface to An "Objectivists" Anthology (15-22), Zukofsky argued that "particulars" can embody the poet's experience in the world in the political and historical moment in which he or she is immersed. One of his poems in Two Worlds is "A Parable of Time," which manipulates the concept of "Phenominalism" (the only reality is observable data). Zukofsky describes "A great house ... / With a face / Of painted wood" in front of which an aristocratic old man and woman have a polite conversation. They moved away; there were rumors; decay set in:
The great house lost its roof And is now a timber yard; The man who owns the walls Presents a shabby card.
And who cares, the poet concludes, if now people only see a house about to be demolished? All they miss is universal desire, adjustment to convention, paths to fulfillment, and mortality.
Among Roth's acquaintances, those who cared included Alter Brody, Louis Grudin, Reznikoff, Harriet Monroe, and the Yiddish poet Yehoash, in his "Woolworth Building":
Evening falls Like a dead fly on the knot of blent wire and mortar and cement ... And high above all spires that scrape the sky, ... The temple of the god of iron and gold! (1920)
The images in some of Roth's best short poems are, like those of the poets just mentioned and like Alter Brody's, intended to make a social reality integral to the picture, as Oppen and Zukofsky prescribed for fellow objectivists (Gitenstein 4-5; Heller, 216-17). Thus, the pushcart peddlers of "Hester Street" are poverty-stricken Bar Kochbas, Moseses, Isaacs, and Hasmoneans; the allusions to ancient leaders suggest the pride and mysterious endurance of a venerable people (Isaac was the longest-lived of the patriarchs). In "The Rain on Broadway," the subway and the sewer imply the sordid environment of "rain and man." "The Bowery Wind" uses "shivering beggar" and "barefooted children ... flutter[ing] like silly dolls" to discomfort people "with warm houses and locked gates." "From the Williamsburgh [sic] Bridge" describes the power of evening as a bugle call:
And they who move the vendor's cart and they who move the hand of fate Stir tremulously like the leaves of a wind-blown flower. (2)
Despite these tentative exercises in Modernist lyric, Roth was not an experimental poet. During his trip to England in 1921, he did correspond with Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, and H. D., and met the latter and T. S. Eliot during a trip to England in 1921. There, he planned a history of modern American poetry. Pound, for whom teaching Europeans about American creative genius was of paramount importance, agreed to write marginal commentary for it. (3) When Roth founded the literary quarterly Two Worlds in 1925 and the newsstand-distributed Two Worlds Monthly in 1926, some of the poets he published were avant-garde in their sexual explicitness, terse diction, and suggestive images. However, most were conventional in phrasing and style: Arthur Symons, E. Powes Mather, D. H. Lawrence, and Thomas Hardy. In an open letter to The Nation in 1920 (the contributor's note identified him as "a poet and essayist, and editor of The Lyric"), Roth identified his favorite English and American poets: only Pound and Eliot were devoted to "the revolution of the word." Others were Thomas Hardy, G. K. Chesterton, Ralph Hodgson, Masefield, Vachel Lindsay, Sandberg, Frost, and especially Robinson (Roth, "A Letter," 527; Roth, "Edwin Arlington Robinson," 507-11).
Roth's reputation as a poet of promise in his twenties is confirmed by a score of talented writers who were contributors to The Lyric, fellow editors, and friends. Those not already mentioned include Marguerite Wilkinson, Joseph Freeman, Thomas Moult, Louis Untermeyer, John Erskine, and H. D. He published poems in a large number of periodicals: Poetry, The Menorah Journal, The Boston Transcript, Contemporary Verse (the most successful poetry magazine after Harriet Monroe's Poetry), Minaret, and Midland. In these pages his fellow poets included Untermeyer, Robinson, Samuel, Wilkinson, Babette Deutsch, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Margaret Widdemer, Arthuro Giovannitti, Max Eastman, and Charles Reznikoff. Untermeyer, in a lengthy essay in The Menorah Journal on "The Jewish Spirit in Modern American Poetry," listed Roth among "younger poets" such as Louis Gruden, Elias Lieberman, Arthur Guiterman, and Franklin P. Adams, praising his "sonnets and unrhymed philippics" (132). Wilkinson (347) printed one of his excellent "Nustscha" sonnets in her anthology of New Voices (1919); Stanley Coblentz (91) anthologized eight of these in Modern American Lyrics: An Anthology (1924). We have mentioned Zangwill's commendation.
Marie Syrkin was Roth's best constructive critic. She could not help being moved by a few of his solemnly meditative pieces, especially one she read in The Nation in 1920. However, she did take the occasion to remind "the King [who] can do no wrong" of the "horrible lapses of taste and rhythm in other poems ... Of course, by now you are mortally offended and have consigned me to the ignorant rabble that dares dictate to genius ..." (Syrkin to Roth 1920). They had a special relationship, from the "Ugerki" group, which included her first husband, Maurice Samuel (she later married Charles Reznikoff), and the editors of The Jewish Child, Judith and Sulamith Ish-Kishor. When Roth sent her three sonnets ("Whatcha think of these?"), one a imitation of the Elizabethan with touches of Keats, she responded with praise for its "fine glowing spirit," followed by some significant demolition of the poem's diction and structure (Syrkin to Roth, n.d.). She was back again when Sam published a cleverly phrased bit of light verse poking fun at a poem by Arturo Giovannitti in The Liberator (a successor to The Masses) in 1919. She wrote, "Why oh why do you do it? As usual you love a quaint conceit with a few pretty, successful twists, but most vilely buttressed by an ingenious disregard for rhythm ... You could produce big stuff but thru sheer perversity and laziness you write verse in which flashes of real beauty and blatant amateurishness play hide and seek. Don't be angry," she concludes, "I write this for your soul's sake" (Syrkin to Roth, 1919). (4) Her shrewd and witty advice bore results, although sometimes she seems not to have given him sufficient credit for improvement.
One of the genres in which Roth concentrated was amatory verse. One would expect his work to consist of sensual and enthusiastic persuasions to gather rosebuds, considering his extremely active, and furtive, sexual adventures. That is not what one finds, however. As one can imagine from his career as a publisher who took full advantage of lax international copyright laws and who knew better than any other how pruriently to titillate his customers, the contrast between Samuel Roth's literary output and how he chose to behave is more striking than is the case with most writers. According to Maurice Samuel, he was seeing prostitutes regularly by the time he was seventeen (M. Samuel to Roth). For a time, he was fixated on a film actress whose adventures he compulsively followed both in Lower East Side nickelodeons and uptown theaters (Roth, "Open Plumbing," 388-90). Despite Marie Syrkin's engagement to Samuel, she was pursued avidly by Roth while Maurice was working in Ohio. They kissed, which in that era signified an engagement, but the affair ended upon Samuel's return to New York (CMAM, 147; Kugel, "London," PBW, 18-22). In London, he lived with a beautiful young woman whom he met on the street (CMAM, 223-29; Kugel, "London," PBW, 19, 22). One of Roth's editors, the folklorist and bibliographer of erotica Gershon Legman, told Adelaide Kugel that while her father was editing his two newsstand magazines in 1926 and 1927, he reviewed night club productions and musical theater in order to meet showgirls whose careers he was in a position to advance (Legman to Kugel, 5). One of his favorite actresses, with whom he exchanged letters and for whom he wrote a novelette, was stage star Helen Gahagan, later wife of Melvyn Douglas (Kugel, notes for PBW). Roth's daughter, in her memoir, wrote that his wife, Pauline, feared her husband would use his trip to England as an excuse to end their marriage. She did not see him off. And he did have a shipboard romance, he averred, with the daughter of the martyred Spanish anarchist and educator Francisco Ferrer (Kugel, "London," PBW 2-3; CMAM 192-96). This frequently indulged sexual attraction to many women is remarkable because of the contrast between it and the fervent spirituality the persona in his poems yearns for.
The love sonnets appearing in The Boston Daily Transcript, The Maccabean, and Contemporary Verse are meditative, rather like the palinode or retraction-of-love sections of Renaissance sonnet sequences, in which the poet turns from eros to agape, or to memento mori. The diction is similar also: "heart," "ashes," "moon," "trifles," "traitor." His themes are isolation, the futility of expressing desire in words, and the fragile macrocosm lovers construct against an indifferent or malevolent universe. Occasionally, there is a remarkable directness of statement that prefigures Roth's later poems:
How can you understand that this my heart Is but a sparrow in an eagle's nest? So far it is from both the sky and land It cannot rise, it dare not fall, so lives apart From fear of conquest and from hope of rest ... I will not speak; you could not understand. ("Trifles") Should you turn from me for a far-off clime And never more to me the sun should bring Your image; but in fine imagining; Only your name remain ... I fear that the fuel we gather here May yet turn traitor ... ... and dead of root Darkly will float down the eternal stream. ("Should You Turn from Me")
These poems are similar to some in James Oppenheim's 1914 collection ("When in the Death of Love," 15; "Where Love Once Was," 16) and especially to Marie Syrkin's. The restless uncertainty and foreboding in her "Trifles" leads only to the ultimate sense of paralysis for a poet: the inability to speak. The last line of Syrkin's sonnet "Insomnia" ("Written in Youth" 101) is "And you were only a remembered name." It reflects the fourth line in Roth's "Should You Turn from Me." Darkness in both poems is identified with loss and inability to retain not only the loved one but even the memory of what the passion was like. Syrkin is more effective than Roth in weaving vital images into the experience:
And like a dream you left my pain's strong grasp. The dark grew empty of all dread and grace; All anguish went out like a wind-blown fame.
The sadness and suppressed longing in Syrkin's and Roth's love poems (their affair was short and furtive) is, despite the genre, significantly related to the poets being American Jews. The tenor of the speakers' emotion is rooted in an inability to give themselves to a loving, communal, and deeply spiritual creed. That creed is not only the Christian idealism embodied in the long tradition of the love sonnet, but also that of the eastern European Jewish community. If Roth and Syrkin reject the former, their identity as Americans makes the latter unavailable. "Sullen," "dry," "void," and "silent" are some of the adjectives Roth uses to denote this complex of yearnings.
The poet's Jewish-themed verses are intensely revealing depictions of inner tension, troubled awareness, and morose puzzlement. Written during his twenties, they are, it is important to note, no less incongruous with his actual behavior than are his love poems. From 1917 to 1921, Roth had gained a reputation among writers and patrons not only for his editorial skills, but also for flamboyance, arrogance, and irascibility (Wood to Roth, 5 July 1921; Syrkin to Roth, 1920). When his bookshop failed, he left precipitously for England, leaving a pile of debts behind (Freeman to Roth; Kugel, "London," PBW 3). While there, his attempts at flamboyant self-advertisement, according to his friend and companion, the journalist Joseph Freeman, included "J. M. Barrie moustache, fur-collared coat, heavy Malacca cane," and a faux-British accent and the booming voice of a Yiddish actor (Freeman, American Testament 207-29). Humility and spiritual focus were largely in abeyance in his life during this period, even without considering his illicit affairs. Roth's poetry comes from a completely separate phase of his response to experience, as if intense piety and worldly ambitions had split off from each other with neither canceling out the other. However, as readers of The Counterlife will remember, "Life is and." Especially, perhaps, for the American Jew.
Roth's most impressive religious lyrics were published in The Nation and Poetry. They show more of E. A. Robinson's influence than does his other work, and embody the eastern European Jewish awareness of faith in extremis. "Yahrzeit" is a dialogue between a man who appears on a rainy night to light mourning lamps, and a young man whose lover has abandoned him. The experience of paralysis of will is as universally Jewish as is the Diaspora setting: a stormy night, an ominous flickering of the yellow candle light, somber conversation. The lamp lighter spends the night, as does the young man, in the synagogue. They talk about the latter's need for his beloved: "Your youth is sad ... You should love less and set your heart / upon more sacred things." The poem continues:
Do roadways lift themselves toward the sky? Do stones roll passionately into brooks? And have you ever seen a hillside lift up arms And reach out to the passing clouds for love? You are a road, a stone, a hillside, brother.
The simplicity of the diction, imagery, and rhythm, and the free verse medium give a dignity that show the poet learned from his critics, especially if those included Reznikoff (who could be seen using Samuel's typewriter at the Poetry Book Shop [Kugel, "The New York Poetry Bookshop," PBW 10) and Zukofsky. And so does the well-crafted ambiguity, which allows the reader to see not only a rebuke directed at the poem's speaker, but also a new way forward for him. The lamp lighter, whom the young man complains is "as merciless as God," functions as the speaker's melamed, forcing him gently to translate a riddle into a revelation. As "Furies shook the night," and the candles "wove shrouds and shrouds of yellow flickering sheen," the Yahrzeit man impresses on his host that a yearning road, a stone, or a hillside are valuable not as metaphors a lovesick writer might use. A man might indeed come to intuit a common but transcendent purpose with a road, a stone, or hillside. All three might be translated into magical symbols of the power of the soul to transform sensual passion into intoxication with what is too holy to be expressed directly. What seemed sarcasm, then, could be essentially a warm-hearted brotherly offer. Roth touches the core of Hasidic piety. It recognizes the power of sensual desire but seeks its replacement with pulsating, pious ecstasy.
The poem "Kol Nidre" was honored by an appearance, after revisions, in 1918 in Harriet Monroe's prestigious magazine Poetry. It is about history as nightmare; being caught up in a mystery one is neither able to renounce, nor find one's way out of, however various the paths seem: "There are only God and nothingness, myself besides." Hearing the chant on the eve of the Day of Atonement brings to the speaker's mind armies "without a battle cry" retreating, "wrath of midnight storms," shofars sounding days of reckoning for heedless dead, ancient Israel losing its faith, life-long anxiety, and, still, the need to question. "God! Will this never have end?" With that, "a knock upon my window pane, fumbling / Black flapping wings, a voice wild with despair; / Traitor! What have you mused in Ascalon?" The city mentioned is an ancient Philistine seaport against which the Israelis fought. There were atrocities on both sides. Guilt is as vivid as humiliation and confusion in Roth's poem; despair becomes a death wish.
... Hurl me, If so you will, down the ravines of death, Where every sunbeam is a thorn to prick, And every flower is a wound to bear, All loveliness a memory of wrath And spirit madness!
A convincing sense of spiritual agony is difficult to sustain and any decline into bathos would have been evident to the editors of Poetry. Roth presents too strong a statement of endurance to let that happen. The last stanza finds the singer of "Kol Nidre" moving on, and the speaker, with renewed vitality, finding in the evening a star he knows is his, and only his, destiny "in stern creation": "There is my star!"
There's an integrity, intensity, and natural human voice in "Yahrzeit" and "Kol Nidre" that would make Robinson proud. What it embodies in soulful Jewishness might make Zangwill proud also. Among Roth's contemporaries, Emma Lazarus (there is no assurance Roth knew of her work, but it appeared in The American Hebrew), James Oppenheim, and H. N. Bialik achieved similar effects. "Kol Nidre" is a distant echo of one of the best of Karl Shapiro's Poems of a Jew, "The 151st Psalm" (1958), in which querulousness gives place first to direct statement about God's presence in objects associated with both anxiety and daily survival and finally to prayer.
The sonnet was the predominant form Roth mastered. He published sonnets in Contemporary Verse, Minaret, The Boston Evening Transcript, and Poetry before he left for England. The elegiac sequence "Nustscha" is a triumph, although some archaic phrasing and forced rhyming is, despite Marie Syrkin's playful scolding, still present. Roth published the entire eighteen poem sequence under his William Faro imprint in 1932, at which time it and the other thirty three lyrics in the book functioned as a set of lovingly crafted relics of a young poet's career. The Jewish experience they display is a vindication of Untermeyer's 1921 inclusion of Roth with poets of similar background and promise. A decade later, however, Samuel's transformation from respected poet to erotica publisher was irrevocable; thus, the title of the 1932 volume, Songs Out of Season.
Marguerite Wilkinson wrote him that he had achieved in the "Nustscha" sonnets a "sincerity and naturalness" especially hard in a highly crafted form like the sonnet. He had made his "words and phrases and sentences sound natural as if they belonged to human mouths and voices." Jessie B. Rittenhouse, poet, anthologist, and influential critic for the New York Times and several periodicals, loved particularly numbers 11, 12, 13, about Roth's uncles (Roth had sent her a complete typescript of the sequence in 1918, by which time she knew him from The Lyric). The hunter, Raphael, hearing of the pogroms, "broke his weapons with his hands and sat / Thinking in silence of his real foes." Mendel, the shepherd, had a "calm and proud and deep" nature; at his father's death he immigrated. Aaron, the scholar, at the shivah (week long mourning period) for his father's death, opened "the yellow book":
And slowly read into the trembling air And they leaned forward at the mellow sound, And glory lingered in their very look, And in their hearts they thought that God was there.
"Filled with the beauty of strange places and strange life," Rittenhouse said of these sonnets and added that the characterizations lent both concreteness and empathy to the poems. This was most notably true of the portrait of the speaker's father: stern, meditative, aloof, and the one chosen to chant blessings. Roth assimilates his own solitary wariness as a child with that of the magic of the town and its setting:
... He who on a wall Watched the boughs darken under drifting snow; In every opening blossom saw an elf, In each closed flower felt the darkness swell; And from each autumn leaf saw the light fall Over the earth "a sad, strange lad" myself.
The overwhelming presence in the sonnets is Roth's Galician birthplace, called forth in the first word and addressed directly in almost every poem. In the last line in the sequence, the narrator is in tears. But it is not sentimentality. The sadness is a universal adult response to the experience of loss and fallibility. It has also something of a Jewish consciousness in the hints at self-reproach and patient humility: "... One may come and beat / Loud at my door and clamor, and I shrink / To open lest he see how poor I am." Roth sets forth various kinds of sympathy. Only one other American Jewish poem of the period rivals it in theme and feeling, the underappreciated Alter Brody's vers libre reminiscence of his Russian birthplace, "Kartushkiya-Beroza" (A Family Alburn 13-17).
The five "Sonnets on Sinai" that The Menorah Journal published (288-89) show almost complete restraint of the posturing, cliched phrasing, archaisms, inverted adjective-noun combinations, and consequent awkward heightening of tone, that make poetry of "the warning voice" deflate. Exceptions include "for he will cease the wrack"; "Lo the name of God"; "Think ye ever of him"; "Foul dust is now this heritage divine." However, the epic force of the story Roth tells is well sustained, the imagery occasionally graphic and mysterious ("world white to heaven's rim"), and Moses' voice scintillating. Moses returns the Ten Commandments to God due to the failure of men to obey the Covenant:
Suffer[ing] the stings of scorn and lowered pride, By saint and huckster mocked unto my face ... Know: I shall stand once more at Sinai's foot, Torah in hand, world white to Heaven's rim, Thunder shaking the highland to the root; At God's descent shall the heavens dim And as His voice will bid all earth be mute I'll rise and give the Torah back to him.
Roth follows the Talmudic statement that the Messiah may return during a time so vicious that no just men exist. The details from Exodus 19 and 24 are expertly dramatized, although in the Bible the terror of the Israelites at God's voice, the "devouring eye" of God's presence, and the majesty of the black cloud on the Mountain imply a mystery which Roth's powers as a poet hardly touch. In the next and final of the five sonnets, "chaos terrible and swift and black" follows God's reclaiming the Torah as Moses holds it up for him. Eventually, God relents, "dew and light and flowers" return. At this time, God's word, the Covenant, will be replaced by "his Sword." The line may allude to Moses' command to the Levite priests upon seeing the Golden Calf; he told the men to kill their brothers and neighbors before the camp would be eligible for re-consecration (Exodus 32:26-29). Roth clearly implies that God Himself will be the messiah after Moses returns the Tablets, and humanity so altered that the peace and justice of post-messianic would also be post human. If history itself had been nightmare, then the post-apocalyptic may be more stifling. Roth, despite the compelling diction of the poem, provides only the bare essentials of the story. The shock of the end of time needs more than directly stated narrative, however; the awesome sights, sounds, and effects of supernatural cataclysm are absent. In Exodus 19:16, the Israelites quake before the trumpet and the thunder. In 20:19, they tell Moses the voice of God will kill them. If Roth can only approach the outer fringes of such mysteries, he does spotlight the guilt and uncertainty that is a source of Jewish piety.
He also has a fine appreciation of the contrast between the mortal poet and the prophecy itself, the latter throwing the former deep into obscurity. Roth contrasts the dubious value of an effective poetic image with the stark clarity of Moses's speech:
Ye, who the vision twist through words of rhyme Color on color, sound on sound until Something of life appears to praise your will That ye are pleased to fancy verse sublime Think ye ever of him who once did climb The modest crest of Sinai's lowly hill (A world of violence quivering still) And spoke the quiet word which thrilled all Time.
As a poet, Roth once more attempted this kind of eloquence. This was Europe: A Book for America (1919), the most ambitious poem of his youth, in which he attempted "the warning voice" he had used--with more success--in the "Sonnets on Sinai." It is clear from the dedicatory poem to C. N. Bialik ("Look West / And call for me!") that the prophetic voice in the 107-page poem is Roth himself. His voice in the first half of the book is callous, contemptuous, vulgar, and sadistic. It is also callow. Europe should be fed a diet of dung; its people are degenerating into beasts who will soon throw children from the Eiffel Tower for amusement; they will sneer at women's suffrage and shorter work hours. Europe's leaders are worth only contempt ("You, Lloyd George, will say to Ireland: you are a people of warriors and statesmen..."). The poem continues:
Europe, let me be your doctor. With a hammer let me break open those iron jaws And pour a pail of your bitterest spleen down Your throat. O I know a way to make eunuchs of the most terrible men;
All this in philippic stanzas of no more than twelve lines each. The Hebrew Standard's reviewer heard "a bruised soul, that has suffered variously and vicariously through all the ages, that speaks now pitifully, now boldly, now almost blasphemously, but at its best, reaches the nobility and optimism of the ancient sages and most reverently declares its faith in the everlasting God" ("N.K."). This reviewer and the New York Evening Post's ("The Sick Man") seem to have been especially impressed by the second part of the book, where Roth appeals to the Zionist impulse: "The face of Israel will shine with power when Europe / Will be a name difficult to remember." The speaker also contrasts America with Europe, praising it as replacing the high culture of Europe with its own creativity. It is puzzling that Roth sees his own country's genius in the "terrible wisdom / Of Baseball, Football / And Boxing," which are more important than novels and plays for a country whose destiny "is to make earth a worthy habitation for mankind." Only in America and Israel will the Jewish people be happy. Is that because they are allowed to play, and play fair, by the rules of the game? Europe would appeal principally to an American Jewish audience. Judging from the reviews, it did (although few Jewish parents thought their children's interest in boxing, baseball, or football to be wisdom). The Nation's reviewer thought Roth's "hard hitting" Jewish pronouncements ("the voice of deathless Israel") perfectly suited to his praise of native American idealism: "Mr Roth does not say all this as greatly as Emerson or Whitman did, but he says it with a bitterish, Old Testament concreteness that will hold some ears a good while" ("M. V. D." 856a).
The volume's final poem, "Thus Saith the Lord," is the longest and most audacious. God speaks to the Hebrew poets through the ages, who seem to morph with Roth himself. When God speaks with this figure, He becomes an admirer: "I, your God, whose earnest / Is only of darkness and desolation, dared not look out often for fear of meeting your eyes." After years in the study house, or in the streets absorbing beatings from the "gentiles" that "I, your God, was powerless to stop," America, and Zionism, happened. God actually prostrates himself in forgiveness for tolerating the contempt "your own people" lavished on the poet as he "mournfu[lly] journey[ed] over the face of the earth." But God will "raise up [His] arms once more / And they will yet know that I am the Lord."
This final poem justifies, perhaps, the tone and the prophesies of the previous ones. None of the critics comment on this bizarre final monologue, although a few do speak generally of the Europe's blasphemousness? Only Herbert Gorman, in The Sun, and Nelson Crawford, in Poetry (Crawford 341), felt that Roth's disquisitions on history and politics were without coherent purpose. Gorman, however, told his readers that they would find Roth's other works well worth reading. The New York Post review ("The Sick Man"), though mixed, was probably the one most likely to entice readers. Roth must have thought so, for he quoted these lines six years later in full-page advertisements for Europe in several issues of his Two Worlds Monthly: "From his observation tower in that section of New York in which East and West meet, in which commerce and art and wild pleasure mix elbows ... Samuel Roth has looked up and down the world and seen many things and prophesied." Reviewers in The Nation, The Hebrew Standard, and the New York Sun praised the book as "visionary" and "reverent." Predictably, his friend Clement Wood's review, in The Call, was adulatory: "justifiable vituperation and genuine prophetic poetry ... It may be the man's one great poem, though we hope it is not; but it is a poem." Elias Lieberman, in The American Hebrew, concluded his lengthy appreciation by declaring:
In its passages of tenderness for humanity and for his people, and above all in its ecstatic prophecy, it is indubitably Semitic. In my review of "First Offering," the author's first collection of poems, I spoke rather guardedly of his promise ... Here is the promise realized and it is far greater than anyone could possibly have expected.
However one evaluates Europe, Roth, for a few years, was a promising poet. This is why Rittenhouse and Wilkinson wrote such generous and sympathetic letters (four hundred and one thousand words, respectively) to a young man who had been active for less than five years, one whose dedicated pursuit of a poetic career, due to an ugly world whose hostility he had himself called into life, would last only a few more. Roth never stopped writing poetry, and in that sense he did follow Robinson's "gleam." But with the world's contempt, the needs of a growing and beloved family, and a hunger not only for financial security but also for the kind of notoriety that sensation-seeking journalists, prosecutors of sexually explicit literature, and showgirls could provide, his poetry had to be saved for periods of enforced leisure, possibly in his cell at Lewisburg Penitentiary during the periods of 1936-1939 or 1958-1961. After his retirement, he wrote The Kingdom: A Book of Israeli Psalms. There were 151 invocations and meditations. Sometimes David and sometimes Roth himself is the singer. Is the spirit of Israel far enough removed from New York, he asks in one. It is hard for an old man, especially one who missed a doctor's appointment to follow a beautiful woman on the street (he's proud of that, he tells us), to overcome restlessness and the struggle between flesh and conscience. He sleeps, he says slyly, with all the confidence of an Arab preparing for battle. Why, he asks God directly, does he still yearn to see His face, Whose back is all he has seen? Roth, who in youth spoke as a lover, a prophet, and a lawgiver, has the chutzpah to answer his own question: "Except for my devoted parents, who but you / Have I in Heaven?"
Braitwaite, William Stanley. Letter to Samuel Roth. 15 Sept. 1917. Roth Archive.
Brody, Alter. A Family Album and Other Poems. 1918. Rpt. Montana: Kessinger Pub, n.d.
Coblentz, Stanley. Modern American Lyrics. New York: Minton, Balch, and Co., 1924.
Crawford, Nelson. "Poet or Prophet?" Poetry. Oct. 1920-March 1921: 341-42.
Foner, Philip S. History of the Labor Movement in the United States. 4 vols. New York: International Publications, 1965.
Freeman, Joseph. An American Testament. A Narrative of Rebels and Romantics. New York: Farrar and Rhinehart, 1936.
--. Letter to Samuel Roth. 20 Oct. 1921. Both Archive.
Gertzman, Jay A. Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica, 1920-40. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1999.
Gittenstein, R. Barbara. Apocalyptic Messianism and Contemporary Jewish-American Poetry. Albany: SUNY P, 1986.
Gorman, Herbert. New York Sun. Clipping preserved in Roth's dummy copy of Europe. Roth Archive (stacks).
Heller, Michael. "Diasporic Poetics." In Jonathan N. Barron and Eric M Selinger "Diasporic Poetics." In Jonathan N. Barton and Eric M Selinger, eds, Jewish American Poetry: Poems, Commentary, and Reflections. Hanover, NH: UP of New England, 2000.
Hoffman, Frederick l., Charles Allen, and Carolyn Ulrich. The Little Magazine: A History and Bibliography. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1947.
Kugel, Adelaide. In a Plain Brown Wrapper. Unpublished Biography, 1982-88. Roth Archive. Cited as PBW.
--. Notes for PBW (spiral notebook, no pagination). Both Archive.
Legman, Gershon. Letter to Adelaide Kugel. 20 July 1988.6pp. Roth Archive.
Lieberman, Elias. Review of Roth 's Europe: A Book for America: The American Hebrew. Clipping preserved in Roth's dummy copy of Europe. Roth Archive (stacks).
Maier, Joseph, and Richard W. Weatherhead. Frank Tannenbaum: A Biographical Essay. New York: University Seminars, Columbia U., 1974.
Monroe, Harriet. Letter to Samuel Roth. 19 July 1917. Roth Archive.
"M.V.D." "Books: Anglo-Saxon Adventures in Verse." The Nation 26 June 1920: 885a-57a.
"N.K." "Europe: A Book for America by Samuel Roth." The Hebrew Standard. Clipping preserved in Roth's dummy copy of Europe. Roth Archive.
Oppenheim, James. Songs for the New Age. New York: Century Co., 1914.
Reznikoff, Charles. By the Waters of Manhattan. New York: Boni Paper Books, 1930.
Rittenhouse, Jessie B. Letter to Samuel Roth. 1918. Roth Archive.
Robinson, Edwin Arlington. Letter to Samuel Roth. 8 Dec. 1920. Roth Archive.
Roth, Samuel. "A Letter to Mr. J. C. Squire." The Nation 10 Nov. 1920: 526-27.
--. Count Me Among the Missing. Unpublished Biography, 1955-1970. Roth Archive. Cited as CMAM.
--. Europe: A Book for America. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1919.
--. "Edwin Arlington Robinson." The Bookman Jan. 1920: 507-11.
--. "Kol Nidre." Poetry: A Magazine of Verse June 1918: 126-29.
--. "Open Plumbing" (autobiographical novelette). Two Worlds March 1926: 367-96. [Signed "David Zorn."]
--. "Should You Turn from Me." Boston Evening Transcript 19 May 1917: 2.3.
--. Songs Out of Season. New York: Faro, 1932.
--. "Sonnets on Sinai." The Menorah Journal Dec. 1917: 288-89.
--. "Trifles." Contemporary Verse January 1917: 14.
--. "Two Poets on the East Side." The Maccabaean December 1918: 356-57.
--. "Yahrzeit." The Nation 8 May 1920: 622.
Samuel, Maurice. Letter to Samuel Roth. 1 Aug. 1916. Roth Archive.
--. Letter to Samuel Roth. N.d. Roth Archive.
--. Letter to Samuel Roth. N.d. Roth Archive.
--. Letter to Samuel Roth. 22 Jan. 1919. Roth Archive.
"Some Recent Books of Poetry." New York Times 7 July 1918:310 (Book Review Section).
Squire, J. C. Letter to Samuel Roth. 21 Feb. 1921. Roth Archive.
Syrkin, Marie. Letter to Samuel Roth. N.d. Accompanying typescript of three poems by Roth. Roth Archive.
--. Letter to Samuel Roth. 1919. Roth Archive.
--. Letter to Samuel Roth. 1920. Roth Archive.
--. "Written in Youth" [section title]. Gleanings: A Diary in Verse. Santa Barbara: Rhythms Press, 1979.
Talese, Gay. Thy Neighbor's Wife. New York: Dell, 1981.
"The Sick Man." New York Evening Post. 21 Feb. 1920. Clipping preserved in dummy copy of Roth's Europe: A Book For America. Roth Archive.
Untermeyer, Louis. "The Jewish Spirit in Modern American Poetry." The Menora Journal August 1921: 121-32.
Yehoash (Solomon Blumgarten). "Woolworth Building." In Jules Chametzky et al. Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology. New York: Norton, 2001.
Wilkinson, Marguerite. Letter to Samuel Roth. 4 March 1919. Roth Archive.
--. New Voices: An Introduction to Contemporary Poetry. New York: Macmillan, 1919.
Wood, Clement. Letter to Samuel Roth. 5 July 1921. Roth Archive.
Zangwill, Israel. Watchman, What of the Night? New York: American Jewish Congress, 1923. "Address delivered ... Carnegie Hall, New York City, October 14, 1923."
Zukovsky, Louis, ed. An "Objectivists" Anthology. Le Beausset, France: n.p., 1932.
--. "A Parable of Time." Two Worlds Quarterly 1.1 (Sept. 1925): 56.
--. "The Sadness After." Two Worlds Quarterly 1.2 (Dec. 1925): 126.
In 2005, Candy Kugel, New York City, and James Kugel, Jerusalem, Israel, Samuel Roth 's grandchildren, donated an extensive collection of their grandfather's papers and books to the Department of Rare Books and Manuscripts at Columbia. In addition to Roth 's own publications and published and unpublished writings, there is correspondence to and, in some cases, from Pound, Sylvia Beach, Harriet Weaver, T. S. Eliot, Arthur Garfield Hayes, John Slocum, Ben Abramson, and John Rodker. There are also drafts of Roth 's autobiography, Count Me Among the Missing (CMAM), and his daughter's memoir of her father, In a Plain Brown Wrapper (PBW). Both are unpublished. This archive is hereafter cited as "Roth Archive." I want to thank Ms. Kugel and Dr. Kugel for allowing me access to the archive. I also thank Michael Ryan, curator of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University, and his staff for their help.
(1.) Poems (New York: The Poetry Book Shop, 1920). The poems in Roth's forty-eight page pamphlet are in a different order that those in Poems 1918-1936: The Complete Poetry of Charles Reznikoff, ed. Seamus Cooney, 1 (Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow, 1976). Reznikoff placed them in a different order in his Five Groups of Verse (1927), and Cooney follows the order of selections in the later volume.
(2.) These four poems are found in Roth's Songs Out of Season (1932). The volume is a compilation of his early poetry. I have not located an earlier published source for them, except for "From the Williamsburgh Bridge;" which appeared in the Midland: A Magazine of the Middle West (July/August 1919), 172 under the title "Sundown."
(3.) In his two-volume memoir, Stone Walls Do Not (New York: Faro, 1930),1: 103-04, Both describes his concept of writing this history, which he therein calls "The Spirit of Modern American Poetry" and which in a letter to Roth from Richard Wilson (editor at Dent) of 20 May 1921, Both Archive, he calls "The Imperial Motive in American Poetry." A one-page typescript in the Clement Wood Papers at the Brown University Library, Providence, R.I., outlines the work. A letter from Both to Wood of 21 May 1921 (also at Brown) states the book had been accepted by Dent. It had been provisionally approved, if an American publisher could have been found (letters, Wilson to Both, 25 and 28 June, 1921, Both Archive).
(4.) The Giovannitti poem "New York and I" appeared in the Sept. 1918 Liberator, pp. 14-15. Roth's rejoinder "From a Bus" playfully taking "Arthur" to task for too vehement criticism of New York City, is in the Feb. 1919 Liberator, p.40.
(5.) Roth kept a file of reviews, including those in the New York Telegraph, The Call, Bookseller, Stationer, and Newsdealer, The American Hebrew (Elias Lieberman), The New York Evening Post, The New York Sun (Herbert Gorman), Poetry (Nelson Crawford), The Dial, The Hebrew Standard ("N.K"), The Nation, and newspapers in St. Louis, Philadelphia, Detroit, Salt Lake City, and Chicago. These clippings are pasted into a dummy (otherwise blank) bound copy of Europe from Roth's library now in the Both Archive.
Jay A. Gertzman, Emeritus Professor of English, Mansfield University, Pennsylvania
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|Author:||Gertzman, Jay A.|
|Publication:||Studies in American Jewish Literature|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2009|
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