John Rodker was born on 18 December 1894 in Manchester, into a Jewish immigrant family. The family moved to London while he was still young.
John Rodker, picture taken shortly before his death
As a young man he was one of the so-called "Whitechapel Boys", a group including Isaac Rosenberg, Mark Gertler, David Bomberg, Samuel Weinstein and Joseph Lefkowitz (who coined the name in hindsight). From about 1911, when Rosenberg arrived, they began to aspire to literary careers; and in the years before 1914 Rodker was a published essayist and poet, in The New Age of A. R. Orage and elsewhere. Other "Whitechapel Boys" were the painters David Bomberg and Mark Gertler; they all met together at or near the Whitechapel Art Gallery.
During World War I Rodker was a conscientious objector. He went on the run, sheltering with the poet R. C. Trevelyan, before being arrested in April 1917, imprisoned, and then transferred to the Home Office Work Centre, Princetown, in the former Dartmoor Prison.
In 1919 Rodker started the Ovid Press, a small press which lasted about a year. It published T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound (the first edition of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley) and portfolios of drawings by Wyndham Lewis, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Edward Wadsworth. That year Rodker took over from Pound as foreign editor of the New York magazine, The Little Review.
In the 1920s he spent time in Paris on the second edition of James Joyce's Ulysses, at that time subject to censorship, and on French translations of Joyce. He then set up the Casanova Society, for limited editions. He continued in publishing, on occult subjects under the imprint "J. Rodker" also, until a bankruptcy in 1932, when (along with other such ventures such as the Fanfrolico Press) his business folded in the Depression. He was included in the 1930 Faber and Faber collection Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress of Joyceans.
For a period he dropped publishing, concentrating on translation from French literature, and agency work for Preslit, the Soviet overseas literature organ. At this time too he apparently abandoned literary ambitions for himself. In 1937, the centennial of the death of Aleksandr Pushkin, he set up the Pushkin Press, another small press, publishing Oliver Elton's English version of Eugene Onegin and a trickle of other books.
The Imago Publishing Company was a separate, more substantial venture, set up after Sigmund Freud arrived in London in 1938. The stocks of Freud's works left when he fled Vienna and the Nazis had been destroyed; Rodker with Anna Freud worked to publish a complete edition. This was done over a dozen years, being finished in 1952. Imago was wound up in 1961.
Rodker was fluent in French, writing regularly for a French literary magazine, and was posthumously awarded the Légion d'Honneur by the government of France.[