Writers in the outside world often complain about the numerous distractions that come between them and their Muses, but incarcerated writers face no such distractions. One thing the criminal justice system offers in abundance is endless stretches of time where there’s not a lot to do. Prisoners are also motivated by the need to tell their stories and to provide justification for the choices they’ve made.
Here’s a list of 30 literary works that were either written during or inspired by their authors’ time behind bars.
- Prison Epistles (St. Paul): In 62 AD, St. Paul the Apostle was arrested in Jerusalem for his passionate sermons on behalf of Christianity that enraged the local Jewish population. He was taken to the nearby town of Caesarea and imprisoned there for two years. During this time, St. Paul wrote four of the famous Epistles that appear in the Bible’s New Testament: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon.
- Le Morte d’Arthur (Sir Thomas Malory): Many Arthurian scholars consider “Le Morte d’Arthur” the definitive work in the cycle of legends surrounding the semi-mythical King Arthur and his chivalric Round Table. All the more surprising, then, that it was written by Sir Thomas Malory, a convicted thug, thief, kidnapper and rapist. Malory wrote the cycle of romantic legends while sitting in London’s Marshalsea prison, awaiting trial on charges that he had masterminded a string of over 100 violent robberies. Malory never did end up being brought to trial. Instead, he was sprung from prison in 1461 when Edward IV ascended to the throne.
- The Pilgrim’s Progress (John Bunyan): John Bunyan was a Puritan dissenter who was persecuted for his religious beliefs following the Restoration of the English monarchy. Between 1660 and 1672, Bunyan spent much of his time behind bars where he conceived and wrote large parts of “The Pilgrim’s Progress”, an allegorical tale depicting the trials and tribulations of a Christian trying to live a righteous life in a decadent world.
- The Consolation of Philosophy (Boethius): The philosopher Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius, more commonly known as Boethius, was imprisoned in 520 AD for attempting to reconcile the Roman Catholic Church with its Eastern Orthodox rival, which operated out of Constantinople. During the two years he spent in prison awaiting execution, Boethius penned a work in the classic Greek style called “The Consolation of Philosophy.” While largely forgotten today, “The Consolation of Philosophy” was a huge influence on writers throughout the Middle Ages including Dante who made Boethius a character in “The Divine Comedy.”
- Fanny Hill (John Cleland): In 1748, a British merchant named John Cleland was sent to London’s notorious Fleet Prison for failure to repay a debt of 840 pounds. While in prison, Cleland wrote “Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure”, more often referred to as “Fanny Hill.” The erotic novel was first published in February 1749, a month before Cleland was released from debtor’s prison. Its frank descriptions of a London prostitute’s life so enraged authorities that Cleland was rearrested in November 1749 on charges of indecency. Cleland spent the rest of his life apologizing for having written the work.
- Don Quixote (Miguel de Cervantes); An even greater novel conceived in debtor’s prison is “Don Quixote”, a book that many critics consider the first modern European novel as well as one of the finest novels ever written. Its author Miguel de Cervantes had found work as a purchasing agent for the Spanish Armada after an adventurous life that included five years as a slave on the Barbary Coast. Unfortunately, authorities detected financial irregularities in his accounts and he was imprisoned. However, after he first part of “Don Quixote” was published in 1605, it proved so popular that Cervantes never suffered from money troubles again.
- The Travels of Marco Polo (Rustichello da Pisa): The Venetian merchant Marco Polo did not actually write the famous book that describes his adventures along the fabled Silk Road. Instead he dictated the story of his travels to Rustichello da Pisa while both men were prisoners of Venice’s rival, the Genova Republic. Released from captivity in 1299, Polo fled straight back to Venice and never left his beloved city again. The memoir based upon his adventures is widely credited with launching “The Age of Exploration.”
- The Prince (Niccolò Machiavelli): Niccolò Machiavelli was a well-respected diplomat in the short-lived Florentine republic when in 1512, Florence’s one-time ruling family, the Medicis, regained power. Viewed as an enemy of the state by the Medicis, Machiavelli was accused of conspiracy, arrested, tortured and imprisoned. After his release, he was banished from Florence, and it was during his exile that he wrote “The Prince.” The treatise has been a touchstone of political strategy ever since, revered by power brokers as diverse as England’s Henry VII, America’s Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, France’s Napoleon and Mafia leader John Gotti.
- History of the World (Sir Walter Raleigh): Sir Walter Raleigh was one of the most famous courtiers of the English queen Elizabeth I. He also gained quite a reputation during his lifetime as a merchant, explorer, writer and poet. Sir Walter was not popular with Elizabeth’s successor James I, however. Shortly after the ascension of James I to the English throne, Sir Walter found himself imprisoned for treason. Sir Walter wrote his “History of the World” during the 13 years he spent locked up in the Tower of London. He was released from the Tower finally on the grounds that he lead an expedition to South America to claim El Dorado, the fabled City of Gold, for England. Unfortunately, he proved unable to do so and was promptly executed upon his return home to England in 1618.
- Jerusalem Delivered (Torquato Tasso): Largely forgotten today, “Jerusalem Delivered” is a Renaissance Italian romantic epic that inspired many musical and art works including Rossini’s opera “Armida” and paintings by Tintoretto, Tipolo, Boucher and Delacroix. The poem was composed during the seven years between 1579 and 1586 Torquato Tasso spent locked up in the madhouse of St. Anna in Ferrara.
- To Althea from Prison (Richard Lovedlace): “Stone walls doe not a prison make,” wrote Richard Lovelace in 1642, “nor iron bars a cage.” The poet wrote these words while locked up in Westminster’s Gatehouse Prison on charges related to his passionate support of King Charles I in Puritan England. Although Lovelace was finally released from prison, King Charles was eventually executed and Lovelace’s fiancée – the “Althea” of the poem’s title – married someone else.
- Justine (Marquis de Sade): The Marquis de Sade was a French aristocrat who scandalized his peers for his libertine lifestyle. Various violent escapades with prostitutes led to his imprisonment in the Bastille in 1784. To break the tedium of his existence behind bars, de Sade penned a series of sexually graphic novels including “One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom” and “Justine.” He was freed during the French Revolution and despite his aristocratic background, became an elected delegate to the National Convention. However, Napoleon was appalled by “Justine,” and when the diminutive general came into power, the Marquis was relegated to a Charenton insane asylum in where he died in 1814.
- Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon Bonaparte): Napoleon’s prison was larger than most. In 1815, France’s most famous general was exiled to the small island of St. Helena off the coast of west Africa. He spent his time there until his death in 1821 dictating his “Memoirs.”
- Civil Disobedience and Other Writings (Henry David Thoreau): In 1846, an American writer named Henry David Thoreau was jailed for his refusal to pay poll taxes earmarked to support a war with Mexico of which Thoreau disapproved. Though he only spent a single night in jail, the experience made such an impression upon Thoreau that he used it as the basis for his famous essay, “On Civil Disobedience.”
- Short Stories by O. Henry (William Sydney Porter): William Sydney Porter was a Texas bank teller. In 1896, federal auditors found irregularities in his accounts, and Porter was brought up on charges of embezzlement. Porter fled to the Honduras where he holed up in a hotel and began writing short stories. The phrase “banana republic” first originated in one of these short stories. One year later his wife lay dying of tuberculosis, and Porter went back to the United States to be with her. He was promptly arrested, convicted of the embezzlement charges and incarcerated in a federal prison in Ohio. In prison, he continued writing short stories and began sending them out for publication, acquiring quite a reputation as a writer with his finger on the pulse of the popular imagination. Today, Porter is better known as O’Henry, the pen name he chose to conceal his identity as a felon.
- De Profundis (Oscar Wilde): The Irish playwright and poet Oscar Wilde was in love with an English aristocrat named Lord Alfred Douglas. In 1895, he sued his lover’s father for criminal libel after the older man accused Wilde of committing homosexual acts with his son. Although Wilde subsequently withdrew his lawsuit, enough evidence had emerged during the abortive trial to support the criminal charges of gross indecency of which Wilde was subsequently convicted. Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor in Reading Gaol. “De Profundis”, published in 1905 after Wilde’s death, is a moving letter Wilde wrote to Lord Alfred while in prison.
- Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Ludwig Wittgenstein): The “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” are the ruminations of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein on the relationship between language, science and reality. Wittgenstein volunteered for military service in the Austro-Hungarian Army after World War I broke out, and was captured by Allied forces after Austria was defeated. The first part of “The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” was written during the subsequent nine months that Wittgenstein spent in a prisoner of war camp.
- Mein Kampf (Adolph Hitler): On November 8, 1923, Adolph Hitler and 2,000 Nazis marched through the streets of Munich to take over a political meeting being held at a beer hall there. Hitler was charged with treason for his role in this abortive revolt and sent to Landsberg Prison in Bavaria. He used his incarceration to write an autobiography entitled “Mein Kampf.”
- The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi): Throughout the long struggle for Indian independence, the great statesman Mohandas Gandhi was imprisoned many times both in South Africa and in India. He used his imprisonments as a time to reflect and hone his theories on civil disobedience. Gandhi wrote his autobiography “The Story of My Experiments with Truth” in 1932 while serving time in Maharashtra’s Yerwada Jail.
- One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn): In 1945, a Red Army soldier named Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn was arrested for writing critically of Joseph Stalin in a private letter to a friend. Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years of forced labor in a Siberian camp. Despite the harshness of the camp’s conditions, he began to take notes on his prison camp experience on whatever scraps of paper he managed to find. He was released from prison following Stalin’s death in 1953, and nine years later, following the cultural thaw under Nikita Khrushchev, these notes were published as a novel entitled “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” In 1970, Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
- The Enormous Room (e.e. cummings): The American poet e.e. cummings is perhaps best known for eschewing capital letters in his name and works. During World War I, cummings became an ambulance driver in Paris. He was markedly anti-militaristic and refused to join in the wholesale condemnation of the Germans as horrible human beings despite the fact that they were at war with the French. In September 1917, cummings was arrested by the French military on suspicion of espionage. The young poet spent the next three and a half months in a POW camp called the Dépôt de Triage. His 1922 novel “The Enormous Room” is based on this experience.
- The Pisan Cantos (Ezra Pound): The American expatriate poet Ezra Pound lived in Italy throughout World War II where he expressed his support for Mussolini, Hitler and other fascist leaders in a series of radio broadcasts. When American forces invaded Italy in 1945, Pound was arrested for treason and detained in a in a U.S. military camp in Pisa. It was here that Pound began writing the “Pisan Cantos,” a series of poems that remain politically controversial today even while celebrated by critics as examples of great lyric poetry.
- Our Lady of the Flowers (Jean Genet): Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, the French writer Jean Genet was a petty criminal who was constantly in and out of prison on charges of theft, use of false papers, vagabondage, lewd acts and similar offenses. In 1944, Genet described his prison experiences in his celebrated debut novel “Our Lady of the Flowers,” written while Genet was serving a sentence for burglary.
- Letters from Birmingham Jail (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.): In April 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights organization that was deeply involved with coordinating marches and sit-ins against racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. On April 12, 1963, Dr. King was arrested for ignoring a ruling prohibiting such public demonstrations. While incarcerated in the Birmingham jail, Dr. King read a public statement issued by eight white Alabama clergymen condemning his civil disobedience methods. “Letters from Birmingham Jail” is a spirited defense of civil disobedience that makes a strong argument that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws.
- On the Yard (Malcolm Braly): By the time Malcolm Braly was 40, he’d spent nearly half his life in prison, serving time in such notorious penal institutions as Nevada State Prison, San Quentin, and Folsom State Prison. While behind bars, he’d written three novels. Braly’s big literary break, though, came with his fourth novel “On the Yard”,” which he began writing when he was paroled in 1965. When prison authorities found out that he was writing the book, they threatened to revoke his parole so Braly had to complete the novel in secret. “On the Yard” was a huge critical success, and after its publication, Braly never returned to prison again.
- Soul on Ice (Eldridge Cleaver): In 1958, Eldridge Cleaver was convicted of rape and assault with intention to murder. During his subsequent incarcerations in Folsom State Prison and San Quentin, Cleaver began writing a series of political essays that were first published in the magazine “Ramparts” and later collected into a book called “Soul on Ice.” These essays argued that the rape of a white woman by a black man was essentially an insurrectionist act of political rebellion. After his release from prison in 1966, Cleaver joined the Black Panthers, and ran for President on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket. Eventually, however, Cleaver renounced his radical past and became a Born Again Christian. At the time of his death in 1998, Cleaver was a member in good standing of the Church of the Latter Day Saints.
- The Belly of the Beast (Jack Abbott): In 1977, Norman Mailer won the Pulitzer Prize by writing a novel entitled “The Executioner’s Song,” based on the execution of Gary Gilmore. Among the many fan letters he received was one from an inmate in a Utah prison called Jack Abbott. Gilmore, Abbott told Mailer, had not been truthful with Mailer in describing the details of his prison life. Abbott offered to write Mailer a more factual depiction of life behind bars, and Mailer took him up on it. Mailer became so impressed by Abbott’s literary talent that he helped Abbott publish a book based on Abbott’s experiences behind bars entitled “The Belly of the Beast.” Mailer also lobbied hard for Abbott to be released on parole in 1981 over the objections of prison officials. Six weeks after his release on parole, Abbott fatally stabbed a man in a bar fight. Abbott was subsequently returned to prison where he committed suicide in 2002.
- Conversations with Myself (Nelson Mandela): In the eyes of the white apartheid South African government, lawyer and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela was a seasoned terrorist. Mandela was arrested in 1962 and convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the government. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and spent 27 years in prison. During this time, he wrote his autobiography, “Conversations With Myself.” In 1990, amidst civil strife and increasing international pressure on his behalf, Mandela was finally released. Shortly thereafter, South Africa’s apartheid government was toppled. In 1994, in the first multiracial elections ever held in South Africa, Nelson Mandela was elected that nation’s President.
- Sleeping With the Enemy (Wahida Clark): Wahida Clark is a pioneer and one of the best known practitioners of a literary genre known as street lit, which uses the inner city underworld as a setting for gritty tales of sex, drugs and violence. She began writing while serving a prison sentence at a women’s federal prison camp in Lexington, Kentucky for mail and wire fraud, and money laundering. While she wrote “Sleeping With the Enemy” well after her release, the novel draws heavily on her experiences behind bars.
- Orange Is The New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison (Piper Kerman): In 1993, upscale Smith College graduate Piper Kernan did a favor for her lover, which involved laundering the monetary proceeds of an international heroin smuggling operation. Kernan quickly grew disillusioned with the operation and moved on with her life, so she was not at all prepared for a subsequent indictment on those charges in 1998. Legal maneuvering kept Kernan out of prison until 2004. “Orange Is the New Black” is the memoir Kernan wrote about the 11 months she spent in the Danbury Federal Correctional Institution. The book became an instant bestseller and was adapted as a miniseries by the on-demand streaming video provider Netflix.
The criminal justice system and the pen are collaborators more often than most people realize. Many books that critics rank among the greatest literary works of all time were written while their authors were imprisoned.
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