10 Great Works of Literature Written in Prison

When we imagine the places where our favorite authors penned
their greatest masterpieces, a jail cell usually doesn’t come to mind.
But, whether their writers were prisoners of war or victims of bigotry,
the solitude and lack of distractions have produced many a great book.
From Oscar Wilde’s apologia on spiritual awakening to Thoreau’s thoughts
on civil disobedience, we survey authors whose great mental escapes
from incarceration resulted in some of their most insightful and
profound works, after the jump.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Who would have guessed the model for pop culture’s idealistic,
chivalrous protagonist archetype would have originated in a jail cell?
Humorous and satirical, Don Quixote is considered to be the
first modern European novel, and its hero the original knight in shining
armor. Cervantes penned part of his magnum opus while serving time for
his debt troubles in 17th-century Spain.


The Travels of Marco Polo by Rustichello da Pisa

After 24 years and almost 15,000 miles of travel, Marco Polo returned
to Italy to find Venice at war with Genoa. After Genoa overtook a
Venetian fleet, Polo was taken prisoner. He spent many months of his
incarceration recounting his travels to fellow inmate Rustichello da
Pisa, who compiled them into what we now know as The Travels of Marco Polo. The book soon spread throughout Europe, providing Westerners insight into the “exotic East.”

Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

We usually imagine Thoreau penning his transcendentalist musings
somewhere near the scenic shores of Walden Pond. And we are cheating a
little bit here — he wasn’t exactly a jailbird, having only spent one
night in prison after refusing to pay poll tax to a government whose
values he disagreed with. But his one night in jail did inspire him to
write his classic essay on civil disobedience. “Under a government which
imprisons any unjustly,” he wrote, “the true place for a just man is
also a prison.” 

Letters from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr.

A fan of Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience, King was
imprisoned for organizing a non-violent protest against racial
segregation in Alabama. It was in jail that King penned the now historic
phrase, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Short Stories by O. Henry

Best known for the Christmas classic The Gift of the Magi,
William Sydney Porter began writing his witty stories while in prison
for embezzlement (it’s still not clear whether or not he was guilty).
Porter would write under various pseudonyms and enlisted his friend send
his work to various publishers. His most famous pen name soon became O.

De Profundis by Oscar Wilde

Known for his witty and flippant literature, Wilde’s writing while in
jail was markedly more somber and self-reflective. He was imprisoned
for two years of hard labor for his indecency with men, particularly
Lord Alfred Douglas. While in prison, Wilde wrote a letter to Douglas
articulating the regret he felt for his ethical misconduct. Published
posthumously, the apologia chronicles the journey of redemption and
spiritual fulfillment that Wilde experienced in confinement.

Conversations with Myself by Nelson Mandela

More intimate than his autobiography, Conversations with Myself
is a scrapbook-style piece of work chronicling Mandela’s life. The book
includes letters and diary entries that Mandela penned during his 27
years in prison.

Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet

This largely autobiographical work was Genet’s first novel, written
during his time in prison in the 1940s. The story chronicles the
experiences of Divine, a recently deceased drag queen, recounting her
journeys through Paris’ colorful homosexual underworld. The novel’s
free, lyrical prose is said to have been an inspiration for many Beat

The Enormous Room by e.e cummings

Cummings was working as an ambulance driver during World War I when
French authorities arrested him for his anti-French sentiments.
Imprisoned in a detention center for four months, he recorded his
experiences in the autobiographical novel The Enormous Room. Filled with colorful character sketches and amusing prose, the novel gives us insight into the famous poet’s early life. 

In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Abbott

In the Belly of the Beast chronicles Jack Abbott’s 25 years
behind bars and hauntingly depicts what a cruel and unjust prison system
can do to a man’s mental state. The book contains correspondence
between Abbott and famous author Norman Mailer. Mailer, impressed with
Abbott’s writing talent, helped him get parole in 1981— the same year
his book was published. He was welcomed by the New York literary scene,
but was sent back to prison on a murder charge six weeks after getting
released. An HBO film about their relationship is currently in the works.

Showing 2 comments
  • Jen Stockton

    I had no idea most of these amazing writings were written by infamous former inmates. Let me pick my jaw up off the floor. How amazing!

  • David Finkelstein

    Also: Nehru’s Glimpses of World History

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