History Of Literary Genius Behind Bars

St. Paul (Paul the Apostle) AD 5- 67 

paulPaul underwent a purification ritual in order to give the Jews no grounds to bring accusations against him for not following their law. Paul caused a stir when he appeared at the Temple, and he escaped being killed by the crowd by voluntarily being taken into Roman custody. When a plot to kill Paul on his way to an appearance before the Jews was discovered, he was transported by night to Caesarea. He was held as a prisoner there for two years, until a new governor reopened his case in 59. When the governor suggested that he be sent back to Jerusalem for further trial, Paul exercised his right as a Roman citizen to “appeal unto Caesar”.

Acts recounts that on the way to Rome for his appeal as a Roman citizen to Caesar, Paul was shipwrecked on “Melita” (Malta),[Acts 28:1] where he was met byPublius[Acts 28:7] and the islanders who showed him “unusual kindness”.[Acts 28:2] He arrived in Rome c. 60 and spent another two years under house arrest (beyond his two years in prison in Caesarea).[14][Acts 28:16]

Irenaeus of Lyons in the 2nd century believed that Peter and Paul had been the founders of the church in Rome and had appointed Linus as succeeding bishop.[72]Paul was not a bishop of Rome, nor did he bring Christianity to Rome since there were already Christians in Rome when he arrived there.[Acts 28:14-15] Also, Paul wrote his letter to the church at Rome before he had visited Rome.[Romans 1:1,7,11-13;15:23-29] However, Paul would have played an important role in the life of the early church at Rome.[73]  Neither the Bible nor other sources say how or when Paul died, but Ignatius, probably around 110, writes that Paul was martyred.[74]

Image 26Rustichello da Pisa 1254-1324

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 asThe Travels of Marco Polo. The book soon spread throughout Europe, providing Westerners insight into the “exotic East.”

Sir (Saint) Thomas More 1478 – 1535Sir (Saint) Thomas More 1478 – 1535

Saint Thomas More was an English lawyer, author and statesman, who, in his lifetime, gained a reputation as a leading humanist scholar, and occupied many public offices, including Lord Chancellor (1529–1532). More coined the word “utopia”, a name he gave to an ideal, imaginary island nation whose political system he described in the eponymous book published in 1516. He was beheaded in 1535 when he refused to sign the Act of Succession that would make Henry VIII Supreme Head of the Church in England. On 13 April of that year, More was asked to appear before a commission and swear his allegiance to the parliamentary Act of Succession. More accepted Parliament’s right to declare Anne the legitimate queen of England, but he refused to take the oath because of an anti-papal preface to the Act, asserting Parliament’s authority to legislate in matters of religion by denying the authority of the Pope, which More would not accept. Four days later he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he wrote his devotionalDialogue of Comfort against Tribulation. On 1 July 1535, More was tried before a panel of judges. He was charged with high treason for denying the validity of the Act of Succession. He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered (the usual punishment for traitors), but the king commuted this to execution by beheading. The execution took place on 6 July. In 1935, four hundred years after his death, Pope Pius XI canonized More in the Roman Catholic Church; More was declared Patron Saint of politicians and statesmen by Pope John Paul II in 1980. [Wikipedia]

Cervantes 1547-1616Cervantes 1547-1616

A Spanish novelist, poet and playwright. His magnum opus, Don Quixote, considered the first modern novel by some, is considered a founding classic of Western literature, and regularly figures among the best novels ever written. His work is considered among the most important in all of literature. He has been dubbed el Príncipe de los Ingenios – the Prince of Wits. By 1570 he had been enlisted as a soldier in a Spanish infantry regiment and continued his military life until 1575, when he was captured by pirates. He was ransomed by his captors and the Trinitarians and returned to his family in Madrid. In 1585, Cervantes published a pastoral novel, La Galatea. Because of financial problems, Cervantes worked as a purveyor for the Spanish Armada, and later as a tax collector. In 1597 discrepancies in his accounts of three years previous landed him in the Crown Jail of Seville. In 1605, he was in Valladolid, just when the immediate success of the first part of his Don Quixote, published in Madrid, signaled his return to the literary world. In 1607, he settled in Madrid, where he lived and worked until his death. [Wikipedia]

Daniel Defoe 1660-1731Daniel Defoe 1660-1731

As punishment for his political pamphleteering, the author of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders was sentenced to an indefinite term in London’s Newgate prison. He also spent three days in the public pillory. Legend has it that, instead of rotten eggs and dead animals, the crowd threw roses as him at a result of reading his poem “Hymn to the Pillory.”

Voltaire 1694 – 1778Voltaire 1694 – 1778

Francois-Marie Arouet, better known by the pen name Voltaire, was a French Enlightenment writer, essayist, deist and philosopher known for his wit, philosophical sport and defense of civil liberties, including freedom of religion and free trade. Voltaire was a prolific writer, and produced works in almost every literary form, authoring plays, poetry, novels, essays, historical and scientific works, over 20,000 letters and over two thousand books and pamphlets. He was an outspoken supporter of social reform, despite strict censorship laws and harsh penalties for those who broke them. A satirical polemicist, he frequently made use of his works to criticize Catholic Church dogma and the French institutions of his day. Most of Voltaire’s early life revolved around Paris. From early on, Voltaire had trouble with the authorities for his energetic attacks on the government and the Catholic Church. These activities were to result in numerous imprisonments and exiles. In 1717, in his early twenties, he became involved in the Cellamare conspiracy of Giulio Alberoni against Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, the regent for Louis XV of France. He allegedly wrote satirical verses about the aristocracy, and one of his writings about the Régent led to him being imprisoned in the Bastille for eleven months. While there, he wrote his debut play, Oedipus (French: Œdipe). Its success established his reputation. [Wikipedia]

John Cleland 1709-1789John Cleland 1709-1789

While in debtors’ prison, Cleland wrote Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (Fanny Hill). Upon his release, Cleland was arrested for obscenity, after which he disavowed the novel. It would not be legally published again for over a hundred years. However, illegal, pirated copies continued to be circulated.

Henry David Thoreau 1817-1862Henry David Thoreau 1817-1862

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.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky 1821-1881

Fyodor Dostoevsky 1821-1881

Accused of reading and circulating essays critical of the government, the great Russian writer was sentenced to death by firing squad, saved only by the Czar’s last-minute commutation of the sentence to four years in a Siberian labor camp. While in prison, he began his novella Notes from Underground (1964), described by some as the first existentialist novel. He also wrote Crime and Punishment and many other classic works.

Paul Verlaine 1844 – 1896Paul Verlaine 1844 – 1896

Verlaine was a French poet associated with the Symbolist movement. He is considered one of the greatest representatives of the fin de siècle in international and French poetry. In September, 1871, he received his first letter from the poet Arthur Rimbaud. By 1872, he had lost interest in Mathilde, his wife, and effectively abandoned her and their son, preferring the company of Rimbaud – his new lover. Rimbaud and Verlaine’s stormy love affair took them to London in 1872. In July 1873, in a drunken, jealous rage, he fired two shots with a pistol at Rimbaud, wounding his left wrist, though not seriously injuring the poet. As an indirect result of this incident, Verlaine was arrested and imprisoned at Mons. There, he underwent a conversion to Roman Catholicism, which again influenced his work and provoked Rimbaud’s sharp criticism. Romances sans paroles was the poetic outcome of this period. Following his release from prison, Verlaine again traveled to England, where he worked for some years as a teacher and produced another successful collection, Sagesse. He returned to France in 1877 and, while teaching English at a school in Rethel, became infatuated with one of his pupils, Lucien Létinois, who inspired Verlaine to write further poems. Verlaine was devastated when the boy died of typhus in 1883. Verlaine’s last years witnessed a descent into drug addiction, alcoholism and poverty. He lived in slums and public hospitals, and spent his days drinking absinthe in Paris cafes. [wikipedia]

Oscar Wilde 1854-1900Oscar Wilde 1854-1900

Wilde was an Irish playwright, novelist, poet and author of short stories. Known for his biting wit, he became one of the most successful playwrights of late Victorian London, and one of the greatest celebrities of his day. Several of his plays continue to be widely performed, especially “The Importance of Being Earnest.” As the result of a widely covered series of trials, Wilde suffered a dramatic downfall, and was imprisoned for two years hard labour after being convicted of the offence of “gross indecency” with other men. After Wilde was released from prison he set sail for Dieppe by the night ferry. He never returned to Britain. Wilde was imprisoned first in Pentonville, and then in Wandsworth prison in London, and finally transferred in November to Reading Prison, some 30 miles west of London. Wilde knew the town of Reading from happier times when boating on the Thames, and also from visits to the Palmer family, including a tour of the famous Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory, which is quite close to the prison. Now known as prisoner C. 3.3, (which described the fact that he was in block C, floor three, cell three) he was not, at first, even allowed paper and pen, but a later governor was more amenable. Wilde was championed by the reformer, Lord Haldane, who had helped transfer him and afforded him the literary catharsis he needed. After his release, he also wrote the famous poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” [Wikipedia]

O. Henry 1862 – 1910O. Henry 1862 – 1910

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 friends to send his work to various publishers. His most famous pen name soon became O. Henry.

Ghandi 1869-1948Ghandi 1869-1948

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, commonly known as Mahatma Gandhi, was the preeminent leader of Indian nationalism in British-ruled India. Employing non-violent civil disobedience, Gandhi led India to independence and inspired movements for non-violence, civil rights and freedom across the world.

The son of a senior government official, Gandhi was born and raised in a Hindu Bania community in coastal Gujarat, and trained in law in London. Gandhi became famous by fighting for the civil rights of Muslim and Hindu Indians in South Africa, using new techniques of non-violent civil disobedience that he developed. Returning to India in 1915, he set about organizing peasants to protest excessive land-taxes. A lifelong opponent of “communalism” (i.e. basing politics on religion) he reached out widely to all religious groups. He became a leader of Muslims protesting the declining status of the Caliphate. Assuming leadership of the Indian National Congress in 1921, Gandhi led nationwide campaigns for easing poverty, expanding women’s rights, building religious and ethnic amity, ending untouchability, increasing economic self-reliance, and above all for achieving Swaraj—the independence of India from British domination..

Jack London 1876-1916Jack London 1876-1916

The author of Call of the Wild and White Fang influenced Ernest Hemingway, among others. In a chapter called “Pinched” from his 1907 book The Road, London describes his “trial” on vagrancy charges: “The bailiff said, ‘Vagrancy, your honor,’ and I began to talk. But the judge began talking at the same time, and he said, “Thirty days.” I started to protest, but at that moment his honor was calling the name of the next hobo on the list. His honor paused long enough to say to me, ‘Shut up!’” London spent 30 days in the Eric County Penitentiary, an experience that transformed his later writings.

e.e. cummings 1894-1962e.e. cummings 1894-1962

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.

Chester Himes 1909-1984Chester Himes 1909-1984

The author of If He Hollers Let Him Go and Cotton Comes to Harlem served seven-and-a-half years in the Ohio State Penitentiary for armed robbery. While in prison, he began writing short stories, eventually earning the respect of prison guards and other inmates and in that way shielding himself from violence. His brief tenure as a Hollywood screenwriter was cut short when Warner Brothers chief Jack Warner, using the most offensive of racial epithets, fired him because he was African American. Himes’s crime fiction has been compared favorably to that of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson.

Image 16Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution

From 1999 to the present, Lamb has facilitated a writing program for incarcerated women at the York Correctional InstituteConnecticut’s only women’s prison in Niantic, Connecticut. Lamb’s writing program at York Prison has produced two collections of his inmate students’ autobiographical writing, Couldn’t Keep It to Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters and I’ll Fly Away: Further Testimonies from the Women of York Prison, both of which Lamb edited.

The publication of the first book became a source of controversy and media attention when, a week before its release, the State of Connecticut unexpectedly sued its incarcerated contributors—not for the six thousand dollars each writer would collect after her release from prison but for the entire cost of her incarceration, calculated at $117 per day times the number of days in her prison sentence. When one of the writers won a PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award, given to a writer whose freedom of speech is under attack, the prison destroyed the women’s writing and moved to close down Lamb’s program. These actions caught the interest of the television show 60 Minutes, and shortly before the show aired an episode about the controversy, the State of Connecticut settled the lawsuit and reinstated the program.

Jean Genet 1910-1986Jean Genet 1910-1986

Genet was a prominent, controversial French writer and, later, political activist. Early in his life he was a vagabond and petty criminal, but later took to writing novels, plays, poems and essays, including Querelle de Brest, The Thief’s Journal, Our Lady of the Flowers, The Balcony and The Blacks and The Maids. Genet’s mother was a young prostitute who raised him for the first year of his life, before putting him up for adoption. For various misdemeanors, including repeated acts of vagrancy, he was sent, at the age of 15, to Mettray Penal Colony, where he was detained between 2 September 1926 and 1 March 1929. In The Miracle of the Rose (1946), he gives an account of this period of detention, which ended at the age of 18 when he joined the Foreign Legion. He was eventually given a dishonorable discharge on grounds of indecency. After returning to Paris, France in 1937, Genet was in and out of prison through a series of arrests for theft, use of false papers, vagabondage, lewd acts and other offenses. In prison, Genet wrote his first poem, “Le condamné à mort,” which he had printed at his own cost, and the novel Our Lady of the Flowers (1944). In Paris, Genet sought out and introduced himself to Jean Cocteau, who was impressed by his writing. Cocteau used his contacts to get Genet’s novel published, and in 1949, when Genet was threatened with a life sentence after ten convictions, Cocteau and other prominent figures including Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso successfully petitioned the French President to have the sentence set aside. Genet would never return to prison. [Wikipedia]

William S. Burroughs 1914 – 1997William S. Burroughs 1914 – 1997

Burroughs was an American novelist, essayist, social critic, painter and spoken word performer. He was also known by his pen name William Lee. Much of Burroughs’s work is semi-autobiographical, drawn from his experiences as an opiate addict, a condition that marked the last fifty years of his life. A primary member of the Beat Generation, he was an avant-garde author who affected popular culture as well as literature. His most well known work is probably Naked Lunch (1959). In 1951, Burroughs shot and killed his wife, Joan Vollmer, in a drunken game of “William Tell” at a party above the American-owned Bounty Bar in Mexico City. He spent 13 days in jail before his brother came to Mexico City and bribed Mexican lawyers and officials. This allowed Burroughs to be released on bail while he awaited trial for the killing, which was ruled culpable homicide. Burroughs reported every Monday morning to the jail in Mexico City, while his prominent Mexican attorney worked to resolve the case. When his attorney fled Mexico, after his own legal problems involving a car accident and altercation with the son of a government official, Burroughs decided to “skip” and return to the United States. He was convicted, in absentia, of homicide and sentenced to two years, which was suspended. [Wikipedia]

Joan Henry 1914-2000Joan Henry 1914-2000

A relative of two prime ministers and cousin of philosopher Betrand Russell, this author and playwright spent eight months in prison for passing fraudulent checks. Based on her experiences, she wrote Who Lie In Gaol, an exposé of substandard prison conditions. The book became a bestseller and was later made into a movie titled The Weak and the Wicked. Her later writing also focused on the criminal justice system.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 1929-1968Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 1929-1968

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.”

Ken Kesey 1935 – 2001Ken Kesey 1935 – 2001

Kesey was an American author, best known for his debut novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and as a counter-cultural figure who, some consider, was a link between the Beat Generation of the 1950′s and the hippies of the 1960′s. Kesey was arrested for possession of marijuana in 1965. In an attempt to mislead police, he faked his own suicide by having friends leave his truck on a cliffside road near Eureka, along with a suicide note that said, “Ocean, Ocean I’ll beat you in the end.” Kesey fled to Mexico in the back of a friend’s car. When he returned to the United States eight months later, Kesey was arrested and sent to the San Mateo County jail in Redwood City, California, for five months. On his release, he moved back to the family farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon, in the Willamette Valley, where he spent the rest of his life. He wrote many articles, books (mostly collections of his articles) and short stories during that time. [Wikipedia]

Image 14Aleksander Solzhenitsyn 1918-2008

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s controversial book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was first published in November 1962 in the Soviet literary magazine Novy Mir. The story is set in a Soviet labor camp in the 1950s, and describes a single day of an ordinary prisoner, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov.

The book’s publication was an extraordinary event in Soviet literary history, never before had an account of Stalinist repression been openly distributed. The editor of Novy MirAleksandr Tvardovsky, wrote a short introduction for the issue, titled “Instead of a Foreword”, to prepare the journal’s readers for what they were about to experience.

Jack Abbott 1944-2002Jack Abbott 1944-2002

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.

Nelson Mandela 1918-2013Nelson Mandela 1918-2013

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.

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