By Brian Beltz
There is no doubting the importance of literature in the day-to-day lives of prison inmates. In a world obsessed with television, celebrity gossip, and social media, inmates are, save for a few hours a day, almost exclusively removed. Books can fill the long empty days, provide an escape from the drudgery of prison life, and help them better themselves and learn new things.
Perhaps even more important, however, is the impact that prison inmates themselves have had on literature. Some of the greatest literary achievements in history, both fiction and non-fiction, were conceived or penned by authors while in prison. There are far too many of them to create an exhaustive list, but here are some of the most notable.
This two-part volume fully titled “The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha” is widely considered one of the greatest and most influential works of fiction ever published. Author Miguel de Cervantes is said to have formulated the story while in prison at Argamasilla de Alba in La Mancha. Some hold that Cervantes wrote the first volume while incarcerated, but there is no debate that his time behind bars was the inspiration for the story.
Letter From Birmingham City Jail
Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote this letter from his jail cell after being arrested for his participation in the Birmingham campaign, a non-violent protest against racial segregation. The letter contained King’s famous statement “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” While the letter had little effect on the campaign in Birmingham, its widespread circulation is credited for rallying support for the civil rights movement and calls for civil rights legislation. King’s work remains one of the most important documents in American history.
The Travels of Marco Polo
Divided into four books, The Travels of Marco Polo chronicles the experiences of Marco Polo throughout Asia, China, Persia, and Indonesia between 1271 and 1291. Polo recounted his travels to Italian romance writer, Rustichello da Pisa while the two were imprisoned in Genoa. Although the voracity of the work was regarded with suspicion at the time, today topographers have referred to his work as the precursor to scientific geography.
Le Morte D’Arthur
Sir Thomas Malory, the father of the King Arthur mythology, is said to have written the most famous version of the legend, Le Morte D’Arthur while incarcerated in France. The book created the famous imagery of the sword in the stone and the lady in the lake, and has been re-imagined over and over throughout history.
Better known for publishing works like “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Oscar Wilde was an Irish writer who became one of London’s most popular playwrights in the in the early 1890s. However, Wilde was convicted of gross indecency in 1895 and sent to prison. While in jail, he wrote what amounted to be the longest love letter ever written, a work that was published posthumously under the title, “De Profundis” (“From the Depths” in Latin). Often overlooked, De Profundis gives tremendous insight into the character of Oscar Wilde, his affection for others, and his legendary conversational skills.
There exist countless other works created or inspired by authors who spent time in prison. There is no direct correlation as to why so many important pieces have been spawned by the incarceration experience. Perhaps, it is due to the amount of time allowed for introspection or the fact that so many people in history were jailed for what they believed in (Nelson Mandela and Ghandi also come to mind). What is clear, however, is that the next great literary work is being written somewhere right now, quite possibly in a prison cell.
Brian Beltz is an aspiring writer and currently blogs for the law firm Solomon & Relihan (www.solomonrelihan.com) in Phoenix, Arizona. He loves to help make sense of complex legal issues in plain English and write about current events.
Photo: Napoleon Sarony, held by George Eastman House and shared on flickr.com commons with no known current copyright