‘Stone walls do not a prison make’: 12 Pieces of Prison Literature

‘Stone walls do not a prison make’: 12 Pieces of Prison Literature

Tim Flight - June 1, 2018

One thing that can be said of prison across the ages is that a spell of incarceration gives a prisoner plenty of time to think. Though the body may be physically confined to a certain area, in all but the most heinous prisons the mind is left unchecked: ‘stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage’, says Richard Lovelace in the oft-quoted To Althea, From Prison (1642). With many prisoners taking the time to pick up a pen and to write about their experiences and feelings, a fantastic and varied array of literature has been produced.

Where some prisoners meditate revenge or the unjustness of their imprisonment, others have remorse for their wrongdoing, or try to understand how they came to offend. Some even use enforced isolation to write in support of the actions leading to their incarceration. Altogether, prison literature is a fascinating literary subgenre, collectively offering a perspective on how different people react to their confinement. Adopting a loose definition of ‘Prison Literature’ as all written material produced in incarceration allows us to examine a broad selection of prisoners’ written output, from ancient to modern times: read on for a representative selection.

‘Stone walls do not a prison make’: 12 Pieces of Prison Literature
Boethius is comforted by Lady Philosophy, France, c.1460-70. Wikimedia Commons

Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, to give him his full name, was a Roman consul, magister officiorum (senior government official), and senator who lived between c.477 and 524AD. He was imprisoned and condemned to death for treason in 523, during which time he dedicated himself entirely to philosophy, and produced what is considered to be the last great work of the Late Antique Period: De consolatione philosophiae (‘The Consolation of Philosophy’). Written at Boethius’s darkest hour as he awaited execution in Pavia, the work became the most influential philosophical work through the Middle Ages to the early Renaissance.

Boethius was a member of an aristocratic family that had risen to power after converting to Christianity in the 4th century, producing 2 emperors and a pope by his lifetime. As a young man Boethius was a prodigy, an acknowledged master in the liberal arts (rhetoric, logic, literature, and astronomy, amongst other subjects). At some stage his talents attracted the attention of the Ostrogothic King Theodric (454-526), the ruler of Italy, who gave Boethius a variety of tasks at his court before making him consul without companion at the age of just 30, then magister officium shortly thereafter.

Whilst serving as head of the entire civil service, Boethius found the time to pursue his interest in philosophy, and produced a number of treatises and translations. It was entirely due to Boethius’s translations that knowledge of Aristotle survived in the West. Boethius’s orthodox theological tractates, however, led to his downfall. Theodoric belonged to the heretical sect known as the Arians, and the sect’s condemnation at Constantinople undermined his legitimacy to rule. Boethius’s theological writings and links to the East thus aroused Theodoric’s suspicions. Inevitably, political enemies seized upon this, and convinced Theodoric that Boethius was a traitor.

Imprisoned at Pavia and awaiting execution, Boethius got to work on his magnum opus. The Consolation of Philosophy opens with a weeping Boethius lamenting his unjust fall from grace; ‘first fickle Fortune gave me wealth short-lived/ then in a moment all but ruined me’ (I.i). Suddenly a mysterious female figure appears to him: Lady Philosophy, ‘my nurse, in whose house I had been cared for since my youth’ (I.ii). Lady Philosophy then consoles Boethius by demonstrating the futility of caring about worldly misfortunes by situating them in the context of eternity in which God is omnipotent and all is good.

Lady Philosophy tackles the eternal problems of the nature of fate and predestination vs. free will and self-determination, and why evil prospers and good fails in God’s perfect, foreordained world. She logically argues that whilst the mortal world is mutable and temporary, God alone is still and eternal, and if we fix our minds on Him we will think nothing of worldly (mis)fortune. Boethius’s greatest influence came not only from synthesising his knowledge of Greek and Roman philosophy but introducing the concept of the Wheel of Fortune that characterised medieval thought long after he was bludgeoned to death in 524.

‘Stone walls do not a prison make’: 12 Pieces of Prison Literature
Marco Polo in Tartar dress, France, 18th century. Wikimedia Commons

Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo

Marco Polo (1254-1324) was a Venetian merchant and explorer who wrote of his travels through the largely-unknown East. His narrative, originally given the bold title of Divisament dou Monde (‘Description of the World’) but better known as The Travels of Marco Polo, was dictated to his cellmate in Genoa, Rustichello da Pisa, a professional writer, and completed in about 1300. Neither Polo nor Rustichello is a literary genius, and the narrative plods along at a slow pace, with little regard for metaphor or dramatising people or events, but was a truly revolutionary piece of work without peers in 1300.

Marco was born to a mercantile family in the seafaring city of Venice. His father, Niccolo Polo, was a wealthy merchant who made his fortune trading with the Near East. Along with his brother Maffeo, Niccolo spent time at the court of Kublai Khan (1215-94), who having ‘never seen any Latin [people]… [was] exceedingly desirous to meet one’ (Prologue). The Polos left Kublai Khan when news of Niccolo’s wife’s death reached them, but after 2 years in Venice they travelled east again with Marco. The remaining narrative relates Marco’s knowledge of the world from his 26 years in the East.

To give you a flavour of the narrative, it simply begins ‘let me begin with Armenia’ (I), before giving as much detail as Polo can remember about the topography and locals. Typically, Polo describes the landscape, animals for hunting, curious facts about the people, and the climate of each place he mentions (and there are many). Most interesting is the account of his time with Kubilai Khan, which recounts Kublai’s manner of living, great achievements, and the inconceivable luxuries he possessed. For centuries, Polo was the main source for knowledge about the history and very-appearance of the Far East.

As well as strange people, Marco Polo also encountered many strange animals through his decades of travel, which had previously been known only by repute. His famous description of the unicorns he saw in Sumatra is well-worth quoting:

They have the hair of a buffalo and feet like an elephant’s. They have a single, large, black horn in the middle of the forehead… They are very ugly beasts to look at. They are not at all such as we describe them when we relate that they let themselves be captured by Virgins. (VI)

He is, of course, describing a rhinoceros.

Marco Polo finally returned to Venice in 1295, and had his fortune turned into gemstones, before joining the city’s war against Genoa with his own vessel. He was eventually captured after a skirmish at sea in 1296, and imprisoned for 3 years in Genoa. He died of sickness in Venice in 1323. Although there has long-been debate over the veracity of Polo’s travels and how much was the result of tales he and Rustichello had heard elsewhere, much of Polo’s narrative has been substantiated by modern scholars. Whatever the truth, The Travels represent a good use of 3 years’ imprisonment.

‘Stone walls do not a prison make’: 12 Pieces of Prison Literature
Camelot by Gustave Doré , from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, London, 1868. Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur

Including Le Morte d’Arthur (‘The Death of King Arthur’) on this list is slightly controversial. We do not know for certain who Thomas Malory was, but by far the most likely candidate is Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel, Warwickshire (c.1415-71), a soldier during the Wars of the Roses imprisoned for a number of (alleged) misdeeds. Malory was incarcerated at the notorious Newgate Prison in London, where it is believed that he set about undertaking the mammoth task of writing Le Morte d’Arthur. The work is important in itself for compiling and translating the wealth of material about King Arthur.

Sir Thomas Malory was born to Sir John Malory, Justice of the Peace for Warwickshire, and Lady Phillipa Malory, a rich heiress. He inherited his father’s estates in 1431 or 1433, and served in the army of Richard Beauchamp at Calais, ‘with one lance and two archers’. He was knighted before 1441, and became MP for Warwickshire in 1445. 5 years later, however, he began a life of crime which took in 8 imprisonments and 2 daring escapes, swimming the moat of Coleshill Prison in 1451 and fighting his way out of Colchester in 1454 with deadly weapons.

Records state that Malory lay in wait and ambushed the Duke of Buckingham in 1450, intending to murder him. He broke into the Abbey of Blessed Mary of Coombe and stole money and treasure from the abbot’s chest, before returning a few days later to insult the abbot. He also twice robbed one Hugh Smyth and forced himself on his wife. Furthermore, he led frequent and extensive cattle raids and extorted money. Malory protested his innocence but, in the words of the great Malory scholar Eugene Vinaver, ‘the charges are so multifarious that it is difficult to ignore them altogether’.

Malory was imprisoned at Newgate Prison, London, after his final arrest in 1460, and seems to have been released sometime in 1462. It is here that he is believed to have written Le Morte d’Arthur. This suggestion is supported by Dick Whittington, Mayor of London, exercising leniency towards Newgate’s inmates and allowing them to use the library at the adjoining monastery of Christ Church Greyfriars. Le Morte d’Arthur evidences an author with access to an extensive library, for the Arthurian myths it collates and blends existed in such diverse sources as historical chronicles and Welsh, French, and Middle English verse-romances.

This collation and translation, rather than the author’s literary abilities, make Le Morte d’Arthur a fundamental work in the Arthurian canon. For though Malory lacks the deft touch of Chrétien de Troyes, for example, his source-work is second to none. Le Morte d’Arthur tells the whole story of the rise and fall of Arthur and Camelot, and is intended as a didactic piece about how a knight should behave. Quite how the sexual deviant and thug Sir Thomas Malory saw himself alongside the honourable, woman-protecting Christian knights of Camelot is unclear. Malory was buried at Greyfriars, unpardoned for his crimes.

‘Stone walls do not a prison make’: 12 Pieces of Prison Literature
Portrait of Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Germany, 1528. Wikimedia Commons

Martin Luther, The New Testament (Translation)

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a leading figure in the Protestant Reformation. Luther took orders as an Augustinian Friar after dropping out of his law degree at the University of Erfurt, which he later described as resembling a brothel and a tavern. In 1512 he was awarded a doctorate in theology, and lectured for the rest of his life at the University of Wittenberg. He turned against the Catholic Church in 1516 when the Dominican friar, Johann Tetzel, was sent by the pope to Germany to sell indulgences in order to pay for the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica, Rome.

Though he initially meant only to spark a debate about the sale of papal indulgences, in his letter of October 1517 to Bishop Albrecht von Brandenburg Luther included a document that came to be known as the Ninety-Five Theses, criticisms about the excesses of the Catholic Faith. Supposedly, Luther nailed the document to the door of All Saints’ Church, Wittenberg, though the story is disputed. Regardless, the Ninety-Five Theses were translated into German, reprinted, and disseminated far and wide across Europe. As his criticisms developed into a more coherent thesis, Luther became the leader of the Protestant Reformation.

Such a wholesale condemnation of the church, and the claim that God’s forgiveness of sinners is achieved by faith alone (Sola fide) inevitably invoked the ire of the Catholic Church, who excommunicated him in January 1520 when he refused to recant his criticism. After vociferously defending his beliefs at the Diet of Worms in April 1521, and stating that ‘I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience’, Luther was declared an outlaw, and tricked into (merciful) imprisonment at Wartburg Castle. At Wartburg, he undertook his most daring work yet.

This controversial enterprise was to translate the Greek New Testament into German. This ran entirely contrary to Catholic principles: the Church wanted to keep the Bible in Greek and St Jerome’s authorised Latin translation, which meant that only the clergy and well-educated could read and understand Scripture. The idea was that the Holy Mysteries of Scripture needed to be interpreted for common folk by the clergy, and that translating the Bible would lead to heretical beliefs and theories about its content. Before Luther, others had fallen foul of Canon Law for making translations, such as John Wycliffe in England.

Making the translation so all could understand the Word of God was thus an act of rebellion, and refusing to use the Latin Vulgate as his source was a further affront to the Catholic Church. Luther’s translation wrested the Catholic Church’s control of the Bible’s message away from them, and simultaneously empowered the common man. He returned to Wittenberg a year later, and his translation of the entire Bible was first published in 1534. Imprisonment gave Luther the opportunity to concentrate on his written output, safe from the ecclesiastical persecution and politics he endured in Wittenberg. He died in 1546.

‘Stone walls do not a prison make’: 12 Pieces of Prison Literature
Title page of The History of the World by Sir Walter Raleigh, England, 17th century. Wikimedia Commons

Sir Walter Raleigh, The History of the World, Vol. I

Walter Raleigh (c.1554-1618), the great explorer and Elizabethan courtier, really needs no introduction. He is chiefly remembered as the man who introduced the potato to Europe — though scholars doubt this tradition — and for making smoking fashionable. What is less widely-known is Raleigh’s ignominious later career and death, during which he began the bold project of writing the history of the world, from his cell at the Tower of London. Alas, he lost his head before he could complete the task, but what he wrote became hugely popular (despite being immediately banned), and provides a fitting epitaph for this energetic buccaneer.

Born a gentleman in Devon, England, we know little of Raleigh’s life between 1569 and 1575, after he dropped out of Oriel College, Oxford, and went to fight with the Huguenots in France. He made his name in Ireland, where he was involved in brutally quashing the Desmond Rebellions, at the peak of which he led the party which beheaded 600 Spanish and Italian soldiers at the Siege of Smerwick. He was handsomely rewarded for his cruelty, and came to the notice of Elizabeth I, who in 1584 gave him a Royal Charter to colonise and rule remote, non-Christian countries.

Raleigh headed for the New World, searching for El Dorado in the Orinoco Basin and sending others to settle at Roanoke Island. His exuberant personality and strong Protestant faith made him a court favourite of Elizabeth, and he added to his romantic persona by helping to see off the Spanish Armada in 1588. However, in 1591, he secretly married one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, and Elizabeth imprisoned the couple in fury. After less than 2 months, he was released, and remained in favour following a series of daring raids on Spanish colonies and galleons until Elizabeth died in 1603.

Almost immediately, Raleigh was scandalously accused of a plot against her successor, James I, and imprisoned in the Tower of London after being found guilty. Amassing a library of 500 books and several research assistants, Raleigh set about writing The History of the World. He spent 7 of his 13 years’ imprisonment writing the first volume, which begins in Ancient Greece and finishes abruptly in 146BC. The text allows Raleigh to impart his wisdom: ‘whosoever commands the sea commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.’

It was originally intended for Henry, Prince of Wales, but the boy’s death in 1612 led to the abandonment of the project. In its incomplete state, The History contains nearly a million words of beautiful prose, and testifies to Raleigh’s learning and familiarity with continental scholarship. The critique of tyrannical leaders, however, led to James I banning it shortly after publication in 1614. Raleigh was released in 1616 to search for a goldmine he claimed to have found in Guyana, but ended up raiding Spanish colonies again, and under diplomatic pressure from Spain James had Raleigh executed in 1618.

‘Stone walls do not a prison make’: 12 Pieces of Prison Literature
Title page of John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, London, 1679. British Library

John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress

The Pilgrim’s Progress is the most widely-read work in English except the Bible. It has never gone out of print, and has been translated into over 200 languages, being preached to Native Americans and South Sea-Islanders by Christian missionaries. It even proved a surprise hit with Muslim intellectuals during the rise of individualism in Islam. Not bad for a book written by a Puritan jailbird. John Bunyan (1628-88) received only a basic education, before becoming a Parliamentarian soldier in the English Civil War then working as an itinerant tinker. He began preaching at the instigation of the Bedford Free Church.

At the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, the religious tolerance that allowed Bunyan to preach freely ended. The new laws required all preachers to be ordained by an Anglican bishop (the Church of England recognised the reigning monarch as its head, and thus non-conformity to it represented treason), and he was arrested for preaching illegally in 1660. Bunyan was found guilty of this and having ‘devilishly and perniciously abstained from coming to church to hear divine service’. He was sentenced to 3 months in prison, but this term actually lasted 12 years because he refused to cease preaching.

Like Boethius before him, Bunyan was imprisoned for a crime of which he did not believe himself guilty. Unlike Boethius, however, Bunyan was not facing the death penalty, and his imprisonment was so lax that he was able to attend the nearby Bedford Free Church on occasion and even managed to father a child with his wife. He was also surrounded by other stubborn nonconformist preachers in Bedford County Jail, and thus was able to start work on his spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, and The Pilgrim’s Progress, which is far more universal in applicability.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is a religious allegory, and relates the journey of the everyman-figure of the narrator, Christian, from his hometown of the ‘City of Destruction’ to the ‘Celestial City’, which correspond to Earth and Heaven. Along the way, Christian is burdened by the consciousness of his sins, which threaten to sink him into hell, and meets a variety of allegorical figures, with names such as Mr. Worldly Wiseman and Mr. Legality. The work was finally published in 1677, and proved an instant bestseller. Bunyan’s influence on thought and spirituality around the world through the book cannot be overstated.

‘Stone walls do not a prison make’: 12 Pieces of Prison Literature
Marquis de Sade aged about 20, France, 1760. Wikimedia Commons

Marquis de Sade, 120 Days of Sodom and others

Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), is one of history’s most notorious sexual perverts and criminals; the term ‘sadism’, of course, derives from his surname. His scandalous antics and sexual appetite, along with his aristocratic lineage in Revolutionary France, led him to spend 32 years of his life in prisons and lunatic asylums. He was a prolific writer, and spent much of his time in prison pursuing his literary aspirations. For de Sade, erotic writing was a necessary substitute for actual sexual crimes when he was incarcerated and thus prevented from acting out his twisted fantasies.

De Sade was born a wealthy aristocrat, received a fine education, and joined the military at the age of just 15, rising to the rank of colonel. Shortly after returning to Paris from the Seven Years’ War in 1763, de Sade was placed under observation by the police after complaints of brutality from various prostitutes. After several short imprisonments for his crimes, de Sade (by now a Marquis) was exiled to his castle in Lacoste in 1768, but this did not curb his behaviour, and a chambermaid he tortured had to be handsomely compensated by the de Sade family.

In the following years, de Sade’s crimes (whipping, drugging prostitutes, and homosexual sodomy) led to his fleeing to Italy after the death sentence was pronounced upon him. He was eventually caught in Paris, but the death penalty was dropped, and he instead was imprisoned on-and-off until his death, serving for a time as an official in Napoleon’s government until he was sacked for, surprisingly, voicing criticism for Robespierre’s brutality. He was imprisoned without trial for the indecent content of the novellas Justine and Juliette in 1801, and spent the rest of his life in mental asylums.

De Sade wrote much of his large body of work whilst in prison. In the words of Simone de Beauvoir, ‘it is neither as author nor as sexual pervert that [de] Sade compels us; it is by virtue of the relationship which he created between these two aspects of himself’. Essentially, de Sade’s works, including the notorious 120 Days of Sodom, were written to explain his sexual aberrations and love for erotic cruelty. Sodom, written during his stay in the Bastille, tells the story of 4 aristocratic libertines indulging in appalling sexual acts and debating the nature of vice.

‘Imperious, choleric, irascible, extreme in everything, with a dissolute imagination the like of which has never been seen, atheistic to the point of fanaticism, there you have me in a nutshell, and kill me again or take me as I am, for I shall not change’. So de Sade described himself in a 1783 letter to his wife, but the warning still applies today. For those of a strong stomach and tolerance for immorality, de Sade’s writings are ponderous and obfuscatory, but nonetheless intellectually-stimulating and rewarding for those willing to accept a challenge. You have been warned, brave reader.

‘Stone walls do not a prison make’: 12 Pieces of Prison Literature
Portrait of Madame Roland by Johann Julius Heinsius, France, 1792. Wikimedia Commons

Madame Roland, Mémoires de Madame Roland

Another writer imprisoned during the French Revolution, Madame Roland, née Marie-Jeanne Phlippon (1754-93), spent less than 6 months in the Conciergerie before being guillotined for treason in November 1793. Incarcerated in relatively comfortable conditions, Madame Roland spent her last few months writing her memoirs, in which she reflected on her fascinating life and involvement in the French Revolution as she bravely faced death. The Mémoires are a testament not only to her incredible valour but her wonderful education and self-assured and confident personality: ‘I have never been tempted to change my beliefs in order to relax my moral principles’.

Despite growing up in a period when women were meant to be weak and submissive, Madame Roland was strong-willed enough to stand up to the men in her life, influenced by the writings of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau: ‘he showed me the possibility of domestic happiness and the delights that were available to me if I sought them’. Despite her great beauty and list of suitors, Roland was far more interested in politics: ‘no one so obviously made for voluptuous pleasure has enjoyed so little of it’. After a year in convent school, she educated herself independently, and travelled widely.

She married Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière, a politically-ambitious philosopher 20 years her senior with whom she collaborated on a number of political writings, but it was she who chose the direction of the published output, and thus through her husband Madame Roland achieved significant political influence. Their writings in support of the Revolution led to Jean-Marie being elected representative for Lyon in Paris, and Madame Roland’s salon played host on many occasions to such figures as Brissot, Pétion, and Robespierre. Unfortunately, she later made a dangerous enemy of the latter, which resulted in her imprisonment and execution.

It was well-known that the real voice behind Jean-Marie’s letters and writings was his irrepressible wife. Thus when Jean-Marie voted against executing Louis XVI and spoke out against the September Massacres of 1792, it was only a matter of time until his dominant wife was arrested for treason. Executed for harbouring royalist sympathies, Madame Roland’s last words were ‘O Liberté, que de crimes on commet en ton nom!’ (‘O Liberty, what crimes are committed in your name!’). Determined, independent, and unwilling to accept a life of subservience to men, Madame Roland is one of history’s most underrated feminist icons.

‘Stone walls do not a prison make’: 12 Pieces of Prison Literature
Oscar Wilde, photographed by Napoleon Sarony, New York, 1892. Wikimedia Commons

Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was a prominent playwright, journalist, and wit, perhaps best-remembered for the only novel he wrote, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). He was also cruelly persecuted, and eventually imprisoned, for his homosexuality. On Valentine’s Day 1895, Wilde was at the height of his popularity and influence, with his play The Importance of Being Earnest having just opened in London. 4 days later, he found a calling card from the Marquess of Queensberry, father of his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, at his club, which read ‘For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic]’. Unwisely, Wilde sued Queensberry for libel.

Queensberry was acquitted as details of Wilde’s private life emerged, and he was arrested after leaving court for sodomy and gross indecency. Found guilty, Wilde was sentenced to 2 years’ hard labour (the maximum penalty), and his already-delicate health made his suffering unimaginable. His well-connected friends petitioned for leniency, and he was moved to Reading Jail after 6 months, where he wrote a letter to Douglas, known as De Profundis (‘From the Depths’). The letter discussed their relationship, the extravagance of which Wilde now regretted, but forgave Douglas, and in the second half detailed his spiritual awakening in prison.

Wilde’s spiritual awakening involved identifying himself with Christ, whom he describes as a romantic artist, ‘despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief and we hid our faces from him’ (Isaiah 53:3). He saw his disgrace and imprisonment as an artistic development, but the tone is still painfully sad:

Society, as we have constituted it, will have no place for me, has none to offer; but Nature, whose sweet rains fall on unjust and just alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide, and secret valleys in whose silence I may weep undisturbed.

‘Stone walls do not a prison make’: 12 Pieces of Prison Literature
Martin Luther King in his cell in Birmingham, Alabama, 1967. Odyssey Online

Martin Luther King, Letter from Birmingham Jail

The achievements of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-68) are so great that it is nigh-on offensive to give a summary of his life in so brief a context. Instead, we will focus entirely on the circumstances of his contribution to prison literature, Letter from Birmingham Jail (also known as The Negro is Your Brother). As the title suggests, King wrote the letter whilst incarcerated in Birmingham, Alabama, following the Birmingham campaign. In 1963, King led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s nonviolent direct action against racial segregation and economic injustice, comprising sit-ins and marches to provoke negotiations with the city’s officials.

Footage of police using water cannons and dogs against the peaceful protestors – many of whom were women and children – caused a wave of support for the protestors, culminating in positive changes being made. However, when King was arrested early in the campaign (for the 13th time), he faced opposition from within the SCLC for his insistence on street protest. Undaunted, from his cell he penned what became a fundamental document in the Civil Rights Movement, in which he defends the (eventually vindicated) need for visible, public protests: ‘the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative’.

The open letter’s powerful rhetoric makes a convincing argument for nonviolent protest that is simultaneously both impassioned and rational:

Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

He was, of course, right.

‘Stone walls do not a prison make’: 12 Pieces of Prison Literature
Signed picture of Charles Bronson, 2007. Fit Prince

Charles Bronson, Solitary Fitness and Bronson

Born Michael Gordon Petersen in 1952, Charles Bronson (also known as Charles Ali Ahmed and Charles Arthur Salvador) is one of Britain’s most notorious and violent living criminals. He was originally given 7 years for armed robbery in 1974, but this eventually became 13 years due to a series of violent acts and protests. Following this, he was released for very brief periods before reoffending and being imprisoned again, the final time coming after an attempted robbery in 1993. His subsequent behaviour in prison – including taking hostages, violent assaults, and general disobedience – landed him a life sentence in 1999.

Charles Bronson is a great paradox: violent and unpredictable, he is also self-aware, witty, and a prolific writer and artist. He has been certified insane on numerous occasions, and describes himself in his autobiography, Bronson, thus: ‘I’m a nice guy, but sometimes I lose all my senses and become nasty. That doesn’t make me evil, just confused’. His autobiography – written, of course, from prison – is full of fascinating anecdotes and unsubstantiated claims alike, including his brief bare-knuckle boxing career in the 1980s. The acclaimed 2008 film of the book, Bronson, starring Tom Hardy, is approved by Bronson himself.

Bronson has also turned his attention to the subject of physical fitness. A dedicated fitness fanatic, Solitary Fitness is designed for those without the finance or freedom to use a gym, and can be undertaken in a room as small as, well, a prison cell. Promising to give you a body ‘that can be used in all sorts of situations’ (best not ask), Bronson rails against the dangers of steroids and the capitalistic excesses of the fitness industry. Following Bronson’s workout is no picnic, however. He claims to perform 6, 000 press-ups a day, and prescribed-workouts last ‘until exhaustion’.

‘Stone walls do not a prison make’: 12 Pieces of Prison Literature
Adolf Hitler, Germany, probably Munich, c.1920-24. Wikimedia Commons


Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

We finish the list with what is without simultaneously the worst-written and most dangerous piece of prison literature ever produced, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (‘My Struggle’). In 1923, planning to seize control of Bavaria and to topple the Weimar Republic from thence, Hitler led 2, 000 Nazis to the Bürgerbräukeller beer hall in Munich, where the state commissioner, Gustav von Kahr, was addressing an assembly of 3, 000 people. The coup, known as the Munich Putsch, failed miserably, and Hitler was arrested after 2 days in hiding. He was sentenced to 5 years’ imprisonment in Landsberg Prison for high treason.

Whilst in prison, Hitler got to work on his autobiography, Mein Kampf, building on the attention he had attracted during his trial for the Munich Putsch. The solitude of prison can often bring out the best in a writer, as the examples above demonstrate, but Hitler’s incarceration produced a self-indulgent, badly-written, turgid, and wildly-inaccurate account of his life, to say nothing of its repulsive immorality. Nevertheless, the preposterous precepts set out in Mein Kampf – anti-Semitism, lebensraum, the superiority of the Aryan race – informed the ideological basis for the Nazi Party’s atrocities after they seized power in 1933.

Mein Kampf was banned in Germany until 2016, when the copyright owned by the Bavarian government (who refused to publish it) ended. One feels, however, that even the most committed Neo-Nazi would think twice about their beliefs after reading the grandiloquent Mein Kampf. The autobiography unintentionally reveals the ludicrous foundation for many of Hitler’s beliefs; Hitler’s anti-Semitism, for example, originated in his dislike of the theatre in Vienna, in which many actors were Jewish. Any annotated edition will also reveal the pure fabrications made, such as Hitler’s claims to academic excellence, which contemporary school reports posthumously discovered entirely discredit.

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. by Victor Watts. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1998.

Bronson, Charles. Solitary Fitness. Ed. Stephen Richards. Gateshead: Mirage, 2007.

Bronson, Charles, and Robin Ackroyd. Bronson. London: Blake, 2009.

Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim’s Progress. Ed. by W.R. Owens. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.

Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf. Trans. by Ralph Manheim. London: Hutchinson, 1999.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. Letter from Birmingham Jail. London: Penguin, 2018.

Lindsay, Thomas M. Luther and the German Reformation. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1900.

Marquis de Sade, 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings. Trans. by Austryn Wainhouse and Richard Seaver. London: Arrow, 1966.

Nelson, Max. “Unseen, Even of Herself”, The Paris Review, November 17, 2015.

Polo, Marco. The Travels. Trans. by Ronald Latham. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004.

Raleigh, Walter. The History of the World. Ed. by C.A. Patrides. London: Macmillan, 1971.

Vinaver, Eugene, ed. Malory: Complete Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Walker, Lesley H. “Sweet and Consoling Virtue: The Memoirs of Madame Roland”. Eighteenth-Century Studies, 34, no. 3 (2001): pp. 403-419.

Wilde, Oscar. Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. London: Collins, 2003.