16 Books Written While the Author Was in Prison

Books Written While the Author Was in Prison

Today we’re going to take an interesting look at some of today’s classic books written while the author was in prison. While it’s illegal in the United States to profit from one’s crime, there’s no law saying one can’t make productive use of one’s time in the joint. Thus, many authors took advantage of their time “away” by writing novels and memoirs.

16 Books Written While the Author Was in Prison

1. The Pilgrim’s Progress

by John Bunyan

The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan

Considered one of the most boring books ever written, The Pilgrim’s Progress was written while author John Bunyan was incarcerated for his religious beliefs.

2. Don Quixote

by Miguel de Certantes

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Miguel de Cervantes was doing time in debtor’s prison when he wrote Don Quixote. The book sold so well Cervantes was able to pay his bills onward from the time he was released from prison.

3. Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure

by John Cleland

Fanny Hill by John Cleland

Incarcerated in 1748 because of monies owed, John Cleland used his time in the joint to pen one of the raciest  (some might even say pornographic) titles ever to be considered a classic. It was thought to be so scandalous back in the day that Cleland was re-arrested soon after Fanny Hill was released – this time on indecency charges.

4. Civil Disobedience

by Henry David Thoreau

Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

In 1846, Henry David Thoreau was arrested for failure to pay taxes that would have gone to support war with Mexico, of which Thoreau didn’t approve. He spent a memorable night in jail, penning Civil Disobedience.

5. De Profundis

by Oscar Wilde

De Profundis by Oscar Wilde

In 1895, Oscar Wilde was arrested for gross indecency after it came to light he was having an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas. Though he wrote De Profundis while serving his two year incarceration, this long letter of regret written to his lover was published after his death.

6. Conversations With Myself

by Nelson Mandela

Conversations With Myself by Nelson Mandela

Convicted in South Africa in 1962 of conspiracy to overthrow the government, Nelson Mandela used his prison sentence, in part, to write his autobiography Conversations With Myself. Despite receiving a life sentence, Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and went on to become President of South Africa in 1994.

7. Our Lady of the Flowers

by Jean Genet

Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet

While Jean Genet was serving time for theft, she secretly penned Our Lady of the Flowers.

 8. The Enormous Room

by e.e. cummings

The Enormous Room by e.e. cummings

e.e.cummings was incarcerated in France for four months because of his anti-Frech point of view. He used his time in lock up wisely, writing The Enormous Room.

9. The 120 Days of Sodom

by Marquis DeSade

The 120 Days of Sodom by Marquis de Sade

It should surprise no one that Marquis DeSade was arrested and subsequently incarcerated at the Bastille for “acts of sexual cruelty and violence.” While in jail he wrote The 120 Days of Sodom, a tale of kidnapping and sexual torture, which he kept hidden inside his prison wall. The manuscript was lost during the Storming of Bastille and it’s said Marqis de Sade wept “tears of blood” to mourn the loss of his manuscript. The manuscript was found and published in 1814 – long after de Sade’s death – and banned many times over due to its graphic nature. The original handwritten manuscript was purchased by a French museum for 7 million Euros.

10. LeMorte d’Arthur

by Thomas Malory

Le Morte d'Arthur

Though Malory wrote about knights and chivalry, he was anything but. Jailed for rape and thievery, he spent his time creating stories and artwork depicting tales of King Arthur.

11. To Althea, from Prison

by Richard Lovelace

To Althea, from Prison

In 1642, Richard Lovelace was locked up in Gatehouse Prison for his support of King Charles I. Unfortunately for Lovelance, his beloved Althea moved on to marry someone else. Letters to Althea, from Prison remains a classic.


12. The Travels of Marco Polo

by Rustichello di Pisa

The Travels of Marco Polo

While he was imprisoned in the Genoa Republic, Marco Polo regaled fellow inmate Rustichello di Pisa with tales of his time in the Orient. di Pisa recorded the tales as The Travels of Marco Polo, which is said to have started “The Age of Exploration.”


13. In the Belly of the Beast

by Jack Abbott

In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Abbott

After publishing The Executioner’s Song in 1977, author Norman Mailer received some fan mail. One letter he received was from Jack Abbott explaining that Gary Gilmore’s depiction of prison wasn’t necessarily accurate. Mailer encouraged Abbott to share his own stories and so  In the Belly of the Beast was born. Mailer was so impressed by Abbott he helped him to get paroled in 1981, the same year his book was published. Six weeks after his parole, Abbott killed a man in a bar fight and subsequently returned to prison.

14. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

by Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn

one day in the life of Ivan denisovich

Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn was incarcerated in 1945 after he criticized Joseph Stalin in a private letter written to a friend. Though he was sentenced to a harsh labor camp in Sibeia, he still found time to jot notes and begin forming the book that would become One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.


15. On the Yard

by Malcolm Braly

On the Yard by Malcolm Braly

Though he wrote three novels while incarcerated, Malcolm Braly wasn’t technically in prison when he wrote On the Yard. He was on parole. However, when prison authorities learned he was writing another novel they threatened to revoke his parole . Thus, On the Yard was written in secret.


16.  Soul on Ice

by Eldridge Cleaver

Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver

In 1958 Eldridge Cleaver was convicted of rape and remanded Folsom State Prison. While there he wrote a series of political essays that were to become the book Soul on Ice.


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