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
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
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
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
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
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
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
While Jean Genet was serving time for theft, she secretly penned Our Lady of the Flowers.
8. 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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