by Tyler Woodsmall
I believe that there is a unique connection between incarceration and literature; classics from around the world have been written from prisons. Just a few of the numerous notable works are Fanny Hill (1748) by John Cleland, The Consolation of Philosophy (523) by Boethius, Civil Disobedience (1849) by Henry David Thoreau, The Enormous Room (1922) by E. E. Cummings, The 120 Days of Sodom (1785) by Marquis de Sade, and De Profundis (1897) by Oscar Wilde.
Out of the depths of prison, a plethora of literature both profound and controversial has emerged. Perhaps boredom causes prisoners to write, or maybe some inmates use literature as a tool to escape the walls that confine them. Whatever the reason, the literature that has emerged from prisons has had enormous literary impact—from raising pro-Christian philosophical questions to the creation of erotica and books that vividly recount disturbing depravity.
The history of prison writing seems to have begun with Boethius, a classical Neoplatonist philosopher who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy in 523 AD, during his imprisonment for treason. The Consolation of Philosophy is a written account of a conversation Boethius had with Lady Philosophy while he was in prison. It serves as a personification of his philosophical ideas, such as the denial of the flesh, intellectualism being the highest good earth can offer, evil’s lack of substance, and providence as the reason God created the universe. This thought-provoking material was written between bouts of torture.
But the cruelties of prison life were not a part of every inmate’s journey. English author John Cleland wrote the first piece of erotica from a debtors’ prison. A year after Fanny Hill was published, Cleland and the publishers were arrested for the book’s “pornographic” content. But Fanny Hill has since solidified its place in classic literature. It no longer lives in obscurity; you can purchase a copy in any major bookstore. Surely this book would be just as important if Cleland had written it in his own home or anywhere else. But the fact that Fanny Hill was written from prison validates the theory that prison writing has produced historically notable literature.
American poet E. E. Cummings was imprisoned in 1917 in France on suspicion of espionage for his anti-war sentiments. While there he wrote an autobiographical novel called The Enormous Room. Cummings' novel is important because it can properly exemplify the importance of unpopular speech. Ultimately prison writing can ask questions we could never think of speaking. What do they have to lose? They’re already in prison, so the only thing that would be “free” inside of a jail cell is thought.
The Marquis de Sade, a French author, wrote prolifically during the thirty years he spent in prison and an insane asylum. His work reflects his own life of sickening depravity, perversity, and blasphemy. His name is the origin of the word sadism. Did prison make Sade a writer? Probably not, but it did seem to have a profound effect on his writing. Richard Seaver, a translator of Sade’s work, said, “There is no question that de Sade would have never been a writer of any stature if he wasn’t sent to prison.” (This quote can be found in the documentary “Pornographer or Prophet?”) Sade’s themes of torture, loneliness, violence, and sexuality reflect the author’s madness, a condition that prison drove him to.
The idea of incarcerated people having a voice outside of prison is frightening or upsetting to many people. However, historical literature and other creative materials often come from vexatious places. “Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality,” wrote Edgar Allan Poe. I personally agree with Poe’s statement; I believe that the “horror of their reality” contributes to why profound writing can come from prisoners.
I just completed my first semester at Goddard, and therefore this has been my first semester working with Duende. I have only had the pleasure of seeing a few prison writing submissions, and I give a great deal of credit to my fellow Duendians Jorn Otte, Amy Sterne, and Wendy Call for championing Duende's prison writing project. The history of prison writing leads me to believe that more notable literature will come from behind bars. I’m not saying that Duende will publish the next famous incarcerated writer, but it’s great to be a part of something that feels so important.