Any written works created while the author is in jail are known as prison literature. This applies to both fiction and nonfiction. A considerable number of works, by very well known writers, were created in this fashion.
While a good many written works were created behind bars, some of the more famous examples include Mein Kampf (by Adolf Hitler), The Pilgrim’s Progress (by John Bunyan) and De Profundis (by Oscar Wilde), while Jeffrey Archer wrote his prison memoirs in jail and Marquis de Sade produced a huge body of work while imprisoned for more than 10 years.
Hitler made news in the 1920s with a failed attempt at revolution, known as the Bier Hall Putsch, for which he was imprisoned in 1924. During his jail time he began writing Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”) – when he later came to power, the popularity of the book in Nazi Germany exploded. Some 10 million of the books had found their way into German hands by the end of the War in 1945. Mein Kampf remains a contentious work today, due to its anti-Jewish sentiments.
John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress was first published in 1678, and is considered to be among the most significant works of the English language. Allegorical in style, the book’s main characters have names like “Christian”, “Evangelist”, “Obstinate”, “Pliable”, “Mr. Worldly Wiseman”, and so on. Bunyan himself had been imprisoned many times, and to this day scholars debate over which of his jail terms saw him start the writing of The Pilgrim’s Progress.
In modern times, one successful and well known author to write in jail is Jeffrey Archer. He was a politician, and was imprisoned for perjury and perverting the course of justice. Whilst jailed, he produced 3 works on his life in prison – Belmarsh: Hell, Wayland: Purgatory, and North Sea Camp: Heaven. Archer also has an impressive resume as a fiction writer, and some of the characters in his subsequent novels were based on people he met in prison. His time in jail certainly never hampered his literary success, as he has sold well over a hundred million books.
A sleazy character in France in the 1800s, Marquis de Sade’s outrageous and provocative writing style actually led to his arrest. Napoleon Bonaparte (who contributed to the prison writing genre later in life with a book of autobiography during his incarceration on St. Helena Island) insisted on Sade’s arrest for writing the books Justine and Juliette. During his prison sentence of over a decade, Sade was nonetheless able to produce 11 novels, 16 novellas, 20 theatrical pieces, 2 collections of essays, and a journal.
Oscar Wilde was also no stranger to sexual controversy in his time. In 19th Century England it was illegal to engage in gay sexual acts, and this led to Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment. Whilst in jail, Wilde composed a fifty-thousand word letter to his partner Lord Alfred Douglas. He was never allowed to send this letter but after he died it was edited to create the work “De Profundis”. A complete and unedited version of the letter has since been released.
These are just a few of the writers who have produced famous work while being held prisoner. They were able to remain productive despite imprisonment, while for their readers, the thrills of notorious authors, unfair imprisonments and the gritty world behind bars only enhance the appeal of prison literature.
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