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Famous Authors Of Prison Literature

By Audrey McGuire
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.

Among those who have written in jail are Adolf Hitler (who wrote the famous Mein Kampf behind bars), Jeffrey Archer (he wrote a three-volume memoir of his jail time), John Bunyan (author of The Pilgrim’s Progress), Marquis De Sade (who wrote extensively during an 11 year imprisonment), and Oscar Wilde (who wrote the philosophical De Profundis while imprisoned).

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.

One of the most famous classics of English literature, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan was first issued in 1678. Written as an allegory, characters in the story are given names like “Evangelist”, “Christian”, “Pliable”, “Obstinate”, and “Mr. Worldly Wiseman”. It is known that Bunyan had numerous spells in jail, and those who study Bunyan still cannot agree which imprisonment he started The Pilgrim’s Progress in.

A present day example of a writer working from a jail cell is provided by Jeffrey Archer, a disgraced politician in the UK, who was locked up after being found guilty of perverting the course of justice and perjury. He published 3 books about his prison experiences, Belmarsh: Hell, Wayland: Purgatory, and North Sea Camp: Heaven. As well as writing while in jail, Archer managed to further profit from his situation by basing characters in his fiction novels on people he had met behind bars. Despite falling foul of the law, Archer has made a fortune from selling over a hundred million books.

The Marquis de Sade was also a notorious figure in his time, who was actually imprisoned as a direct result of his writings, which were famously deviant in content. Napoleon Bonaparte himself (who would, coincidentally, later dictate his memoirs while imprisoned on St. Helena Island) ordered Sade’s arrest for authoring the books Justine and Juliette. Sade is said to have written 11 novels, 16 novellas, 20 plays, 2 volumes of essays, and a diary during his long imprisonment at the Bastille.

Slightly later in the 1800s, Oscar Wilde was in legal trouble for a different kind of sex crime. At the time in England a man could be charged with gross indecency if he was found to be sexually involved with another man, and for this, Wilde was imprisoned. An unsent letter written by Wilde in jail was edited and published as “De Profundis” posthumously. The letter was to Wilde’s intimate companion Lord Alfred Douglas, and ran to around 50,000 words. The original text that was the source material for De Profundis has since been published in full.

As can be seen, the long, unoccupied hours of jail time are at least partially responsible for some truly memorable works throughout history. For the reading public, infamous characters, dramatic injustices and the dark thrills of life “inside”, only add to the allure of prison literature.

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