Prison Writing In 20th-Century America

Published September 1, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

"I'd rather read one page by a man who had been in Hell than all of Dante," writer Jim Tully once intoned. If any single ideal necessitates an anthology like "Prison Writing in 20th-Century America," it's this belief that personal experience inspires uniquely powerful literature. By their own accounts, each of the three dozen authors excerpted in this new collection has taken a trip to hell by way of prison -- and lived to write about it. Their vigorous and often surprising stories, essays and poems indict as well as humanize the taxpayer-funded underworld of the American criminal justice system.

As defined here by editor H. Bruce Franklin, the term "prison writing" includes anything written by a prisoner about prison -- often but not always written in prison. As Franklin notes in his introduction, this definition excludes much of what is written behind bars. O. Henry, for instance, wouldn't be considered a "prison writer" although he honed his skills at the Ohio State Penitentiary. On the whole, however, the anthology's criteria yield a remarkable variety of pieces from the famous once-incarcerated: Jack London, who spent a month behind bars for vagabondage; Robert Lowell, who did a year for resisting the World War II draft; Malcolm X, who got seven years for burglary; and Nelson Algren, who cooled his heels for a month after stealing a typewriter. The range, style and substance even among these four almost obscures the fact that they're all writing about the same basic institution. Lowell, for instance, offers a quietly beautiful account of the execution of a prisoner: "Flabby, bald, lobotomized,/he drifted in a sheepish calm,/where no agonizing reappraisal/jarred his concentration on the electric chair." By contrast, Malcolm X polemicizes against prison's inhumanity: "Any person who claims to have deep feeling for other human beings should think a long, long time before he votes to have other men kept behind bars -- caged."

While the more famous authors generally live up to their reputations, much of the most creative and insightful writing in the collection can be found in the works of the less well-established. Iceberg Slim (Robert Beck) offers a scorchingly complex portrait of a newly politicized pimp who's trying to quit the life without angering his ex-whore: "She didn't know I was determined not to join that contemptible group of aging pimps I had seen through the years and pitied as they went their pathetic way with a wild dream of new glory and a big fast stable of young freak mud kickers."

Like Slim and many of the other authors in the anthology, Patricia McConnel explores the private fantasies that are the stuff of survival behind bars. In "Sing Soft, Sing Loud," McConnel invokes a prisoner's dream of "all them alkies and junkies and hookers and boosters raising the jailhouse roof with song ... Of course I know not even all of us singing at the top of our lungs woulda changed a goddam thing in that goddam jail, but it tickles me to think of it."

For all of the importance of a collection like this, though, there's something disorienting about reading any single work as an example of "prison writing." The label -- for better and for worse -- changes the work. Lowell's "Memories of West Street and Lepke" read in the context of a dozen Lowell poems, for instance, is an entirely different creature from that same poem read alongside other works on prison or on draft resistance. Similarly, "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" read as a prison work is different from "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" read as autobiography.

On an individual level, it is a gross underestimation of these authors' talents to label them simply "prison writers," subtly implying that their personal experience of prison is the most important aspect of their work. Yet the anthology itself is undeniably powerful. The combined eloquence of these authors evokes the eternal sameness and the vast diversity of prison experience as no single author could. As Tom Wicker points out in the book's foreword, prisons are meant "to keep us out as well as them in." "Prison Writing in 20th-Century America" allows us all a chance to peer inside -- and to decide whether we like what we see.

By Beverly Gage

Beverly Gage is a freelance writer who lives in New York.

MORE FROM Beverly Gage

Related Topics ------------------------------------------