When we envision the site where our beloved authors penned their supreme masterpieces, a prison cell usually doesn’t come to our minds. However, whether they were victims of bigotry or prisoners of war, the seclusion and lack of distractions have shaped many a great book. From Thoreau’s thoughts on civil disobedience to Oscar Wilde’s Apologia on spiritual awakening, it has been witnessed that writers great mental escapes from imprisonment resulted in some of their most profound and insightful works. Here are the top 10 books written in prison. Each work will speak to different folks in a different way.
It is a lyric poem written by Richard Lovelace, one of the famous cavalier poets addressing to a fictional lover while he was imprisoned in the Gatehouse Prison in 1642. One of the best works of Richard, he produced the most renowned prison lines in English poetry, “Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage” during his seven weeks stay in the Fleet prison. It was published in 1649 in a collection of poetry called “To Lucasta”.
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Commonly known as Fanny Hill, it is an erotic novel composed by Cleland in 1748 while he was in debtors prison in London. Memoirs of a Woman is considered as the first prose pornography which is full of sex but has no offensive language. Perhaps the most prosecuted and banned book in history (The ban has been lifted in 1973 after the Miller Test came in effect), the whole work is full of artistic and literary value and has been referred in many other literary works, films, song and musical theatres.
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Marco Polo along with his father left Italy in 1271 and returned in 1295. In these years Marco travelled to then poorly understood Far East but on his return he was arrested by the Genoese and held captive. In prison he narrated his fellow prisoner, Rustichello de Pisa. Pisa then composed tales of China, Persia, Indonesia and Asia, illustrating the travels of Marco Polo. A 13th century travelogue, no sooner it was published than the copies spread like a wildfire throughout Europe.
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Also known as Letter from Birmingham City Jail and The Negro Is Your Brother, it is a letter written by King, an American civil rights leader on 16th April 1963 in response to the 8 local clergymen, who published a letter, A call for Unity (It stated that African-Americans should press their case for equal rights through the courts and not by demonstrations) during his stay in Birmingham Jail. He was also arrested for organizing a non-violent remonstration against racial segregation in Alabama. It was in prison that Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the now historic phrase, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
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Acknowledged for his flippant and witty literature, Oscar’s writing while in prison was distinctly more sober and self-reflective. He was held as captive for two years of hard labor for his indecency with men, mainly Lord Alfred Douglas. While in prison, Oscar Wilde wrote a letter, De Profundis to Douglas expressing the regret he felt for his ethical delinquency. Published posthumously, the apologia chronicles the expedition of salvation and spiritual fulfillment that Wilde experienced in detention.
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We generally envision Thoreau penning his transcendentalist musings someplace near the beautiful shores of Walden Pond. And he wasn’t a jailbird as he spent only one night in jail after saying no to shell out poll tax to a government whose principles he disagreed with. Nevertheless, his one night in lock up did motivate him to pen down his classic thesis on civil disobedience. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly,” he inscribed, “the true place for a just man is also a prison.” Undoubtedly, one of the greatest books written in prison.
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Who would have assumed the replica of pop culture’s idealistic, gallant protagonist archetype would have derived in a prison cell? Witty, humorous and sardonic, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes is considered to be the first contemporary European novel and its hero is the imaginative original knight in immaculate armor. Cervantes wrote part of his magnum opus while serving time for his debt predicament in 17th century Spain.
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This is one of the famous books written in prison. Thomas Malory’s set of knightly story which he wrote using the French source has been a sourcebook for every Arthurian since. Jailed during the 1450s, for theft as well as rape, Thomas filled the years he spent waiting for trial evoking the best known images of Arthur, such as the drawing of the sword from the rock and the Lady of the Lake, her arm enclosed in sparkling Samite.
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In the summer of 1924 while serving a prison term for his attempt to overthrow the government in the futile Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler began the work on his autobiography, “Four and a Half Years (of Struggle) Against Lies, Stupidity, and Cowardice.” However, on the advice of his publisher, this bulky title was changed to Mein Kampf (My Struggle), with the subtitle “A Reckoning.” One of the most outstanding and alarming books of the twentieth century, Mein Kampf contains the basic elements of Hitler’s ideology, his character, most of his plans and most significantly his “Vision.”
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When it comes to books written in prison there is one book that comes first in my mind and that is, “The Consolation of Philosophy”. The work is not only significant but also very influential. Translated by Chaucer, Queen Elizabeth I and King Alfred from Latin to English, the book serves as a word of caution to those in rule and power. Boethius was at the peak of power in Rome after the fall of the Western Empire but unfortunately he fell foul of Theodoric and was incarcerated. This unexpected change in fortune provoked Boethius to write this idealistic dialogue between himself and the Goddess of Philosophy.
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