Each year, PEN International marks the Day of the Imprisoned Writer in order to raise awareness about persecuted and incarcerated writers worldwide, but not all writers who have done time have been political prisoners. Here are a dozen writers who went to prison for a variety of reasons:
Sir Thomas Malory
There is some question about which Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte d’Arthur, one of the most famous medieval versions of the story of King Arthur, but it has long been attributed to Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel on fairly substantial scholarly evidence. Despite his famed chivalry and honour, if the record is to be believed the real Malory was a gentleman and Member of Parliament turned gangster who robbed, raped and kidnapped. Malory went to prison more than once for his alleged crimes and escaped on two occasions, once having had to swim across a moat. Because the family of a political rival were largely the targets of his alleged crimes, it is believed that either Malory had a partly political motive or that the charges themselves were invented by his political rivals. Malory is believed to have written Le Morte d’Arthur while in prison between 1468 and 1470. He died just a few months after his final release from prison in 1470.
The playwright who scholars say wielded enormous influence on Shakespeare had several run-ins with the law before his murder at the age of 29. In the mere six years of his career, Marlowe wrote several plays, including Doctor Faustus. In the meantime, he led a colourful life that included brawling and possibly spying for the government.
Marlowe spent two weeks in prison in 1589 when he was involved in an argument with neighbours in which one person died but he was cleared of any charges. Three years later, he was arrested in the Netherlands for counterfeiting but then released without being charged.
His final brush with the law happened on May 20, 1593 when he was arrested for his atheism. He was released again but was required to report daily to court. Ten days later, however, he died in a drunken brawl.
The author of Robinson Crusoe was as famous in his own day as a political pamphleteer as for his other work. In 1703, his most successful pamphlet resulted in his prosecution for seditious libel. It is believed that there was a political component to the severe sentence he received which added a hefty fine and three days in the pillory to a prison sentence. Prior to his time in the pillory, he composed the popular poem ‘Hymn to the Pillor.’ Legend says that rather than pelting him with rotten food as was often done to people in the pillory, people in the street tossed flowers and drank to his health though scholars argue that the story is likely untrue. Defoe was arrested twice more for his political writings and did one more stint in prison. Despite the success of Robinson Crusoe and other works, he was dogged by debts for the rest of his life.
Marquis de Sade
The famous libertine and the man after whom the word ‘sadism’ entered the English lexicon, best known for such works as 120 Days of Sodom and Justine, was imprisoned a number of times throughout his life for sexual offences and died in an insane asylum. He was sent to prison twice in the 1760s for abusing prostitutes. In 1772, he and his male servant were accused of sodomy and poisoning prostitutes with the nonlethal aphrodisiac Spanish Fly. The two fled to Italy and were sentenced to death in absentia. De Sade was arrested again in Italy and later on his return to France. He was released during the French Revolution but arrested yet again in 1801 and later sent to an insane asylum where he died in 1814. De Sade completed much of his writing while imprisoned.
A number of Soviet-era writers were imprisoned in Russia, but the tsars didn’t have a great track record regarding freedom of expression either. In 1849, Dostoyevsky was arrested for reading and circulating banned political essays and sentenced to death by firing squad. He was being taken to be executed along with several other people when his sentence was commuted by the tsar at the last minute.
Dostoyevsky spent eight years in prison. Considered to be one of the most dangerous inmates, he spent most of his time shackled and ill. After his release, he went on to write such classic novels as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.
Paul Verlaine had been publishing poetry for about eight years when he received a letter in 1871 from fellow poet Arthur Rimbaud. Within the year Verlaine had abandoned his wife and child and run away with Rimbaud. However, in 1873, the two got into a quarrel over Verlaine’s jealousy, and Verlaine shot and wounded Rimbaud. Although the other man was not seriously injured, Verlaine went to prison for the attack where he converted to Catholicism and wrote a collection called Romances sans paroles that was published in 1874 while he was still in prison.
The Irish playwright and novelist of such famous works as The Picture of Dorian Grey and The Importance of Being Earnest was imprisoned in 1895 on charges of sodomy and gross indecency with men. The case was a convoluted one; Wilde had pressed charges of libel against the father of one of his lovers, the Marquess of Queensbury, who accused Wilde of sodomy. Queensbury brought evidence of Wilde’s homosexuality to court in his defence, and Wilde dropped the case but was subsequently arrested. Wilde spent two years in prison and wrote the poem ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ about his experiences. He left England as soon as he was released and died in dire straits in Paris in 1900.
These are all historical cases, but you might be wondering: Did any twentieth century or contemporary writers spend time in prison? Quite a few did. Here are some of them:
You may think that you are dedicated your fiction, but would you go so far as to steal writing supplies to support your habit? The American writer who would go on to pen the National Book Award winner The Man With the Golden Arm in 1949 went to prison for five months in the early 1930s for stealing a typewriter from an empty classroom. The experience profoundly affected him and his approach to writing as he saw himself as affiliated with the downtrodden of society.
William S. Burroughs
The Beat author of a number of works including Naked Lunch, Burroughs was first arrested in 1946 after he forged a prescription. However, his legal problems got much worse in 1951 when he shot and killed his common-law wife Joan Vollmer following a drunken argument. Allegedly, he announced that it was time for the William Tell game, she put a glass on her head, and Burroughs shot low. Whether or not the incident was deliberate has never been determined, but Burroughs spent two weeks in prison before getting out on bail. Mexican courts found him guilty of homicide, but by then, Burroughs had fled back to the United States.
Hard-boiled crime novelist Hammett was imprisoned for six months in the early 1950s for contempt of court. Hammett had been part of a group called the Civil Rights Congress that was named a communist front group, and he became one of the trustees of a bail fund established to help 11 men convicted of trying to violently overthrow the government. After four of the men fled, Hammett refused to provide the government with names of people associated with the fund or the group.
Himes was sent to prison for armed robbery at the age of 19. He began writing and publishing fiction while still an inmate. Although sentenced to 20 to 25 years, he was released after eight years and went on to a significant career writing hard-boiled fiction including the novels A Rage in Harlem and Cotton Comes to Harlem.
In the mid-1990s, readers were shocked to learn the true identity of popular mystery novelist Anne Perry: she was Juliet Hulme, who at 15 had helped her best friend Pauline Parker murder Parker’s mother in 1954. The story was chronicled in the film Heavenly Creatures. Hulme spent five years in prison for the murder in New Zealand and moved to the United Kingdom after her release. Perry’s first novel appeared in 1979 and she has since gone on to write dozens of successful books.
A surprising number of writers have a criminal record whether it is for writings that upset the political status quo of the time or much more violent crimes such as assault and murder. For some, the difficult time provided fodder for a book or a career, but others never recovered from their imprisonment.
Who are other famously incarcerated writers you know of?