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9 Great Works of Literature That Were Written in Prison

Not all great works of literature were created in a cozy living room next to a fire, some were written in a prison cell. It may not be writing condition everyone wants, but it kind of makes sense, right? Solitude and a lack of distractions can help to make a great book.

Top Literatures Written in Prison

1. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
Considered to be the first modern European novel, Cervantes penned part of his work while serving time for debt troubles in 17th-century Spain.

2. The Travels of Marco Polo by Rustichello da Pisa
When Marco Polo returned from his travels, he found Venice at War with Genoa and was later taken, prisoner. While spending several months incarcerated, he related his travels to fellow inmate Rustichello da Pisa, who later compiled them into what we now know as The Travels of Marco Polo.

3. Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau
Though having only spent one night in prison after refusing to pay the poll tax to a government whose values he disagreed with, this is where Thoreau was inspired to write his classic essay on civil disobedience. He wrote, “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

4. Letters from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr.
King was a fan of Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience, and while imprisoned for organizing a non-violent protest against racial segregation in Alabama, it was there that King penned the historical phrase, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

5. Short Stories by O. Henry
William Sydney Porter began writing his simple stories while in prison for embezzlement. He would use various pseudonyms and enlisted his friend to send his work to various publishers. His most famous pen name soon became O. Henry.

6. De Profundis by Oscar Wilde
While in jail, Wilde’s writing was more somber and self-reflective. He was imprisoned for two years of hard labor where he posthumously published the apologia chronicles (a journey of redemption and spiritual fulfillment) that Wilde experienced in confinement.

7. Conversations with Myself by Nelson Mandela
Conversations with Myself is a piece of work that chronologically follows Mandela’s life. Included in the book are letters and diary entries that Mandela wrote during his 27 years in prison.

8. The Enormous Room by e.e cummings
After being arrested for having anti-French sentiments, Cummings recorded his experiences in the autobiographical novel The Enormous Room. The book is full of colorful character sketches and amusing prose, giving us insight into the famous poet’s life.

9. In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Abbott
This book follows Jack Abbott’s 25 years behind bars and hauntingly depicts what a cruel and unjust prison system can do to a man’s mental state. The book also contains correspondence between Abbott and famous author Norman Mailer. When Mailer was impressed with Abbott’s writing talent, he helped him get parole in 1981, the same year he was able to get his book published.