As a whole, writers are no different from the rest of humanity. This applies as much to a propensity for crime. Traditionally, writers have been imprisoned for two vices popular to their caste—espousing radical politics and not paying creditors. That’s not to say there haven’t been authors who went to jail for more prosaic crimes, like embezzling (O. Henry) and armed robbery (Chester Himes), for example. A few of them have also written their finest books in jail.
Below, we’ve rounded up some of the most notable authors who have done their time behind bars.
Miguel de Cervantes
The modern novel was born in prison. Well, at least in part. Miguel de Cervantes served time in prison three times. First, it was a five-year stint as a captive of the Ottoman army. Then, he was jailed two times in civilian life, in the years 1597 and 1602, when financial difficulties rendered him unable to pay debts. Some of these, like when his banker went bankrupt, were more so a result of misfortune than irresponsibility. Nonetheless, he made good use of his time, writing part of Don Quixote while serving time behind bars.
The Marquis de Sade
Rarely was there at once so eminent a lightning rod for misconduct and scandal, as well as a prison writer of the most productive rank. The Marquis de Sade began to gain the attention of authorities thanks to his unceasing predilection for sexual assault and debauchery, encompassing the use of sex workers as well as illicit drugs and aphrodisiacs. After much time on the run abroad, de Sade was finally arrested in Paris and imprisoned in the dungeon of Vincennes where he quarreled with guards and tried to incite a revolt. He was later sent to the Bastille. He used his time locked up to compose the bulk of his startling and sometimes brilliant body of work, including Justine and The 120 Days of Sodom.
Among the most high profile cases of LGBTQ persecution in history, Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labor for “gross indecency”. While behind bars he wrote the memorable letter “De Profundis” and upon release wrote the poem, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” Observers like Harold Bloom have postulated that the physical and spiritual strenuousness of prison significantly shortened Wilde’s life, while as recently as last year the famous aesthete’s time in jail was commemorated in an exhibit in the former Reading Gaol.
Genet was an orphan and was absorbed into the underworld of petty theft and crime, with a list of infractions encompassing theft, vagabondage, forged documents, and lewd offenses. In prison in the 1940s, Genet began work on Our Lady of the Flowers, writing on brown paper that prisoners were given to manufacture paper bags. One day, a guard discovered his literary project and incinerated the manuscript, but Genet began work again. Today that book he wrote in prison is considered his most accomplished.
Nawal El Saadawi
Political beliefs have been responsible for many a writer’s imprisonment, including Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and e.e. cummings, among others. A recent and notable example is Nawal El Saadawi, an Egyptian political writer who finally caught her government’s attention with the establishment of a feminist magazine called Confrontation in 1981. She was imprisoned for months, and was finally released a month following the assassination of the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat. Of her imprisonment for writing, El Saadawi said, “Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies."