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Posts Tagged ‘jail’

Unseen, Even of Herself

November 17, 2015 | by

Before she was guillotined, the inscrutable Madame Roland wrote a remarkable memoir.

A portait of Madame Roland from Coiffure 1er Republique, a compendium of historical French hairstyles

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on Abdellatif Laâbi’s poems, here.

It could be said that the men with the greatest influence on Marie-Jean Phlipon’s life and legacy were two she never met. She rarely let herself depend too heavily on the male figures she knew: her husband, whom she respected and discretely controlled; the lawyer François Buzot, whom she came to love; and the many men of power whose authority she defied. It was Rousseau who provided “exactly the nourishment I needed,” she wrote, having read his La Nouvelle Héloïse in the wake of her mother’s death. “He showed me the possibility of domestic happiness and the delights that were available to me if I sought them.”

Phlipon—a well-read engraver’s daughter who went on to become a martyr of the French Revolution—defined “domestic happiness” differently than most. Two years after Rousseau’s death, she married Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière, whose political rise and fall she explores in the thrilling Memoirs she wrote from Paris’s Saint-Pélagie prison in the months leading up to her execution. Thomas Carlyle, the second man who shaped her reputation, was born two years after her death. When he gave his account of her in his 1837 history of the Revolution, it was left to others to decide whether he “interpreted feelings” that she had had herself: Read More »

Suffering Is One Very Long Moment

October 13, 2015 | by

How Oscar Wilde’s prison sentence changed him.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Douglas, ca. 1893.

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on writers who found God from behind bars, here.

The first time Oscar Wilde saw the inside of a prison, it was 1882—thirteen years before he’d serve the famous criminal sentence that produced De Profundis, his 55,000-word letter to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. Financially pressed and known primarily as a public speaker—by then he had only published a thin volume of poems—he’d committed to a nine-month lecture tour of America. During his stop in Lincoln, Nebraska, he and the young literature professor George Woodberry were taken to visit the local penitentiary. The warden led them into a yard where, Wilde later wrote the suffragist journalist Helena Sickert, they were confronted by “poor odd types of humanity in striped dresses making bricks in the sun.” All the faces he glimpsed, he remarked with relief, “were mean-looking, which consoled me, for I should hate to see a criminal with a noble face.”

By 1889, Wilde’s judgments about prison had become less snobbish, if no less flippant. Reviewing a volume of poetry by Wilfred Blunt “composed in the bleak cell of Galway Gaol,” he agreed with the book’s author that “an unjust imprisonment for a noble cause strengthens as well as deepens the nature.” And yet the idea that prison was basically common, a strengthening exercise for the lower classes, still attracted him as a dark, wicked opportunity to conflate the awful with the trivial. As late as 1894, he could have the mischievous, debt-ridden Algernon insist midway through The Importance of Being Earnest that “I am really not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs for dining in the West End.” When Algernon hears from a threatening solicitor that “the gaol itself is fashionable and well-aired; and there are ample opportunities of taking exercise at certain stated hours of the day,” he answers indignantly: “Exercise! Good God! No gentleman ever takes exercise.” Read More »

Sick Souls

October 2, 2015 | by

On the long line of conversion literature from imprisoned writers.

Eldridge Cleaver in the pants he developed.

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the first entry, on Dostoyevsky’s Notes from a Dead House, here.

In one of his later theological tracts, the sixteenth-century Nonconformist preacher John Bunyan interpreted a few lines from 2 Timothy—“I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand”—as a kind of challenge. “Here we see,” he wrote, “that a Christian’s heart should be unclenched from this world; for he that is ready to be made a sacrifice for Christ and his blessed Word, he must be one that is not entangled with the affairs of this life: how else can he please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier?”

Modern Biblical scholars suspect that Paul didn’t write most of 2 Timothy at all (it was likely composed by the apostle’s acolytes some time after his execution), but Bunyan could just as easily have extracted the same lesson from any number of lines in the letter Paul wrote to the young church in Philippi during one of his several imprisonments by the Roman government. “My desire,” Paul confesses frankly early in the epistle, “is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” Some verses later, he heaps scorn on the respected Pharisee he’d been earlier in life. On the road to Damascus decades earlier, he’d survived a violent conversion experience: Read More »

Odysseus in the Yard

June 16, 2014 | by

Celebrating Bloomsday in prison.


An illustration of Leopold Bloom from Joyce’s notes, ca. 1941.

The man I affectionately termed Odysseus, though never to his face, was sixty-five and ailing. He was Philip Rubinitz, a onetime actor who had served about twenty years by then for the crime of stabbing his best friend through the heart with an antique SS dagger. Nevertheless, he was the facility rabbi’s clerk. His liver was failing and his back hurt, but he took laps with me around the yard of Green Haven Correctional Facility, observing our simulated Dublin through cataracts in his eyes. It must have been hard for him to keep up with my much younger legs, but he tottered around our Nightown seeking out a way home to his long-lost wife with the same fervor that Leopold Bloom had. His parole date was still five years away. I followed around full of the overconfidence and energy of youth and insecurity, much like Stephen Dedalus. It was June 16, several years ago now, and little did Rubinitz know that he was helping me celebrate Bloomsday in the yard.

After I’d been convicted, my father had said, “Good. You’ll finally read Joyce.” But it took a few years inside to finally come to it. Having initially avoided Ulysses, my mind was blown when I finally gathered the fortitude to read it—the scales fell from my eyes, and from then on I decided I had to celebrate Bloomsday with the rest of the converts.

None of whom, it seemed, were anywhere near me. Working as a prison librarian, I had seen a few men attempt A Portrait of the Artist, but our edition of Ulysses always stood on the shelf gathering dust. Grim, thick, and foreboding, it was too imposing in reputation for even the most ambitious of convicts. Finnegans Wake wasn’t available at all. The civilian librarians knew better. Read More »