Sick Souls


Prison Lit

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: 

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.

Ruthless self-excoriation, dramatic acts of abandonment, intractable confidence mixed with frightening displays of vulnerability: there’s something unhinged about the line of conversion literature that began with Paul and came to include figures as diverse as Bunyan, the nineteenth-century transcendentalist Orestes Brownson, and the twentieth-century militant activist Eldridge Cleaver. That three of those four figures did much of their most influential writing from prison goes some way toward proving a fact Bunyan identified in his treatise The Acceptable Sacrifice. Converts, Bunyan argued, are threats to the state precisely because of their melancholy, their extreme dissatisfaction, and their reckless lack of care for their earthly lot:

A man, a woman, that is blessed with a broken heart, is so far from getting by that esteem with the world, that they are but burdens … such people carry with them molestation and disquietment; they are in carnal families, as David was to the king of Garth, “troublers of the house.”

Rembrandt, The Apostle Paul, c. 1657

As the snippets above suggest, Bunyan’s prose is too ruminative and too dense with scripture to relate events reliably. Reading Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, the feverish spiritual autobiography he wrote during his twelve years in jail for preaching to “unlawful assemblies,” you get only the dimmest sense of the man’s unfortunate, eventful life. A prolific, well-known contemporary of Milton, Hobbes, and Thomas Browne, he was born to a struggling brass worker near the end of 1628. In the sixteen years between 1644 and 1660, he buried his mother and his younger sister (a month apart), his first wife, and his infant son by the woman he soon remarried—losses to which Grace Abounding hardly ever refers. When you read, five pages before the end of the book, a passing reference to Bunyan’s “poor blind child,” you want to look back for any earlier mention that his first daughter was born blind. You won’t find one.

What you will find, page after page, is a man fretting at length over the state of his soul. Some of the doubts Bunyan confesses might be expected of a recent convert: Have I counted my early, worldly life as enough of a loss? Have I sufficiently abandoned my “confidence in the flesh?” Others are out of his hands. Bunyan agonized over his place in the elect; it tore at him that “unless the great God … had voluntarily chosen me to be a vessel of mercy, though I should desire, and long, and labour until my heart did break, no good could come of it.”

In most cases, his worries cluster around snippets of scripture. Bunyan had a more intimate, obsessive relationship with the written word than can now be easily imagined. The language with which he describes calling Bible verses to mind is the kind you’d attribute to someone imprisoned or possessed: “This scripture also did seem to me to trample upon all my desires”; “That piece of a sentence darted in upon me.” A single string of words, Bunyan insists, once “came with great power upon my spirit.” Elsewhere, he describes how he’d sometimes “have a touch from” another. Words claim Bunyan’s attention throughout this book more than other people ever do, and for William James, that was enough to mark him—at least as he emerges in Grace Abounding—as an example of a “sick soul”:

He was a typical case of the psychopathic temperament, sensitive of conscience to a diseased degree, beset by doubts, fears and insistent ideas, and a victim of verbal automatisms, both motor and sensory. These were usually texts of Scripture which, sometimes damnatory and sometimes favorable, would come in a half-hallucinatory form as if they were voices, and fasten on his mind and buffet it between them like a shuttlecock.

It’s maybe unwise to take Bunyan’s autobiography as grounds for a psychoanalytic diagnosis. Like a patient’s testimony, Grace Abounding is a carefully and selectively composed self-portrait. But it’s revealing that it was for these particular kinds of regrets and abdications that Bunyan wanted to be known. Like Paul, he was rarely more violent than in his disdain for “the flesh.” (When his enemies accuse him of consorting with loose women, he fires back with the astonishing declaration that “I know not whether there be such a thing as a woman breathing under the copes of the whole heaven but by their apparel, their children, or by common fame, except my wife.”) He seems, indeed, to mistrust the whole web of human social life. To the extent that he was a perfect convert, he was also an unruly citizen, an element that couldn’t be fixed down by the usual laws or proprieties. The question, as far as his imprisoners were concerned, was not whether he was a progressive or a revolutionary; it was what law he answered to, what words he gave weight, and into how many martyrdoms his “broken heart” could lead him.

An illustration by Harold Copping from a 1905 edition Grace Abounding.

Paul’s conversion occurred in three days. (That was how long it took for him to receive a visit from the prophet Ananias, at which point “something like scales fell” from his eyes.) Bunyan’s took place over years of painful self-assessment. Eldridge Cleaver, the volatile polemicist who traveled from the halls of Soledad and Folsom to the uppermost level of the Black Panthers and then, improbably, to the Church of Latter-day Saints and the GOP lecture circuit, underwent more conversions than it’s easy to count. Soul on Ice, the essay collection he wrote and published in 1968 while serving a lengthy prison sentence for rape, is his major literary testament. It’s a strange, uneven, and sometimes repellant book, the product of a mind that never found a set of beliefs on which it could settle for long.

The young Cleaver produced some of his era’s most trenchant critiques of the American prison system. (“Many convicts who do not have lawyers are forced to act in propria persona,” he wrote, denouncing prison libraries for refusing to carry explanatory books about law. “They do all right. But it would be much easier if they could get books that showed them how to properly plead their cause.”) The account he gives midway through Soul on Ice of white America’s disillusionment with its own heroes might be more dated than the prison journals earlier in the book, but it’s no less revealing about the era’s agonized mood. (“Not even the master’s own children can find it possible to applaud him—he cannot even applaud himself! The negative rings too loudly.”) It was these sections of the book, one suspects, that white critics like Maxwell Geismar or Norman Mailer had in mind when they praised Cleaver for—in Geismar’s words—“dissecting the deepest and most cherished notions of our personal and social behavior.”

Cleaver evidently—and understandably—didn’t want to stop at doing his white readers the service of dissecting their behavior. Instead, in Soul on Ice, he insisted on making an elaborate, overblown monument to a subject that had come to possess him at least as strongly as the thought of salvation possessed Bunyan: masculinity. “I could not approve the act of rape,” he writes in an troublingly abstract, noncommittal key about the spree of racially targeted sexual assaults he committed at age twenty-two. “Even though I had some insight into my own motivations, I did not feel justified … My pride as a man dissolved and my whole fragile moral structure seemed to collapse.”

For Cleaver to identify the most notable casualty of his rape spree as his own “pride as a man” is staggering, but not altogether surprising. Throughout Soul on Ice, he rarely attends so much to any individual people as he does to the legends he spun around what it meant to be a man. “Each half of the human equation,” he wrote in a berserk cosmological treatise late in the book, “the male and female hemispheres of the Primeval Sphere, must prepare themselves for … fusion by achieving a Unitary Sexual Image, i.e., a heterosexual identity free from the mutually exclusive, antagonistic, antipodal impediments of homosexuality.”

That Cleaver held beliefs like this goes some way toward explaining how he could write the hate-filled diatribe against James Baldwin that stands midway through Soul on Ice, in which he accuses the older author of “ethnic self-hate” on the basis, apparently, of his sexual interest in white men. It also suggests why he included a cringe-inducing set of love letters to his female lawyer later in the book (“after you left, I loafed in the cage of my skull, feeling prematurely embalmed in some magical ethered mist dispensed by the dialectic of our contact”), and how he could see fit to conflate “manhood” with human dignity as he does during one of the collection’s show-stopping climaxes. “We shall have our manhood,” he announces then, “or the earth will be leveled by our attempts to get it.”

It also helps explain the series of hairpin turns his career took after his release from Folsom. After a shoot-out with the Oakland police, Cleaver—by then the Panthers’ minister of information and one of their most prominent spokespersons—fled the country. He settled in Cuba, then Algeria, where he effectively broke with the party. Upon seeing the face of Christ in the moon from his balcony during an abortive suicide attempt in Paris, he became a prompt convert to Christianity. This did not impede him from using his revenue from Soul on Ice to develop and market a special line of male trousers equipped with dangling, fitted codpieces that, he claimed, would “put sex back where it should be.” (“You’re wearing sissy pants,” he once snapped at a Harvard undergraduate during an interview with the Crimson.)

By 1975, Cleaver had returned to the States. “With all its faults,” he now insisted, “the American political system is the freest and most democratic in the world.” For the last twenty years of his life, he drifted erratically from dogma to dogma: at various points, he was a Moonie, a Mormon, a committed Republican, and the founder of something he baptized “Christlam”—a fusion of Christianity and Islam that also came to include a smaller sect he called the “Guardians of the Sperm.” He died in 1998.

Like Bunyan’s, Cleaver’s is a tempting life to comb for pathologies. Coming across such a “psychopathic temperament” as his, so prone to misogynistic or homophobic outbursts, so fixated on the redemptive possibilities of masculine sexual energy, so susceptible to unwise conversions and disastrous decisions, it’s hard not to go looking for a single, explanatory cause. But there’s no isolated conversion gene in Cleaver or Bunyan. The writing they produced in prison is too tense, conflicted, and formally baffling to justify any diagnosis other than the obvious one: that they were both, to a profound degree, not at home in the world. Their shared desire wasn’t far from the one Paul confessed to the Philippians: to “depart” this world rather than “remain in the flesh.” In Bunyan, that desire took the form of a kind of exaggerated contrition; in Cleaver, that of an equally exaggerated obsession with male sexuality. But both of their spiritual autobiographies suggest what a lonely, precarious thing it is to be a convert of such a reckless stripe—to accept some temptations too readily and reject others too vehemently, to be always renouncing more and yet never renouncing enough.

Max Nelson’s writings on film and literature have appeared in The Threepenny Reviewn+1, Film Comment, and The Boston Review, among other publications. He lives in New York.

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