Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Prison Literature in the U.S.

ENGL 266.301
instructor(s):
TR 3-4:30
fulfills requirements:
Sector 6: 20th Century Literature of the Standard Major

The prison looms today as a central feature of American society. With more than two million people crammed into the nation's overcrowded jails and prisons and an increasing number of people in its detention centers abroad, the United States has become known around the world as a leader in imprisonment. As incarceration has become ever more central to American society, writing by prisoners, ex-prisoners and writers interested in life behind the walls has become ever more vital to understanding the prison’s wider social, historical and imaginative significance. Within its imagined walls, the prison contains a bewildering array of associations: a place of isolation and illness, correction and corruption, tedium and torture, violence and tenderness, protest and political organizing. How do writers represent freedom in relation to captivity, the body in relation to abuse, race in relation to the overwhelming numbers of non-whites imprisoned? How do they reflect on the significance of citizenship in relation to disfranchisement, and on the meaning of life in relation to legalized killing?  How do they connect an often invisible population inside those walls to society on the outside? How do writers narrate personal journeys, both literal and figurative, across prison walls? And how does writing, in some cases, offer a kind of liberation?

While most of the literature in this course was written in the 20th century, we will start with materials on the origin of the penitentiary in the slave plantation and 19th century reform movements. We will end the course with material about the exportation of the prison system to Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib.  Reading includes fiction, poems, and memoirs by John Edgar Wideman, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Alexander Berkman, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, George Jackson, Etheridge Knight, Malcolm Braly, Carolyn Baxter, Patricia McConnell, Jack Abbot, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and Mohamedou Slahi, and theory and history by Michel Foucault, Michelle Alexander and Angela Davis.  We will also view some films and visit The Eastern State Penitentiary.