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Literature and the American Prison

ENGL 263.301

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, literature by prisoners, ex-prisoners and writers fascinated with life behind the walls has become ever more vital to understanding its wider social, historical and imaginative significance. The prison contains, within its imagined walls, a bewildering array of associations: a place of isolation and protest, correction and corruption, tedium and torture, illness and organizing.  How do writers reflect on ideas of freedom in relation to incarceration, on the body in relation to abuse, on the significance of race in relation to the overwhelming numbers of non-whites imprisoned, on the identity of citizenship in relation to disfranchisement, on the meaning of life in relation to legalized killing?  How do writers narrate personal journeys, literal and figurative, across prison walls?


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. Focusing on American literature, we will also read literature by authors from other countries and will end the course with material about the exportation of the prison system to Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib.  Reading may include fiction, poems, and memoirs by Herman Melville, Franz Kafka, George Jackson, Malcolm X, Chester Himes, Richard Wright, Agnes Smedly, Alexander Berkman, Carolyn Baxter, Jack Abbot, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and theory by Jeremy Bentham, Michel Foucault, and Angela Davis.   We will also view some films and visit The Eastern State Penitentiary.


fulfills requirements
Elective Seminar of the Standard Major
Sector 6: 20th Century Literature of the Standard Major