Written in the Pen

The following is a list from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader History's Lists.

Jawaharlal Nehru (India’s first prime minister) once said, “All my major works have been written in prison. I would recommend prison not only to aspiring writers, but to aspiring politicians, too.” Here are some other notable jailhouse jotters who seem to agree with that advice.


The English legends of King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, Guinevere, and the Knights of the Round Table have been around for centuries, and no one knows for sure who actually invented the tales. But we do know that Sir Thomas Mallory wrote the legends down, added some of his own flair, and published them in a collection that is today’s best-known telling of the Arthurian legend. Mallory was a soldier and Member of Parliament, but went on to a life of crime and was in and out of prison. Ironically, many scholars believe that Mallory wrote the tales of knights and chivalry while awaiting trial for theft, extortion, home invasion, banditry, and rape.


Niccolò Machiavelli lived during a time of great plotting and political upheaval in Italy. Initially, he aligned himself with a government that expelled the ruthless and powerful Medici family, which had ruled Florence for 60 years. But when that government fell apart and the Medicis came back with a vengeance, Michiavelli was tossed into prison and tortured. Behind the bars, he wrote The Prince, a philosophical treatise on politics that said leaders should rule by force instead of by law. In The Prince, Machiavelli wrote, “Anyone compelled to choose will find greater security in being feared than in being loved.” It was from this book that the term “Machiavellian” came into use to describe a ruthless, deceitful, and cunning leader. Reportedly, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was a fan of The Prince and kept a copy next to his bed.

3. SIR WALTER RALEIGH (1552-1618)

Sir Walter Raleigh was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I and made two trips to the New World to try to colonize Virginia. Although those settlements failed, they paved the way for future colonies. He alienated the queen, though, by secretly marrying one of her ladies-in-waiting, and in 1591 Elizabeth had Raleigh imprisoned in the Tower of London for about a year.

After Elizabeth died in 1603, her successor, King James, tried Raleigh for treason and sent him back to the Tower of London for 13 years. It was there that he wrote the first volume of his History of the World, which recounted the histories of ancient Greece and Rome. In 1616, James granted Raleigh a release from prison in order to search for El Dorado, the legendary city of gold, in Venezuela. Instead, Raleigh looted a Spanish settlement there. To keep the peace with Spain, James had the explorer beheaded. Ever the writer, Raleigh left the world with a quotable quip- after inspecting the executioner’s axe, he remarked, “This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physciian for all diseases and miseries.”

4. DANIEL DEFOE (1660-1731)

Daniel Defoe, most famous for the book Robinson Crusoe, wrote perhaps the most immediately useful piece of prison writing while incarcerated. In 1703, he was sentenced to the pillory for three days for satirizing church intolerance. With his head, arms, and legs locked in the wooden frame, Defoe typically would have been mocked, assaulted, and pelted with garbage by passersby. (The goal of the pillory was to shame criminals back onto the straight and narrow.) But while in prison awaiting transfer, Defoe quickly wrote “A Hymn to the Pillory,” a poem that satirized the punishment he was about to receive. Friends sold copies in front of the pillory, and according to legend, the crowds pelted him with flowers instead of garbage.


Because of his wicked, wicked ways, the man who gave his name to the word “sadism” spent 32 years of his adult life inside French mental institutions and prisons, including ten years in the infamous Bastille, where he wrote many of his sexually explicit books. Justine (published in 1791) tells the story of a young woman’s “search for virtue” from the ages of 12 to 26. Considering that this is a Marquis de Sade book, it’s not surprising that she doesn’t find much of it. Instead Justine (also called Therese in the novel) is mistreated, abused, and conned into participating in dirty deeds for many years, until she finally meets a woman who wants to help her. (The woman turns out to be Justine’s long lost sister.) In the end, though, the virtuous life just depresses Justine, and she ends up dying after being struck by a bolt of lightning.

6. OSCAR WILDE (1854-1900)

De Profundis is sometimes confused with “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” -the first was written while Irish writer Oscar Wilde was in prison; the second was a poem about his time in prison, but was written after he was released. In 1895, Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor after being convicted of “gross indecency” (i.e. homosexuality). De Profundis (“From the Depths”) was a dark and angry 50,000-word letter to his former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, who had abandoned Wilde when he was convicted.

7. EZRA POUND (1885-1972)

At the beginning of World War II, American Ezra Pound lived in Italy and made propaganda radio broadcasts in which he voiced his support of Fascist leader Benito Mussolini and criticized the American government, the British government, and the Jews. After the war, he was charged with treason and imprisoned by the U.S. Army near the city of Pisa, where he wrote ten of his best cantos for an epic poem. (A canto is like a stanza, but longer.) Pound also had a nervous breakdown in prison and spent more than a decade in a series of mental institutions until 1958, when he was labeled incurable insane, but not a danger to others, and released.

8. ADOLF HITLER (1889-1945)

After the Nazi party tried and failed to overthrow the German government in 1923, Adolf Hitler spent nine months in prison working on his memoir and political diatribe. Hitler’s publisher convinced him to shorten the title to Mein Kempf (“My Struggle”). The book was originally called Viereinhalb Jahre (des Kampfes) gegen Lüge, Dummheit und Feigheit (“Four and a Half Years [of Struggle] Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice.”).

9. MARTIN LUTHER KING,M JR. (1929-1968)

(YouTube link)

In the spring of 1963, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. waged a non-violent campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, to protest racial discrimination and segregation. The protesters participated in sit-ins and segregated restaurants, marches for voter registration, and kneel-ins at white churches. These activities were illegal at the time, and King (among others) was arrested and held at the city’s jail. While he was there, a group of white clergymen wrote a letter urging African-Americans to use the courts instead of protests to further their cause. King drafted “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as a response and argued that civil disobedience was justified when the laws it protested were unjust. The letter -which included famous statements like “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”- appeared in national magazines and newspapers and helped bring even more attention to the growing call for civil rights in America.


Two great writers were widely reported to have written works in prison. Miguel de Cervantes began his masterpiece Don Quixote, while in debtor’s prison. Reportedly it is the second most popular book among prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

O. Henry, wrongly imprisoned for embezzlement, began many of his short stories inside and then continued them after his release.

Nelson Algren: The Man with the Golden Arm
Jeffrey Archer: A Prison Diary
John Bunyan: The Pilgrim’s Progress
Eldridge Cleaver: A Soul on Ice
Charles Colson: Life Sentence
Malcolm X: The Autobiography of Malcolm X


The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader History's Lists. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.

If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

Newest 1
Newest 1 Comment

Login to comment.
Email This Post to a Friend
"Written in the Pen"

Separate multiple emails with a comma. Limit 5.


Success! Your email has been sent!

close window

This website uses cookies.

This website uses cookies to improve user experience. By using this website you consent to all cookies in accordance with our Privacy Policy.

I agree
Learn More