Written In Prison

Cell 2455 Death Row by Caryl Chessman

(On the forgotten 50th anniversary of a once-controversial convict’s execution, Beat historian and Library of Congress archivist Alan Bisbort provides a sweeping summary of the prison-writing genre, and the therapeutic invention that once supported the genre. — Levi)

Fifty years ago, on the morning of May 2, 1960, the State of California executed Caryl Chessman in the gas chamber at San Quentin Prison.

For more than a decade prior to that date, Chessman had been a thorn in the state’s side, as well as a pinprick at America’s conscience and an international cause celebre. His case drew support from all corners of the globe and all areas of human endeavor, from the sacred (Pope John, Albert Schweitzer) to the profane (Marlon Brando, Steve Allen, Shirley MacLaine), from the literary (Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood and, yes, William F. Buckley, Jr.) to the mundane, with petitions to the California governor to spare Chessman’s life coming from millions of people around the world who’d been touched by his case and his writings. From Brazil alone, a plea for Chessman’s life sent to Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown in March 1960 contained 2.3 million signatures, as well as offers from forty Brazilians, many of them women, to die in his place. And when he was finally killed, after 12 years on death row and eight stays of execution, riots broke out in European and Latin American cities.

The event was such that Californians of a certain age remember where they were and what they were doing on Chessman’s death day the rest of us recall where we were when we heard JFK was shot in Dallas. And yet, on the fiftieth anniversary of this event this month, a deadening (if not deafening) silence was heard in the media from sea to shining sea, including in the Golden State.

As the author of a biography of Chessman, When You Read This, They Will Have Killed Me along with the introduction to a reissue of Chessman’s best-known book Cell 2455, Death Row, I admit to more than a passing interest in keeping Chessman’s flame alive. When the 50th anniversary of his execution passes unnoticed, something more may be at work than simple obscurity or cultural amnesia. Chessman was huge in his time. He was on the cover of Time magazine. Yet he was nearly forgotten by the time Kennedy was assassinated three years later. Such things, of course, happen with historical figures. But with writers, it’s a more complicated, prolonged process, isn’t it?

Perhaps, then, for prison writers, lasting fame may be the most complicated and difficult thing in the world to attain.

How did a career criminal like Chessman without a high school diploma attain such fame in his day? In a word: writing. The man could flat out write. Had he not been killed at age 38, he would have likely gone on to write many more books, as he was just hitting his autodidactic stride in 1960. Indeed, Chessman’s is a story as remarkable as it is sad, without the happy ending of a similar tale recently told by and about Wilbert Rideau, the Louisiana death row inmate who also gained redemption through the written word. Rideau, a ninth-grade dropout who was convicted of murder in 1961 (he stabbed a woman to death in a botched robbery attempt), gained one more thing denied Chessman: his freedom, after 44 years in Louisiana’s prison system. Not only that, but Rideau has been widely championed and interviewed and was even the subject of a compelling and largely sympathetic profile on CBS News’ Sunday Morning.

Though Chessman comes from a different time, place and prison system, echoes of his words can be found in Rideau’s just published memoir, In The Place of Justice. Rideau’s book reads like an updated version of Chessman’s Cell 2455 — a chronicle of how he came to reside in a death row cell and what he did once he found himself in that living hell. Rideau spent years writing journalism in prison, and was editor of the groundbreaking prison publication The Angolite, for which he (justly) won many awards. Ted Conover has called In the Place of Justice “a small miracle.” Well, yes, it’s miraculous that Rideau survived and kept his wits about him. He tells his tale well, in the manner of someone accustomed to repeating it endlessly in front of Rotary Club audiences. It’s safe to say few people who went through Rideau’s travails would have the skills to lay it down this well. That said, his book in not in the same league as Caryl Chessman and the other authors mentioned below in my admittedly far from definitive survey of the best of American prison literature.

Unlike Rideau, Chessman never killed anyone, but he did receive two death sentences for his alleged crimes. Maybe he committed the crimes for which he was convicted and maybe he didn’t. We’ll never know, because his 1948 trial was a bona fide travesty. Indeed, one of the best books written about the Chessman case was Beyond a Reasonable Doubt? The Original Trial of Caryl Chessman by William Kunstler, a young law professor who would go on, later in the 1960s, to become one of the most famous radical lawyers in the world, defending the likes of Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and the rest of the so-called Chicago 7, as well as Black Panthers, war resisters and other assorted upstanding dissenters.

Chessman received his death sentences for a series of “Red Light Bandit” kidnappings that took place in the Los Angeles area in January 1948. The sentences derived from a seldom used “Little Lindbergh Law” (Section 209 of the California Penal Code), which made it a capital crime to kidnap a person for the purpose of inflicting harm. Between 1942 and 1956, 180 persons were given death sentences in the state; only one other person besides Chessman was sentenced to death for crimes in which no one was killed, and that person’s sentence was later commuted to life in prison by Governor Pat Brown, who refused to intercede in Chessman’s case.

Two death sentences for crimes that took no life — why? The more one investigates the Chessman case the more this question stings the mind and challenges what one might have otherwise taken for granted as impossible in a free society. In the end, one is hard-pressed not to admit a disturbing truth: Chessman didn’t die because the law demanded it; he died because a loophole in the law demanded it, a freakish whim of the law demanded it. He is the human asterisk, the man who died for something that no American has since had to face.

Because of the nature of his convictions, Chessman’s books possess a deeper existential underpinning than most prison death house memoirs. No “eye for an eye” cliché can sweep his death under a rug. Rather than take his fate lying down, however, Chessman spent the twelve years between his sentencing and execution working like a maniac on San Quentin’s death row, using his tiny cell to shape one of the most remarkable bodies of work in American legal history: three wide-selling memoirs: Cell 2455, Death Row in 1954, Trial by Ordeal in 1955, The Face of Justice in 1957 and one novel, The Kid Was a Killer, in 1960. These bookis were translated into more than a dozen languages and are still in print in some countries. Chessman also penned an archive’s worth of unpublished letters, short stories and at least one more publishable novel in his cell, a literary trove to which I had access, thanks to Chessman’s literary executor Joseph Longstreth, when I wrote my book.

Through his writings, Chessman became the face of the anti-death penalty movement in America. He made the cover of Time magazine two months before his death and was the subject of profiles in nearly every major periodical in the U.S., Europe and South America. Hollywood adapted his life story for the screen.

But even that can’t explain why the roads leading to San Quentin on May 2, 1960, were mobbed by protesters, reporters and police, the scene a harbinger of the dissent that would soon rock the nation. Nowadays, when one thinks of the 1960s, the images conjured up are of the decade’s second half: the riots, Vietnam War protests, Black Panthers, the Yippies and tear gas. But the cracks in the complacent “We Like Ike” era were already beginning to show in 1960, which would culminate in November with the victory of the youngest man ever elected as U.S. President. John F. Kennedy may have, in fact, received his party’s nomination simply because a far better-known candidate, Gov. Pat Brown, was perceived as having suffered grievous political wounds due to the Chessman case.

One might even cite the execution of 38-year-old Caryl Chessman on May 2, 1960 as the event that signaled the start of the 1960s. And, in the half century since his death, echoes of Chessman have been heard in every death penalty case and at the scene of every execution in America.


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Any prisoner who achieves money and/or fame for work done while incarcerated is bound to cause a scandal. The questions raised by prison authors are philosophical (should society allow “criminals” to profit while being punished?) and legal (do prisoners “own” the work they create in prison or do the taxpayers who provide room and board?). In the 1970s and 1980s, people were often told “Don’t Buy Books By Crooks.” This was mostly in reference to the number of indicted and incarcerated Nixon Administration insiders and cronies who were churning out the potboilers and apologias: H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, Charles Colson, G. Gordon Liddy, Spiro Agnew, John Dean and Tricky Dick himself, not to mention the king of the Nixon crook/writers, E. Howard Hunt.

Looked at in a slightly different way, however, prison authors have been with us since the nation’s birth. Many Americans now regarded as icons spent time inside prison cells, including Francis Scott Key, whose “The Star-Spangled Banner” was written while an unwilling guest of the British in 1814. Other Americans whose work behind bars proved important are Thomas Paine, Henry David Thoreau (his essay, “Civil Disobedience” was inspired by a night in jail), Martin Luther King Jr. (whose “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” inspired the Civil Rights Movement), Eugene V. Debs, Malcolm X, even musicians like Merle Haggard, Joe Hill, Roky Erickson and David Allan Coe. Likewise, many figures of political scandal have used prison time to fashion work designed to rehabilitate images, justify or explain criminal behavior: Timothy Leary, Abbie Hoffman, Michael Milkin, Leona Helmsley, O.J. Simpson, Martha Stewart. Come to think of it, some of the great Beat Generation figures spent portions of their lives confined against their wills: Allen Ginsberg, Carl Solomon, Lucien Carr, Gregory Corso, Neal Cassady, Herbert Huncke, Seymour Krim, and Ed Sanders (who was jailed for protesting the American war machine). The publishing industry would have collapsed without our prison population!

For a period of time, influential penologists believed that humane rehabilitation was the proper way to conduct a prison system. The idea was to get the prisoner back into society in the belief (sometimes mistaken) that he or she could be a contributing member of society. Among the methods employed was a new treatment called bibliotherapy, credited to Herman Spector, librarian at San Quentin State Prison from 1947 to 1968. During that time, Spector (if you can believe this once happened in America!) held “Great Books” classes and conducted group discussions about the great authors. He expanded the prison library, calling it “a hospital for the mind,” and allowed prisoners to visit the library once a week. Spector also directed a series of creative writing classes that, according to Joseph Hallinan, turned San Quentin into “a writer’s colony, a criminal version of Yaddo.”

In 1947, for example, Spector’s classes produced 395 manuscript submissions for publication. By 1961, the number was 1,989. According to Eldridge Cleaver—then a San Quentin inmate—Spector was aided by Chris Lovdjieff, a tireless teacher of history and philosophy that was so beloved and respected by the inmates that Cleaver dubbed him “The Christ.” Due in part to Spector’s and Lovdjieff’s efforts, San Quentin had a legacy of prison authors. In 1953, Spector published a booklet called San Quentiniana, an annotated list of “books published by officials and inmates of San Quentin.”

The roster of inmate authors was impressive, including Jack Black, whose You Can’t Win was a huge influence on a teenage William Burroughs. This autobiography colorfully and bluntly recounts Black’s life as a petty thief, drug addict, hobo and jailbird. As Barry Miles wrote in El Hombre Invisible, “Forty years later, Burroughs was to use characters from You Can’t Win in his books, and quote sections from it, sometimes word for word.” The book is, in fact, still in print, with an introduction by Burroughs.

Other San Quentin authors of the past included Ernest G. Booth, best known for his novel With Sirens Screaming, Richard J. Krebs, who wrote under the pen name Jan Valtin, and whose Out of the Night, remains one of the strangest memoirs of World War II; David Lamson, whose We Who Are About To Die details his year on Death Row at San Quentin, before his murder conviction of his wife was overturned; and Robert J. Tasker, whose account of prison life in Grimhaven has few rivals for authenticity. Each of these published books created a new scandal. Each attracted readers who, like Burroughs, had their eyes opened to another world they scarcely knew existed on the same planet as they inhabited. Even after Spector compiled his list, San Quentin continued to spawn writers, including Caryl Chessman, Bill Sands (My Shadow Ran Fast), Eldridge Cleaver (Soul on Ice), George Jackson (Soledad Brother) and Malcolm Braly.

But, of course, to the state’s legislators and taxpayers, Spector had created a prison population of self-made lawyers and wannabe Hemingways. Ultimately, Spector’s legacy was not preserved by the prison or the Department of Corrections. California did not want to be known as America’s finishing school for convict authors, so when Spector retired in 1967, the prison destroyed the crowning achievement of his stellar career, the files on his reading and writing programs. Replacing Spector’s emphasis on mental and intellectual rehabilitation was a more effective method of prisoner control: television. Today, each prison at San Quentin can have his own TV set in his cell. Television has never rehabilitated a single prisoner.

Writing, however, was instrumental in reviving the life and career of one of America’s great unsung writers, Malcolm Braly. First of all, his False Starts: A Memoir of San Quentin and Other Prisons, published in 1976, rivals Chessman’s three memoirs. His On the Yard is, just as Kurt Vonnegut called it, “surely the Great American Prison Novel.” He started the novel in San Quentin, was reprimanded, then completed it when he got out and was off parole. He also wrote, partly in prison under Spector’s guidance, three other novels set therein: Felony Tank, Shake Him Till He Rattles and It’s Cold Out There. He was in San Quentin when Chessman was executed. Though the two writers never met—Braly was in the general population, Chessman sequestered on Death Row. Braly’s earlier skepticism of Chessman as a “grandstander” changed to admiration. He wrote of Chessman:

He acted out he drama of the individual vs. the state, played his role without compromise and died bravely … He taught them the power of the written word when he came to prominence with his first book. He had shouted from his cell and the world was listening.

Jack Henry Abbott, who spent nearly his entire adult life in prison, was another literary cause celebre who was also a gifted writer. His case came to the world’s attention through Norman Mailer, whose controversial “true life novel,” The Executioner’s Song brilliantly recreated the life and firing-squad death of murderer Gary Gilmore. Abbott, then in prison, contacted Mailer in 1977 after reading about the Gilmore novel, then a work in progress. Mailer arranged for some of Abbott’s prison letters to be printed in the June 26, 1980 issue of The New York Review of Books. On the strength of the letters, Random House offered Abbott a contract. The resulting book In the Belly of the Beast contained an introduction by Mailer. The scandal wasn’t just the publication of Abbott’s book, which became a bestseller (there were precedents of prisoners publishing books). The scandal was that, largely on the strength of his book, Abbott was paroled on June 5, 1981, and placed under the guardianship of Mailer, whose offer to hire him as a “researcher” was enough to convince prison officials that Abbott would be gainfully employed. On July 19, 1981, Abbott stabbed a waiter outside a New York City restaurant to death. To the public at large, Mailer and all the other celebrities who petitioned for Abbott’s parole were held as accountable for the murder as Abbott. Abbott was sent back to prison, where he died of an apparent suicide in 2002.

Lost in the tragedy of Abbott’s heinous crime is one disturbing, if undeniable fact: In the Belly of the Beast is one of America’s most powerful works of prison literature. As stunning as anything by Jean Genet and as gruesome as a high speed car crash, Beast can be opened to any page and Abbott’s voice will grab you—by the throat. I would quote something at random but, truly, the entire book would have to be quoted if I even began that fruitless task. Likewise, Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice is filled with harsh truths that readers may not wish to hear, written with the cool clarity of someone who had spent many hours in solitary confinement. What Norman Mailer wrote in the introduction to Abbott’s book could hold equally true for Cleaver: he “had his own voice. I had heard no other like it … He wrote like a devil, which is to say (since none of us might recognize the truth if an angel told us) that he had a way of making you exclaim to yourself as you read, ‘Yes, he’s right. My God, yes, it’s true.’ Needless to say, what was true was also bottomless to contemplate. Reading his letters did not encourage sweet dreams. Hell was now clear to behold. It was maximum security in a large penitentiary.”

A Field of Broken Stones by Lowell Naeve is another great and unsung works of American prison literature. Naeve was a talented graphic artist who was incarcerated in Danbury Federal Prison for refusing to serve in the U.S. military (technically, for “draft evasion”). His account is funny, humane, idiosyncratic (replete with 53 of his drawings of prison life) and subversive. The entire manuscript, including artwork, was smuggled out of prison in a hollow picture frame. Among Naeve’s champions were Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, William Steig (whose artwork was clearly an influence on Naeve’s) and Kenneth Patchen, who called it a “movingly honest and plain-spoken document of human dignity and belief in this time of almost universal spiritual darkness.” Inexplicably, the book has been out of print for many years.


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Rather than go on at endless length, I will suggest that world literature itself, if not world history, would be far less worthy of celebration were it not for humanity’s prison writers. Maybe the best way to get a handle on the breadth of the subject is to secure a copy of Ioan Davies’ Writers in Prison. In it, Davies includes clear-eyed accounts of the works and prison experiences of iconic writers like Mikhail Bakhtin, Boethius (who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy in prison), Breyten Breytenback, John Bunyan (who wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress in a cell), Benvenuto Cellini, Marquis de Sade, Milovan Djilas, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ruth First, Antonio Gramsci, Vaclav Havel, Arthur Koestler, Primo Levi, Rosa Luxemburg, Victor Serge, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Francois Villon and, of course, Oscar Wilde.

One writer whom Davies does not mention but whose books are worth seeking out (and, happily, Melville House in Brooklyn has recently reissued all of them) is Hans Fallada. My favorite of the recent reissues is his 1947 novel The Drinker. This is a novel in the same way that Fred Exley’s A Fan’s Notes is a novel or Charles Bukowski’s Post Office is a novel. Rescued, quite literally, from history’s dustbin, The Drinker is one of the most remarkable books to resurface since Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise. Originally written in 1944, when Fallada was incarcerated in an insane asylum by the Nazis, the manuscript was not discovered until after his death. The novel had to be deciphered from an encrypted notebook that Fallada kept to avoid Nazi reprisals. A version of it was published in 1952, at which point it quickly fell into obscurity.

Disguised as the tale of a hapless man whose life is destroyed by alcohol, The Drinker is far deeper than a graphic depiction of chemical addiction, though it is as good and true an account of that as has ever been put to paper. Fallada’s firsthand experiences provided the insider view of mental institutionalization to which much of the novel’s plot clings. The narrator, who has been jailed after his wife claims that during a spree of binge drinking (which he doesn’t remember) he tried to strangle her, lives on the false promises of the authorities, who infer that he will be released when he proves he has “changed.” He is sustained by his barely suppressed delusions of revenge against those who’ve placed him in such a miserable fix. Meanwhile, he falls as low as any man can go-his wife divorces him and remarries while he is incarcerated, and she steals his old successful business in the bargain; his nose is nearly bitten off by a deranged fellow inmate, his body is infested with boils and his stomach never stops grumbling from hunger pangs.

His fall from grace — the skids greased by demon schnapps, brandy and beer — is complete by novel’s end. But alcohol is just a stand-in for the pathology of the Nazi regime that was the real source of the author’s “illness.” Fallada’s real crime was his failure to adapt to fascism. His personal courage seems extraordinary in hindsight. Even though his British publisher, George Putnam, made a boat available to him, Fallada elected to stay behind in Germany even as contemporaries like Herman Hesse and Thomas Mann fled for safety. Placed under house arrest by the Nazi regime, Fallada was ordered by Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels to write an anti-Semitic novel for national distribution. When the strain of producing such a monstrosity became too great, Fallada had a mental breakdown — exacerbated by drink and drugs — and Goebbels ordered him placed in a facility for the “criminally insane.” There, hoping to win his release, Fallada pretended to write the novel Goebbels wanted but, instead, wrote The Drinker and two other novels, using a code of his own devise to cover his tracks.

After Fallada was freed at war’s end by Allied troops, his publisher sought to jumpstart his career again by providing him a file that the Gestapo kept on a working class couple who had resisted the Nazi rule. Inspired by the true-life account, Fallada wrote his final novel, Every Man Dies Alone. He did not live to see its publication; he died weeks before it went to press in 1947.

Along with The Drinker and Every Man Dies Alone, Melville House has reprinted Little Man, What Now?, the best known of his novels during his lifetime.

Still, in this reviewer’s eyes, The Drinker is a masterpiece of its genre, worthy of standing alongside Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kafka’s The Trial and Malcolm Braly’s On the Yard.

3 Responses

  1. Top notch! I really enjoyed
    Top notch! I really enjoyed this article.

    Interesting side note: a couple of years ago, my mother told me about a book she read a long time ago called Little Man, What Now? and she wondered if it was still in print. I found it on Amazon.com and bought it for her. I had no idea about Fallada’s background! I can’t wait to call my Mom and share this information with her (maybe she already knows. Mothers are like that).

  2. I too, thought this article
    I too, thought this article to be more than I expected. i am an ex-convict with many years spent behind bars. I write, I regret, I cry. I like the idea of not being alone in that pain. ha! My part, as an aspiring author in this genre is on the link there under homepage.

  3. I stumbled upon this article while researching names in Soul on Ice.
    I was mainly saddened about the demise of the library at San Quentin in 1967 with the advent of television
    I hope to find and read many of the books you have referred to.
    Thanks so much

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!