Who would have guessed that some of the greatest classic novels were written in prison? Surprisingly for many of us, for a number of authors the solitude and lack of distractions have provided the ultimate writing conditions for some of the most insightful works.

 In prison you discover there are endless stretches of time where there’s not a lot to do. A lot of people in jail meet with themselves for the first time since many years. Suddenly they have the need to tell their stories.

We’ve picked 10 famous novels who’s authors were in prison at the time they started writing or works who have been influenced by a period of time their creator has spent in jail.

Here the list:

1). Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

2). The Travels of Marco Polo by Rustichello da Pisa

3). Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

4). Letters from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr.

5). Short Stories by O. Henry

6). De Profundis by Oscar Wilde

7). Conversations with Myself by Nelson Mandela

8). Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet

9). The Enormous Room by e.e cummings

10). In the Belly of the Beast by Jack Abbott



Don Quixote

by Miguel de Cervantes

At first glance it wouldn’t have occurred to anyone that one of the most popular characters in Western European literature – the epitome of idealism and honor – was inspired during his author’s stay in prison. Penned with an abundance of humor and sense of satire, Don Quixote became the first modern European novel, and its protagonist – the image of the knight driven by the code of chivalry. Cervantes wrote part of his greatest work while being imprisoned for debts.

Cervantes served sentence two or three times, and as he asserts us in Don Quixote, his greatest mock romance originated in a prison. Closed in a cell, the author let loose his imagination roaming across the roads of Spain along with his wacky knight.


The Travels of Marco Polo

by Rustichello da Pisa

After more than 20 years of travel across the known world of the 13th and 14th century, Marco Polo returned to his homeland in Italy to witness a war between Venice and Genoa. After a Genoese assault, polo was captured and imprisoned. While in jail, he shared his travels with a fellow convict Rustichello da Pisa, who assembled them into the book we today know as The Travels of Marco Polo. It was soon disseminated across Europe, giving western people a chance to catch a glimpse of the “exotic East”.


Civil Disobedience

by Henry David Thoreau

We usually fancy Thoreau writing his philosophical contemplations near picturesque locations. In truth, he wasn’t really a gaol-bird – he only spent one night in jail after his refusal to pay tax to a government whose ideas mismatched his own. But this one night motivated him to write his classical essay on civil disobedience.


Letters from Birmingham Jail

by Martin Luther King Jr.

An adherent of the ideas in Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience, King was sent to prison for organizing a peaceful demonstration against racial segregation in state Alabama. While in jail, King wrote his remarkable phrase, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”


Short Stories

by O. Henry

Renowned for his classical Christmas story The Gift of the Magi, William Sydney Porter started penning his jocular stories while being imprisoned for embezzlement. He wrote using various aliases, the most famous of which became O. Henry.


De Profundis

by Oscar Wilde

Known for his jocular and frivolous style Wilde’s writing while in prison was pointedly more gloomy and introverted. He served two years of hard labor for indecent behaviour with men, particularly Lord Alfred Douglas. While in prison, Wilde wrote a letter to Douglas, expressing the regret he felt for his moral misbehaviour. Published post mortem, this work records the path of redemption and coming to peace with oneself that Wilde walked in confinement.


Conversations with Myself

by Nelson Mandela

More personal than his autobiography, Conversations with Myslelf is a book recording Mandela’s life in prison. It is compiled of separate letters and diary entries written by Mandela during his 27 years behind bars.


Our Lady of the Flowers

by Jean Genet

This is, to a great extent, an autobiographical book and it was Genet’s first novel, penned throughout his time in jail in the 1940s. The story tracks the events occurring in the life of Divine, a recently deceased tranvestite, recounting her travels across the colorful homosexual abyss of Paris. The novel’s free, expressive prose is claimed by many critics to have been a muse for many Beat writers.


The Enormous Room

by e.e cummings

Cummings was serving as an ambulance driver in World War I when local authorities sent him to a detention center. Imprisoned there for four months, he wrote down his experiences in the novel The Enermous Room. Replete with various and complex characters and witty prose, the novel allows us to catch a glimpse of the renown poet’s early life.


In the Belly of the Beast

by Jack Abbott

In the Belly of the Beast tracks Jacl Abbott’s 25 years of imprisonment and evocatively describes the damage that an inhuman and unjust prison regime can do to a man’s psychicological and emotional state. The book comprises letters between Abbott and distinguished author Norman Mailer. Amazed by Abbott’s talent in writing, Mailer helped him get parole and the year he was released, the book was published. However he was taken back to jail six weeks after his release being charged of murder.

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