Martha, take heart: For writers, prison can be a good thing

Literature

October 10, 2004|By Carole Goldberg | Carole Goldberg,THE HARTFORD COURANT

Last Friday, Martha Stewart - or prisoner No. 55170-054, as she will be officially known -began five months of incarceration for her conviction on conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges in the Alderson minimum-security women's prison in West Virginia.

That stint in the slammer will be followed by five more months of home confinement.

Martha, of course, would not be Martha without a project to complete, and the thought of her just idly killing time for months on end, staring listlessly out some ugly barred window, is too horrid to contemplate. Because we don't think they'll let her bring a glue gun to prison, we have a suggestion for how she might pass the time fruitfully.

Write a book, Martha. No, not another Hors D'Oeuvres Handbook or Great American Wreaths II, but something substantial - something philosophical or literary.

You'll be in good company. Many famous prisoners, from the revered Gandhi to the reviled Hitler, wrote while incarcerated. Here's a look at some that brought a pen to the pen:

St. Paul is believed to have written some of his famous letters, including those to the Ephesians and to Philemon, while in prison for preaching the Gospel.

Machiavelli, the brilliant political analyst of the Renaissance, wrote his masterpiece, The Prince, that still-consulted self-help book on power politics, after being wrongly accused of plotting against the Medicis and serving some prison time.

Miguel de Cervantes, author of the classic novel Don Quixote, began dreaming his impossible dream of idealism and romance while in a debtors' prison in La Mancha. The book was published in Spain in 1605.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, where he was imprisoned for his civil rights activities, first on the margins of newspaper pages and then on scraps of paper and a lawyer's pad.

Henry David Thoreau was inspired to write his essay "Civil Disobedience" after spending one night in jail because he would not pay a tax that would help support the Mexican War.

Oscar Wilde, the great Victorian poet and playwright, who knew more about style than quite possibly anyone before or since, including Martha, was imprisoned for having had a homosexual affair. While in prison in 1897, he wrote "De Profundis," a long, emotional monologue on prison life and betrayal, in which he said:

"Of course there are many things of which I was convicted that I had not done, but then there are many things of which I was convicted that I had done, and a still greater number of things in my life for which I was never indicted at all. And as the gods are strange, and punish us for what is good and humane in us as much as for what is evil and perverse, I must accept the fact that one is punished for the good as well as for the evil that one does. I have no doubt that it is quite right one should be."

We doubt that Martha could say it better herself.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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