Skip to Main Content
Fitting Sentences

Fitting Sentences: Identity in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Prison Narratives

Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 270
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Fitting Sentences
    Book Description:

    Fitting Sentencesis an analysis of writings by prisoners from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in North America, South Africa, and Europe. Jason Haslam examines the ways in which these writers reconfigure subjectivity and its relation to social power structures, especially the prison structure itself, while also detailing the relationship between prison and slave narratives. Specifically, Haslam reads texts by Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Jacobs, Oscar Wilde, Martin Luther King, Jr., Constance Lytton, and Breyten Breytenbach to find the commonalities and divergences in their stories.

    While the relationship between prison and subjectivity has been mapped by Michel Foucault and defined as "a strategic distribution of elements" that act "to exercise a power of normalization", Haslam demonstrates some of the complex connections and dissonances between these elements and the resistances to them. Each work shows how carceral practices can be used to attack a variety of identifications, be they sexual, racial, economic, or any of a variety of social categories. By analysing the works of specific prison writers but not being limited to a single locale or narrow time span,Fitting Sentencesoffers a significant historical and global overview of a unique genre in literature.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7494-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Opening Statements
    (pp. 3-20)

    A history of prisons is a history of prisoners. That may seem like an obvious statement, but, on many levels, a history of prisons is distinctlynota history of prisoners. Prisoners have had largely no voice in the formation of prisons, nor have they generally had a role in actively creating policies concerning criminal justice. So, the history of prisons is not a history written by prisoners. It is, however, a history written on and through prisoners. Prisons – and the officials, politicians, and systems supporting them – only gain solidity through the people living in them. Prison policy and practice...

  5. CHAPTER ONE ‘They locked the door on my meditations’: Thoreau, Society, and the Prison House of Identity
    (pp. 21-48)

    Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience’ is an ideal starting point for my analysis of prison literature, because it offers an explicit interplay between incarceration, politics, and identity. The essay, in which Thoreau explains and justifies his refusal to pay his poll tax – which led to his 1846 arrest – has become one of the most influential political statements of the past one hundred and fifty years. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that Thoreau’s discussion of non-violent resistance has helped to shape the current form of American and world politics. Both Martin Luther King Jr and Constance Lytton...

  6. CHAPTER TWO ‘Cast of Characters’: Problems of Identity and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
    (pp. 49-84)

    While not a prison text per se, Harriet Jacobs’s slave narrative,Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, contains several elements that are consistent with prison texts as they are traditionally conceived. Like Thoreau, Jacobs deals with the subjugation of a significant portion of the nineteenth-century American populace by the dominant culture. More explicitly than Thoreau, however, Jacobs, as a fugitive slave author, deals with this subjugation as it is epitomized within the chattel slavery system of antebellum America. Born a slave in 1813 in North Carolina, Jacobs was later sexually abused by her owner, a practice that, as...

  7. CHAPTER THREE ‘To be entirely free, and at the same time entirely dominated by law’: The Paradox of the Individual in De Profundis
    (pp. 85-108)

    In a letter to Robert Ross, Oscar Wilde writes thatThe Ballad of Reading Gaol‘suffers under the difficulty of a divided aim in style. Some is realistic, some is romantic: some poetry, some propaganda.’¹ Upon reading the above stanza, one could transform Wilde’s description by saying that the poem is also divided by the difficulty felt under suffering – a difficulty that is summed up by the statement that a broken heart leads to happiness. While this phrase may at first seem melodramatic, if not clichéd, it takes on a much larger and more complex meaning in the letter to...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Positioning Discourse: Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘Letter from Birmingham City Jail’
    (pp. 109-134)

    Over half a century after Wilde’s letter was written, another, very different letter was written from prison – Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘Letter from Birmingham City Jail.’ Like Wilde’s letter, King’s is addressed specifically but is intended for a larger public audience. King was arrested on Good Friday, 1963, during non-violent protests against Birmingham’s – and Alabama’s – refusal to obey the 1954 US Supreme Court decision outlawing racial segregation. While in solitary confinement, he wrote ‘Letter from Birmingham City Jail,’ which was subsequently published in national forums, includingTimemagazine. Indeed, the centrality of the ‘Letter’ is pointed to by the level...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE Being Jane Warton: Lady Constance Lytton and the Disruption of Privilege
    (pp. 135-162)

    The texts analysed in the previous sections have discussed the difficulties that prison authors face in avoiding – in their redefinitions of identity as social commentaries – the reproduction of the carceral forces of dominant discourses and cultures. With the exception of Thoreau, the authors themselves have been isolated from the ruling culture due to its racialized, gendered, sexualized, or classed character, among other classificatory categories. So King, for example, may use the language of the dominant class to assert his own authority, but this is more a means of accessing his white reader than it is a repetition of that reader’s...

  10. CHAPTER SIX Frustrating Complicity in Breyten Breytenbach’s The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist
    (pp. 163-188)

    Breyten Breytenbach endsThe True Confessions of an Albino Terroristin a traditional way, by inscribing at the bottom of the last page the date and place of the composition of the work. While the text was physically composed after his release from the South African prisons where he was sent for his activities against the apartheid state, it draws on material and experiences from the period of his incarceration. The placement marker at the end of the text tells us that it was written in ‘Pretoria / Pollsmoor / Palermo / Paris,’ and gives the date ‘29 December 1983,’...

  11. Closing Statements / Opening Arguments
    (pp. 189-194)

    I wish in closing to explore further the ramifications of the question- and process-oriented conclusion of the final chapter. I want to use this space not only as a formal closure to my statements on prison writing, but also to continue the process I began in my ‘opening statements’ of trying to ‘open up’ discussion. I will begin by raising some arguments and problems that are covered in this study, and which may complicate some of the previous conclusions I have offered; I do so not only with the explicit hope of engaging readers in continuing and energetic dialogue, but...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 195-234)
  13. Works Cited
    (pp. 235-256)
  14. Index
    (pp. 257-264)