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The Prison and the American Imagination

The Prison and the American Imagination

Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    The Prison and the American Imagination
    Book Description:

    How did a nation so famously associated with freedom become internationally identified with imprisonment? After the scandals of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and in the midst of a dramatically escalating prison population, the question is particularly urgent. In this timely, provocative study, Caleb Smith argues that the dehumanization inherent in captivity has always been at the heart of American civil society.

    Exploring legal, political, and literary texts-including the works of Dickinson, Melville, and Emerson-Smith shows how alienation and self-reliance, social death and spiritual rebirth, torture and penitence came together in the prison, a scene for the portrayal of both gothic nightmares and romantic dreams. Demonstrating how the "cellular soul" has endured since the antebellum age,The Prison and the American Imaginationoffers a passionate and haunting critique of the very idea of solitude in American life.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15630-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. 1-24)

    In the 1860s, Emily Dickinson slowly withdrew from the world, into her family’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Outside was the sound and fury of a country reckoning with slavery, Indian Removal, and other horrors; in the enclosed, protected space of the homestead, Dickinson quietly tended her garden and wrote her thousands of letters and poems. As the years went by, her seclusion was more and more complete—in the last decades of her life, they say, Dickinson usually declined to receive even the visits of her closest friends. Instead, she might send a pressed flower or a few lines of...


    • CHAPTER ONE Civil Death and Carceral Life
      (pp. 27-52)

      “Capture,” wrote George Jackson from his cell in 1970, “is the closest thing to being dead that one is likely to experience in this life.”¹ Jackson spent more than a decade in California prisons, much of the time in solitary confinement, before he was shot dead by a guard. While incarcerated, he educated himself in the prison library and became involved with the prisoners’ rights movement and the Black Panthers. Jackson was an articulate voice from the prison interior, and his letters have been widely read for their elegance and rhetorical force. Jean Genet called them “a striking poem of...

    • CHAPTER TWO Cadaverous Triumphs
      (pp. 53-78)

      “All harms,” wrote Cesare di Beccaria, reflecting on the difference between public punishments and secret ones, “are magnified in the imagination.”¹ As the old spectacle of the scaffold decomposed, losing its effectiveness and its grounding in the prevailing political mythology, authorities confronted a problem: Without the theatrical terror of hangings and mutilations, how could crime be deterred? Without the scaffold and the pillory, the stocks and the whipping post, how could obedience to the law be secured in the hearts of citizens tempted to break it? After all, “one object of penal provisions,” as the English reformer Charles James Blomfield...


    • CHAPTER THREE The Meaning of Solitude
      (pp. 81-112)

      “I know where i am,” says Bartleby in the gloomy corridors of The Tombs. Despite its gothic nickname, the New York criminal justice complex that became the scene of Bartleby’s death—and of Melville’s radical interrogation of “humanity”—was not some ancient, decaying catacomb. It was one of the monuments of the reform movement, designed in the 1830s by the most famous penitentiary architect in America, John Haviland, and a model of modern penitentiary discipline. Before the building of The Tombs, the great Manhattan prison had been Newgate, an institution that shared in the notorious troubles of its London namesake—...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Captivity and Consciousness
      (pp. 113-138)

      By the late 1820s, the movement that built the world’s first great penitentiary system had entered its triumphant phase. The experimental ideas of eighteenth-century pioneers such as Cesare di Beccaria, John Howard, and Benjamin Rush had become the next generation’s doctrine, written into law and enshrined in the monumental architecture of the famous model prisons of New York and Philadelphia. The violence and degradation of plantation slavery and Indian Removal were still shaping the American social landscape, but reform had extended its humanizing embrace to citizens convicted of crimes. The gallows, the whipping post, the pillory, and other implements of...


    • CHAPTER FIVE Mississippi Voices
      (pp. 141-171)

      In the chorus of characters making up William Faulkner’sAbsalom, Absalom!(1936) is the minor figure of Goodhue Coldfield, “that queer silent man whose only companion and friend seems to have been his conscience.”¹ When the Civil War erupts, Coldfield closes his dry-goods store in protest and withdraws from the world: “He mounted to the attic with his hammer and his handful of nails,” writes Faulkner, “and nailed the door behind him and threw the hammer out the window.” His daughter, Rosa, passes food to him in a basket “by means of a well pulley and rope attached to the...

    • CHAPTER SIX Frontiers of Captivity
      (pp. 172-200)

      In a 1682 text originally entitledThe Sovereignty and Goodness of God, Mary White Rowlandson, a Massachusetts Bay colonist and the wife of a Puritan minister, tells the story of her capture by hostile Indians during King Philip’s War. Rowlandson depicts the native people of New England as devils and fiends who butcher helpless English settlers in their homes, carrying the survivors into a dismal servitude. “Some in our house were fighting for their lives,” she writes, “others wallowing in their blood, the House on fire over our heads, and the bloody Heathen ready to knock us on the head.”¹...

  8. Epilogue
    (pp. 201-210)

    In the age of guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and a sprawling domestic prison-industrial complex, the American prison looms vast and awful on the social horizon, an international scandal and a humanitarian disaster. The problems of mass captivity and of its consequences for the meaning of humanity, partly buried since the riots and radical movements of the 1970s, are again forcing themselves into public and critical consciousness. Today, however, the prison no longer promises to correct criminals or to train citizen-subjects. Instead, it appears as a kind of grotesquely violent warehouse whose inmates have been divested of rights, even of humanity, and...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 211-236)
    (pp. 237-250)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 251-258)