Democratic Vistas

The Victim as Criminal and Artist: Literature from the American Prison

by H. Bruce Franklin
Oxford University Press, 337 pp., $13.95

The most familiar tradition of literary criticism in America assigns the special features of our writing to the experience of abundance, individualism, and Adam’s release from complicity in past history. Professor Bruce Franklin’s new book challenges this tradition on all points, by concentrating exclusively on oppression in America and its victims, as individuals and collectively. Franklin’s only Adam of Innocence is Billy Budd, who would be hard to miss, and the Handsome Sailor here is seen as a symbolic sacrifice to the massed power of the capitalist state in the person of Captain Vere, “the bland advocate and moral philosopher whose own hands remain spotlessly white while he sanctions the killing of the most innocent among the oppressed.” The illusions of innocence of other American authors’ heroes are out on the periphery of Franklin’s concern, for the heroes of the underside of American history are presumed to have no illusions.

The volume and matter of the vast literature pouring from American penitentiaries is by turns depressing and infuriating, and, like the victims who have written it, the reader on the outside may feel some of the despair pandemic on the inside. He will feel some of the prisoners’ anger at conditions of brutality and human waste, where time drags on, in the words of William Coons in Attica Diary, “like an agony of chains, each day a link in the seemingly endless forced march of time.” This reader may also be surprised to discover how much like the general run of mankind the prison writers are in their judgments of their fellow prisoners and in their assessments of themselves, and in the creative purpose to which their experience is turned. Some are overtly autobiographical, others are not; some see in themselves and others the will to fail outside, and others see in themselves and others such a raging defiance inside as to herald a revolution in the making, outside as well as inside. Political prisoners, or prisoners who have become politicized in jail, see in the prison experience only an intensified version of life outside, which is also a prison. They are, therefore, content to describe their experience, and seldom propose specific ameliorative measures.

Professor Franklin sees in this literature, for all its variety, a continuing tradition. He takes his subject to be the “literature created by those members of the oppressed classes who have become artists with words through their experience of being defined by the state as criminals.” For Franklin this experience is “close to the center of American history,” and he appears to agree with his author-victims that “America is itself a prison,” and that American literature reflects that fact. The two features that set American experience apart from that of other lands he takes to be, first, the conquest of the continent and the virtual extinction of the indigenous population, and second, the enslavement of Africans to plantation labor.

That the overrunning of one people and the enslavement of another are …

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