Fear in Writing: Writers Jailed

Today in Literary History

Today in Literary History...December 14, 1907: Rudyard Kipling receives the Nobel prize for literature, the first English-language writer to do so.ud

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Writers Jailed

Do you know how many writers go to prison?  O. Henry (surprised you, didn't it?), Oscar Wilde (for a most ridiculous reason), Emile Zola (sentenced, not served, for a very admirable reason), poet Robert Lowell (a war protester), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (critic of the Stalin regime), Voltaire (who served for his writing).

Historically, we are a daring bunch.  I have written before about my admiration for those willing to toe the frontlines (The Comfort of our Homes), speaking mostly about journalists.  But novelists, playwrights, and poets have been just as daring...or just downright criminal, like good 'ol O. Henry--whose story reminds me of one Paul Harvey might tell!

Paul Harvey and FBI Dir. J. Edgar Hoover.
Courtesy Washington Post and FBI
And speaking of Paul Harvey...

It was the cold month of February in 1951.  The country was recovering from the affects of World War II and the young me werer fighting again, this time in Korea.  Back home, nuclear testing was going on at Argonne National Laboratory, just west of Chicago.  Many objected, but one young journalist went a step further.  This man drove his Cadillac Fleetwood to the Argonne property at around midnight on February 6th.  He threw his overcoat over the barbwire-topped fence and climbed over.  Security guards were upon him in a moment, but the journalist ran until headlights caught him in their light, and the journalist was forced to tell a tale.  He claimed his car had broken down, but eventually gave the true story: a plan that involved scratching his name on "'objects that could not possibly have been brought to the site by someone else" (source).  The man refused to comment further, demanding to talk to the American public before a congressional hearing.  Security guards found a complete script in the man's Cadillac.  The journalist had planned to tell the public the same story he told the guards, a tale of his accidental stop at the nuclear testing facility, and how "we could have carried a bomb in, or classified documents out."  Espionage charges were considered, but none were pressed because this man appealed his innocence on the radio.  This man debuted his own radio program on the ABC Radio Network.  And that show was...Paul Harvey News and Comment...
And now you have...the rest of the story.

Thought Harvey was the nice voice, didn't you?  Well, there are plenty more that won't surprise you.

How about One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest author Ken Kesey?  Police arrested the writer for possession of marijuana in 1965, but Kesey wasn't going to take it standing still.  He attempted to mislead police by faking his own death.  Friends left his truck on a cliffside, along with a suicide note that read, "Ocean, Ocean I’ll beat you in the end" (source).  Kesey fled to Mexico, where he stayed for eight months.  Upon his return to the U.S., police arrested the author and he spent five months in the San Mateo County jail.

While Harvey was taking on the American government, Beat Generation founder William S. Burroughs was getting into a different sort of trouble.  In that same year, 1951, Burroughs shot and killed his wife, Jean Volmer, in a drunken game of 'William Tell' in Mexico City.  He spent 13 days in jail until his brother bribed Mexican officials to let him out on bail until his trial.  But more problems followed.  Burroughs' attorney soon fled Mexico, following his own legal problems involving a car accident and altercation with the son of a government official.  Burroughs decided to skip bond and return to the U.S. He was convicted, in absentia, of homicide and given a two-year, suspended sentence.

Porträt des Thomas Morus,
by Hans Holbein the Younger
For those who love their history (and who watched the first season the The Tudors on Showtime), St. Thomas More is next.  I don't know about saintly, but he was certainly a man of strong convictions.  (This Catholic encyclopedia brushes over More's burning of Protestant heretics, while concentrating only one More's writing and so-called martyrdom.)  Writers will know More as the man who coined the term "utopia," creating the ideal island in his 1516 book of the same title.  But More lived in slippery times.  He went from sending Protestants to their firey death, to losing his life for refusing to sign the Act of Succession, under which King Henry VIII left the Catholic Church and named himself head of the Church of England.  He was beheaded on July 6, 1535.

O. Henry as clerk at
First National Bank of Austin
O. Henry.  To me, he is the man who wrote a thousand beautiful tales.  My father read The Gift of the Magi to me as a child, and the twists and this man's work will always be like a John Singer Sargent painting--a man who could make even a beggar look virginal and appealing.  But good O. Henry wasn't all poetic descriptions and rose-colored glasses.  In 1896, the First National Bank of Austin (Texas) was audited, and federal officials charged the writer and young journalist with embezzlement.  Henry (William Sydney Porter) fled to New Orleans, then Honduras, where he coined the term "banana republic" (source).  While he may or may not have been a criminal, Henry was certainly honorable.  In 1897, he learned his wife was dying, so he surrendered to the court in Austin.  He was found guilty and sentenced to five years at the Ohio Penitentiary.  "While in prison, Porter, as a licensed pharmacist, worked in the prison hospital as the night druggist" (source).

Okay...I know I promised you Emile Zola, Voltaire, Robert Lowell, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Oscar Wilde.  But this post has grown long enough...and I keep finding more great information!  So I will have to break this theme into two (or more) posts.  Tune in next time for...the rest of the story!


  1. Michele, you sure know how to hook a reader. I am loving this series of yours.


  2. Michele - Thanks for all of this absolutely fascinating information! I think that writers have to be willing to take risks. Of course, a lot of writers don't get arrested or jailed, but it doesn't hurt to be open to taking risks with our writing. I think that's what makes the creative process "flow" sometimes. And as an aside, The Gift of the Magi is one of my favorite short stories.

  3. Very informative and interesting blog. Thanks for sharing. Looks like a lot of work went into this post. Thank God for freedom of speech we have today in America.

    Stephen Tremp

  4. Well, thanks, Mary. Technically, this one was off subject, but it fit so well in I couldn't resist!

    Margot- Thank God we don't all end up in jail! But look at those in countries like Brazil or back in the USSR and think again...

    Stephen- Amen to that!

  5. This was a wonderful post. I enjoyed learning these juicy details, and I remember listening to Paul Harvey and the rest of the story on my way to school in the morning. :)

  6. You writers are quite a bunch... But you don't take it lightly and you certainly don't take it lying down. And even when authors don't commit a crime there's the loophole... You can put murder and money laundering into your writing and let your own psyche create that scenario with it's repercussions like Kafka.

  7. Well, you can talk about the other in another post. I love these history lessons. I didn't know many of who you were referring to but nonetheless, exciting.


  8. Wow! What an informative and interesting post!

  9. Thanks for the history lesson. I'll try to stay out of jail and beat the odds!

  10. What a great post! I love the history and the intrigue you create in your telling.

    I've not been putting the good stuff on my blog lately as I'm in a dash to finish the draft of a story that's taken over my brain.

    Keep up the great posts.

  11. can't wait to hear more about my dear Oscar Wilde!

  12. Summer- Me, too! Our parents must have been on the same wavelength.

    Jeaners- Kafka could make crime out of a cheese sandwich...or an insect.

    Clarissa- I love learning knew things, too!

    Crystal- Thanks! Glad to hear from you again!

    Alex- I wouldn't want to be writing about you in one of these in a few years...

    J.L.- Ooohh! Can't wait to hear more about your draft! And thanks.

    Dez- He is fabulous, isn't he?

  13. This post is really interesting. I love the idea of being a rebel - with or without a cause.

    I knew about Zola and the Dreyfus Affair, but I'd never heard the O. Henry or Paul Harvey stories.

    Hee - I still use the J'accuse line around here.

  14. Lisa- O. Henry and Paul harvey were new to me, too. And I love that line! Zola another time. :)

    Thanks, Elizabeth!

  15. Fascinating post, Michele. And I'm happy to say that I'm one author who has never even been arrested. :)