Best-Sellers and Controversial Books in 19th-Century Prison Libraries

face of a prisoner

Nineteenth-century U.S. prison libraries included recent best-sellers. The 1848 Sing Sing library catalog included Richard Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast and Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales, both best-sellers published in 1840. In 1853, Clinton State Prison acquired Grace Aguilar’s Home Influence and Donald Mitchell’s Reveries of a Bachelor, best-sellers published in 1847 and 1850, respectively. A best-selling novel, Susan Warner’s Wide, Wide World, published in 1850, was available in the prison library in 1854. Warner’s 1852 novel, Queechy, was also in the prison library. Literary scholars now perceive a central theme of Wide, Wide World to be male dominance and female powerlessness.^ Lacking literary education, imprisoned men probably didn’t appreciate that theme.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first published in 1852. It achieved instant popularity. It was reprinted numerous times and went on to become the best-selling novel of nineteenth-century America. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was in the Clinton State Prison library within a year of its publication. It was in the Philadelphia prison library within two years.

Like everyone else, prisoners sought popular books. A prisoner in Sing Sing from 1896 to 1903 observed:

The convicts who make up the requisitions {for the prison library} have the cravings of all prisoners for some new thing, and they see to that no record breaker could pass without being caught up in Sing Sing as quickly as by the Booklovers or Tabard Inn.^

San Quentin and Leavenworth state prison libraries in 1870 and 1874 included 14% and 25% of best-sellers published from 1840 to 1869 and 1840 to 1873, respectively. The Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet’s library in 1874 included 50% of best-sellers published from 1864 to 1873. These prison libraries’ popular book holdings aren’t idiosyncrasies. The recommendations of the N.Y. Prison Association, issued in 1877, included 39% of best-sellers published from 1840 to 1876.

Nineteenth and early-twentieth-century prison libraries also included publicly controversial titles. In 1854, the Philadelphia County Prison library included Thomson’s Occult Sciences: The philosophy of magic, prodigies and apparent miracles, Defoe’s History of the Devil, and Fowler’s Phrenology. Including such works in a public library probably would have been controversial. Darwin’s Origin of the Species was in the California State Prison library in 1870. Darwin’s work wasn’t particularly controversial in the nineteenth century.^ But some biblical believers would have been offended if they were publicly primed to take offense at it.

Prison libraries held books that public libraries refused to stock. In 1881, an American Library Association (ALA) survey of public libraries found fourteen authors whose book were not allowed in more than 20% of public libraries responding to the ALA inquiry. In 1883, the Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet held a total of 231 volumes from those authors. The Illinois State Penitentiary prison library included books from twelve of the fourteen authors excluded from more than 20% of public libraries. A prisoner held in Sing Sing from 1896 to 1903 observed:

the {prison} library, never having had the guidance of a chaplain who knew enough to make up an index expurgatorius, has been selected by prisoners who knew books well. As a result, there are some curious books contained in its catalogue, some that a rigid librarian would keep in locked cases. This is true of some French and German books, as you may guess when I say that my first acquaintance with Le Peau {Balzac’s La Peau de Chagrin} was made in a book of collected stories, labeled Gems of French Literature, and belonging to the prison library. I might have sought it in vain through the book markets of New York, certainly since the days of the Comstock Vice Society.^ ^

Lack of funding for censors is a buttress of free thought.

Some authorities expressed concern about prison library holdings. In 1912, a study of twenty-three prison library catalogs from prison libraries across the U.S. found that prison library fiction lists included many detective stories and “inferior fiction.” Inferior fiction meant books such as the work of Mrs. E.D.E.N Southworth. The study’s author soberly observed, “it would seem dubious policy to furnish stories of crime which suggest ingenious plans and point out the weak spots in the method of their execution.”^ In his highly influential 1931 book, correctional-education leader Austin MacCormick saw a need to reiterate this expert policy advice:

As for crime and mystery stories, it is undoubtedly wise to reduce them to the minimum in the prison library. Our efforts should be directed toward substituting interest in adventure books dealing with the hazards of exploration, the sea, and pioneer life for interest in the detective stories and crime stories which the average citizen outside the prison reads constantly and which the prisoner wishes to read.^

Controlling prisoners’ reading was part of the MacCormick’s progressive effort to promote prisoners’ reformation.

Prisoners were interested in salacious books. The study of prison library catalogs in 1912 declared:

Elinor Glyn’s Three Weeks is probably not on the shelves of a single American public library, but it is listed in three of the twenty-three {prison library} catalogues examined. … Fiction of inferior merit, with characters and situations often at variance with real life, fills page after page {of the prison library catalogs} with such alluring titles as Wife in Name Only, Between Two Sins, Maid, Wife, or Widow, A Woman’s Temptation, The Changed Brides, and A Beautiful Friend.^

For selling Elinor Glyn’s Three Weeks to the public in Massachusetts in 1908, a publisher was convicted of selling a book containing “obscene, indecent, and impure language, manifestly tending to corrupt morals of youth.”^ The 1912 prison library study declared:

Books which emphasize sensual detail are surely not good mental food for men taken out of normal human intercourse and shut away with their thoughts, yet the prison libraries contain the novels of the modern “realistic” writers: Lucas Malet, Robert Herrick, Robert Hichens, David Graham Phillips, Robert W. Chambers, George Gibbs, and many others.^

Men in prison are deprived of normal human intercourse with women. Books could help prisoners to escape imaginatively their sensual deprivation.

Prison library holdings counter-intuitively are less prone to public scrutiny than are the holdings of public libraries. Examining the books in a prison library is much more difficult for most persons that is examining the books in a public library. Consider twentieth-century Soviet prisons:

The most paradoxical feature of the prison libraries was that they were not as thoroughly expurgated as other Soviet libraries, whose stock was sifted over and over again. … “State security … forgot to dig in its own bosom,” says Solzhenitsyn. Thus in Lubyanka one could read Zamyatin, Pilnyak, Panteleimon Romanov, and Merezhkovsky. … There were even books in foreign languages in the prison libraries.^

Prisoners reading politically suspect books in the twentieth-century Soviet Union and prisoners reading morally disreputable books in nineteenth-century America were mainly political problems. Those were political problems difficult for the public to perceive. Today, what prisoners read tends not to be regarded as being seriously harmful. The public sense of what’s appropriate for prisoners to read probably matters more than the actual effects of prisoners’ reading.

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