The publication of the new book “The Graybar Hotel,” written by an imprisoned man, is not unprecedented. But as it’s happened before, it has led to press attention and moral posturing that focuses on the author’s criminal history rather than the work produced.
The author, Curtis Dawkins, is serving a life prison sentence for murder. With the release of his novel, the focus and fascination is with the crime that placed him behind bars.
Norman Mailer was infatuated with Jack Abbott, whose harrowing “In the Belly of the Beast” was published in 1981. The literary lion paved the way for Abbott’s release and began a series of shared TV interviews. Seeing Abbott’s discomfort, I called Random House and suggested that a man who spent had been incarcerated might need time to adjust to society before being under the spotlight. I invited him to visit The Fortune Society where he would meet other former prisoners going through the same re-entry ordeal. The invitation was rejected, Abbott noting, “I’m a loner.” The journey ended badly for Abbott and the young East Side waiter he killed in a brief and pointless argument.
A similar scenario was acted out years earlier when William F. Buckley championed former death-row prisoner Edgar Smith, and was instrumental in Smith’s release. Like Abbott, Smith achieved acclaim with his book, “Brief Against Death.” It was said that Smith wrote his way out of prison. On the day of his release, Buckley choreographed a news conference and he and Smith were on the networks’ nightly news.
The next morning, Smith, whom I taught in Rahway State Prison, called me and asked whether I could rescue him. Buckley had arranged a suite for him at the St. Regis, where he sat up all night, unable to figure out all the amenities at the luxury hotel. I got Smith to The Fortune Society where he set out a sigh of relief because he was surrounded by people who recognized his fears, transitioning from a regimented environment to a fast-moving society where he would have to make survival decisions, a factor denied in prison.
Smith and Abbott had more years behind bars than on the street and they had difficulty adjusting. Buckley and Mailer distanced themselves from their protégés as their institutional personalities overtook their free world personas. Abbott died in prison. Smith had a long street run before being arrested in California. He refused to appear before the parole board, choosing to live out his life in prison. He died in 2017.
Dawkins, clearly, is not the first prisoner to be a published author. Extraordinary literature has emerged from behind those walls, from Jean Genet to the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and a list that would include Eldridge Cleaver, George Jackson, Malcolm X, Piri Thomas, Tommy Trantino and Edward Bunker.
There is a vast difference between the ability to write and the ability to survive, or even function on the outside. It is unfair to judge any book because of the author’s history. Who knows the peccadillos by Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, or Edith Wharton. It is wrong to assume that prisoners who write well have confronted the demons that led them to prison or to self-medicate to ignore life’s downward spiral. In the solitary of a cell, inmates can withdraw into their own imaginations. The writing can be an escape from the environment, one which nurtures alienation and violence.
Dawkins’ talent is to be celebrated but the danger of celebrity could be a reason for a gifted writer to ignore the inner conflicts that led him to a prison.
David P. Rothenberg is founder of The Fortune Society in founder of New York City, a re-entry agency.