African American Studies at Beinecke Library

New Scholarship from the Library Collections

The Prison and the American Imagination by Caleb Smith
Yale University Press, ISBN: 9780300141665
Order from the Press; order from Amazon

Winner of the 2009 Samuel and Ronnie Heyman Prize for Outstanding Scholarly Publication or Research, sponsored by the Yale College Dean’s Office.

In The Prison and the American Imagination, 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.

Smith’s research draws on printed and visual materials found in the the Beinecke Collections, including photographs of the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, Mississippi, circa 1930-1938 (GEN MSS 639). This collection of 63 photographic prints, attributed to Estelle Caro Eggleston (1911-2002), depict personnel, prisoners, agricultural fields, and buildings at the prison. Many of the images depict group portraits of nurses employed by the prison hospital; an image depicts prisoners eating a meal by the train depot of Black Bayou, Mississippi. The photographs are accompanied by a certificate of merit for an honorable mention award earned by Eggleston in the first annual Newspaper National Snapshot Awards sponsored by the Eastman Kodak Company in November 1935.

Caleb Smith is Assistant Professor of English at Yale University.

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