Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Comparative Literature


Charity Scribner

Subject Categories

African American Studies | Comparative Literature | Criminology and Criminal Justice


prison, african american, literature, melancholia, confinement


This thesis explores the theme of melancholia in the writing of currently and formerly incarcerated African American men during the late 20th and early 21st century. Melancholia, with its rich history in literature from ancient times to the present, is discernable in the works of many people with prison experience. In their writing, melancholia is expressed primarily as a loss and as a disconnection with time, as well as an empowering creative force. The work of Jarvis Jay Masters and R. Dwayne Betts reflects the paradox of melancholia: just as it shows the depressive element of the condition, it also makes manifest the possibility of finding within melancholia an escape from reality as well as an outlet for cultural despair. In this form, melancholia opens itself up to hope for a redemptive future. This study argues that the community of writers to which Betts and Masters belong knows the mourning that comes as a result of a removal from society due to the United States’ “war on drugs”. At the same time, life in prison may deepen the sense of loss that is associated with racial identity, as the literary critic Anne Anlin Cheng argues. Cheng’s definition of racial melancholia, or the loss inherent in a minority population’s relationship with the dominant culture, is a useful tool for analyzing the works of African American prison authors. Nevertheless, this thesis asks about the applicability of Cheng’s concept to this literature, given melancholia’s underpinnings in classical psychoanalysis. Due in part to this question of applicability, an examination of African American works dating back to the slave narrative is fundamental to this project. I draw on Laura Sarnelli’s argument that African American authors have long engaged the productive, resistant power of melancholia in their own writing and I explore her analysis on depictions of the body in conversation with modern prison authors. One of the first written accounts of the melancholic loss of the body is the removal of personhood through slavery. The slave narrative’s common theme of confinement, a melancholic loss of space, is a thread that continues through the written documents of the Civil Rights movement and up to contemporary prison literature. However, it is important to discuss all African American texts, not just those that engage in a way that today many literary historians regard as political and aesthetic resistance. The full scope of African American confinement literature includes not just the slave narrative, but also the writing produced within the conditions of the US prison system. Prison literature needs contextualization within a larger body of work, and a series of essays edited by Tara Green lays the groundwork for this project. As is also explored in the essays that Green edits, in prison literature, melancholia is amplified by time. The carceral system itself creates a feeling of “stopped time”, and the incarcerated person’s loss of freedom is furthered by the dominant cultural group’s desire to keep the incarcerated population segmented and ostracized, so that even after a person leaves prison, he or she remains disconnected and cut off from society. This disconnection is articulated through two central examples of 20th century cultural theory, the work of Michel Foucault and Antonio Gramsci. Foucault conceptualizes the dominant culture as an all seeing, norm-enforcing prison. Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony serves as the fundamental rationale in regards to why the writings of incarcerated men and women must be heard and valued. This study argues that the marginalization of prison literature all but ensures that large cohorts of the American populous will remain segregated from the mainstream. As literary critics, we must read and publish these authors and enjoin them in our discussion so that a history of violence and silencing might yield to a culture of tolerance and social change.