A Brief Tribute to Famous Authors Who’ve Spent Time in the Pen

Author behind bars

From writers and thinkers who composed literary masterworks while enduring unjust detention, like Aung San Suu Kyi and M.L.K., to William Burroughs and Chester Himes, arrested for homicide and armed robbery, respectively, authors have a long history of legal trouble. Collected here are the curious and sometimes scandalous arrest stories of four famous writers—followed by an addendum of California-marijuana-specific arrest/convictions.

Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Earnest)

Wilde sparkled in repressive Victorian Society, occasionally wrote in French to avoid stringent regulations on subject matter acceptable for the English stage, and generally got away with conduct the Miss Manners of his day would’ve found less than decent. The immense charm of the Irish aesthete and man of wit may have protected him (at a time when his liaisons with young men were illegal, whether he paid for them or not), but what got him arrested and later convicted of “gross indecency” was, ironically, a lawsuit Wilde filed against his lover’s father, who had (accurately) accused him of sodomy. Unfortunately, the Marquess of Queensberry was really ticked at his son, and offered proof enough to the court that Wilde was, in fact, guilty of the love that dare not speak its name. Wilde went to jail in 1895, and after his release in 1897 lived his few remaining years in Paris—where admirers, undeterred by germs, leave lipstick kisses on his tomb.

Voltaire (Candide, Dictionnaire Philosophique)

Another playwright-philosopher with a renegade spirit—in prose, verse and satirical drama, Voltaire railed against restrictive and intolerant religious governmental institutions. He lived to age 83, wrote on many subjects, and was jailed several times. Voltaire’s first arrest was for criticizing the Regent King of France (along with the aristocracy and society in general). While imprisoned in the Bastille in 1717, Voltaire wrote his first play, Oedipe, an adaptation of Oedipus the King, which opened after his release in 1718 to great popular and critical acclaim. In 1726 Voltaire was arrested again after feuding with a young nobleman who essentially bought Voltaire’s conviction from the crown, and was exiled to Great Britain. Voltaire died in 1778, missing the French Revolution by about a decade, but his enlightenment writings greatly contributed to its ethos. 

Jack London (The Call of the Wild, White Fang)

The Call of the Wild author spent a lot of time in the rugged outdoors. He started working at a cannery at 13 and within a few short years had been employed as an oyster thief in the San Francisco Bay, sailed on a schooner to Japan, and worked in a mill and a power plant—all before traveling to the Yukon for the Klondike Gold Rush, which provided the inspiration for The Call of the Wild and White Fang. London’s arrest for vagrancy, while participating in a protest march in 1932, also came before his literary success, and was at least partially responsible for his turn to scholastic and literary pursuits. London described the “horrors” of being locked up in the Erie County Pen for thirty days as “unprintable” and “unthinkable” in The Road. In 2002, the creator of the TV series Oz adapted The Road for the New York stage.


Fyodor Dostoevsky (The Brothers Karamazov, Poor Folk)

In 1849 the young Dostoevsky had just published a couple novels and resigned his post as a military engineer to concentrate on writing full-time. He was hanging with friends, discovering socialism, maybe doing a bit of gambling—when he was arrested, along with fellow members of a progressive literary group. The government feared that Europe’s 1848 Revolutions would spread to mother Russia should these intellectuals be allowed to continue spreading their dangerous ideas. Seventeen years before Dostoevsky published Crime and Punishment, he was almost executed by firing squad for crimes far less grave than Raskolnikov’s. Thankfully, a last-minute letter from the Tsar commuted the death sentence, but Dostoevsky spent over four years in exile in Siberia. Like London and Wilde, he wrote about his incarceration. His semiautobiographical novel The House of the Dead was published in 1861, seven years after his release from prison.

And now, a brief and noncomprehensive tribute to writers arrested in California for marijuana possession, 1958–68:

Neal Cassady, The First Third

Arrested in 1958 for offering dope to an undercover agent at a club in San Francisco. Was released from San Quentin 1960 and in 1964 hopped on the bus with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.

Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Arrested for possession of marijuana in 1965. Faked a suicide, fled to Mexico, but eventually served five months in San Mateo County after returning to the U.S.

Timothy Leary, The Politics of Ecstasy

Arrested for marijuana possession in 1965 and 1968, went to prison in January 1970 and escaped in September. Eventually captured in Afghanistan in 1972 and was incarcerated in California until Governor Jerry Brown released him in 76.

  • Albert Sanchez Moreno

    You left out Miguel de Cervantes, author of “Don Quixote”. He was arrested several times, although he never committed a crime.