I was broke. I had not eaten for three days.
I had walked the streets for three nights. Every fiber of my being, every precept of my home training protested against and would not permit my begging.
I saw persons all about me spending money for trifles, or luxuries. I envied the ragged street urchin as he took a nickel in exchange for a newspaper and ran expectantly to the next pedestrian. But I was broke and utterly miserable.
Have you ever been broke?
Have you ever been hungry and miserable, not knowing when or where you were going to get your next meal, nor where you were going to spend your next night?
Have you ever felt as though the world itself were against you and that a mistake had been made by Nature in inflicting you with life?
Charles Donald Lowrie (1875–1925) left his Massachusetts home as a young man and hopscotched westward working as a stenographer, construction camp timekeeper, bookkeeper, railroad laborer, and traveling salesman before finding himself in Los Angeles starving and broke save for a vandalized nickel in his pocket – a nickel that would decide his fate: “heads” meant crime, “tails” meant suicide. What he couldn’t know as he flipped that coin was that fate would soon deliver a 15-year “jolt” in San Quentin State Prison and a wildly unique literary career. Pursuing his burgeoning authorial ambitions by lamplight in his prison cell, Lowrie’s work caught the eye of a San Francisco newspaper editor who assisted with his gaining parole after ten years. The editor immediately put him to work and My Life in Prison was birthed to overnight success, kickstarting the American prison literature genre and instigating nationwide prison reforms still in effect today.
"Written so simply yet with such power and such complete and evident sincerity."
“When Donald Lowrie finished the last chapter of My Life in Prison it seemed fairly certain that … a notable book had been accomplished, fully justifying the sensational success it achieved overnight.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Written so simply yet with such power and such complete and evident sincerity.” —Thomas Mott Osborne, Within Prison Walls
“Some works boil down to, ‘I’m here because of my social class,’ a category tellingly defined by Donald Lowrie’s 1912 classic, My Life in Prison, which presaged some of the writings of the black radicals of the 1960s and 70s.” —Ralph Blumenthal, The New York Times
“Donald Lowrie, whose writings did for American prisons what John Howard’s did for those of England.” —Jack Black, You Can’t Win
“His first contribution consisted of an installment of his studies, My Life in Prison. At once he attracted attention. As he went from day to day the interest grew. In two weeks he was the sensation of San Francisco. In the street cars, on the ferries, in trains, everywhere in public, people were eagerly reading Donald Lowrie, and discussing his revelations. The work revealed fine observation and dramatic power. As it went from week to week without a break, the marvel grew. Here was a new writer that could publish an interesting article each day for six days in the week. In a few weeks Donald Lowrie printed more than one hundred thousand words. The success of the articles made Donald Lowrie a notable figure not only in San Francisco but throughout California.” —John D. Barry, The American Magazine
“My Life in Prison by Donald Lowrie, a book which greatly accelerated the movement for prison reform.” —Bruce Bliven, The New Republic
“Others have lifted, with more or less success, the gloomy pall from prison life —— Dickens, Reade, Galsworthy, Hopper, Bechdolt in ‘9009,’ Oscar Wilde in the haunting horror of ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol,’ but, except in the case of Wilde’s immortal poem, it has been a stranger to its miseries who has hitherto attempted to describe what actually takes place from day to day in the dark house where the State undertakes to punish crime. Donald Lowrie’s story is thus unique in the literature of criminology.” —The New York Times
“But we need not go so far afield as England or Australia, nor back to 1854 or 1870 for prison cruelties. Read Donald Lowrie’s My Life in Prison and see what horrors were occurring in San Quentin prison up to within a few years.” —Thomas Mott Osborne, Society and Prisons
“Donald Lowrie shows us creatures extraordinarily like ourselves, living the abnormal life of a prison . . . He presents one man after another to us so clearly that we feel actually acquainted with them.” —Mary Alden Hopkins, The Publishers’ Weekly
“The book combines the intrinsic interest and the absolute convincingness of what is called a ‘human document,’ with the intangible yet awakening influence of a message from a prophet—the kind of prophet who, having descended into hell and risen again, is able both to tell us the facts and feelings that make up the inferno and to point confidently and convertingly toward the blessed opening of a way out.” —J.B. Kerfoot, Life Magazine
“With swift, acid sincerity Lowrie describes his sensations in his one and only attempt at housebreaking. The psychologic analysis he makes of himself recalls in its power [Robert Louis] Stevenson’s ‘Markheim.’ Donald Lowrie may not be a man of genius, but he is a cruelly keen observer of details. He has suffered, and his narrative quivers with compassionate indignation. He has lived in an atmosphere of overwhelming tragedy —— tragedy which society is responsible for creating.” —Coningsby Dawson, Everybody’s Magazine
“A book of such absorbing interest as this can do more than many volumes of penological discussion for the improvement of our penal system.” —The Green Bag
“Donald Lowrie’s My Life in Prison is a narrative of real prison life by a real convict, and it extends, not over one week, but ten years. As giving an insight into the life of the convict in most of our prisons the book is unequaled. Lowrie was a keen observer and no phase of prison life has escaped his observation —— the cells, the workshops, the treatment of women inmates, the man condemned to death and the manner of his execution, solitary confinement, the bullying of prisoners, their torture by the jacket, the light and dark sides of the inmate’s character, all of these and may other things are set forth in a manner which throws the ordinary novel into the shade. There are men who are strong enough to pass through such an experience without being ruined morally, mentally, and physically, and who can use their experience for the benefit of their unfortunate fellows. Mr. Lowrie is one of these. It should be the duty of everyone who feels the least interest in humanity and who is not indifferent to his own responsibilities as a citizen, to read this book from beginning to end.” —The O.E. Library Critic
Published: July 24, 2021
Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.5 x 1.08 inches
Weight: 1.39 pounds
Cover: Matte Finish
Interior: Black & White on Cream Paper
Pages: 430 (+2 POD)
Annotations: 153 Footnotes
July 24, 2021
8.5 x 5.5 x 1.08 inches