The memoir of Nathan Leopold, one of the twentieth century’s most notorious murderers.
It is not wise, in fact it is thoroughly unprofessional, to predict that any book will become a classic. But Nathan Leopold’s history of his thirty-three years in prison is a classic almost by definition. It, so seldom happens that a man equipped by education and temperament to write reflectively of his life finds himself spending that life behind bars that a book of this nature becomes a permanent addition to human experience. You do not get one of them in a generation. The most recent book of this quality that comes to mind is Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, and even that is in a different category–Koestler was not a criminal and he was confined, not in a, penitentiary, but in a house of terror. If you want to know what a twentieth century prison is “like”–that is, what it would be like to you if you were put away in one–you really have no choice but to read Leopold’s book.
Obviously, it is a strange, unnatural world, but the peculiarities may not be exactly what one would expect. In the first place, prison is perhaps the best place in the world for getting a lot of work done. If Leoopold had not killed, he would undoubtedly have become a successful lawyer, married and raised a family, probably associated himself with the social and political activities of his community. He has done none of these things: as substitutes he has put together a library of 16,000 volumes, operated a school offering the full high school curriculum plus the first two years of college, trained himself as a statistician and carried out original and important work in the prediction of parole behavior, become an expert x-ray, diagnostician and a registered laboratory technician, kept the books on prison disbursements running to several million dollars a year. He has learned twelve languages, he is conversant with advanced mathematics, he has studied philosophy, psychology and hieroglyphics, he can read and teach Braille. He can, of course, cane a chair (what old convict cannot?) and he has written a long, vivid, entirely fascinating, autobiography. It is apparent that Leopold’s mind and will are out of the ordinary, but he cites example after example of ordinary prisoners who master disciplines that would be quite outside their grasp in the open world. There is time unlimited in prison.
Then too, prison is a tolerant, friendly society. It does not offer a normal life, but there are circumstances–and Leopold’s was one of them– when it offers the only possible life. At the time of his conviction, he was regarded by the world outside as a monster, an object of fear and disgust; if he had been let into the streets he would have been hounded, perhaps stoned, to death. In the penitentiary he was a green hand, and strangers came forward to teach him the prison argot, to show him the use of a tinder box (matches were forbidden), to warn him against small infractions that would earn him the attention of the guards. From the point of view of prison society, Leopold had committed the right sort of crime. Men who break the law by their wits–embezzlers, for example–are shunned by the convict population as tricky and untrustworthy. Deeds of violence they accept as normal, and the fact that Leopold’s crime is one of the most inexplicable in the history of the American law did not trouble the inmates. Murder they understood and they accepted him.