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“No Possessions but Rages”: Vindication, Salvation, and Early Kentucky Prison Letters

From: Biography
Volume 35, Number 4, Fall 2012
pp. 650-667 | 10.1353/bio.2012.0054



Testimonies of salvation, popular in contemporary faith-based prison programming, have a lengthy history in US prison literature. Yet accounts of private spirituality can as easily frame an epistemic insufficiency of topical avoidance, concealment, and falsification. To illustrate the pitfalls of such narratives the paper historicizes and analyzes the unpublished 1793–94 prison letters of John Shaw, held in a Kentucky jail for seven years on unknown grounds. By claiming a divine mantle in his letters, Shaw avoids confronting himself. While he writes that he has laid his “soul naked” before readers, in fact he does the opposite and obscures himself. This double motion—both to participate in the world and to hide from it—relies on fabulation and a vindication narrative based on Christian faith.

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