Book project: Objects of Correction

Objects of Correction:
English Literature and the Making of Modern Punishment

Beginning in the 1550s, ‘houses of correction’ opened a new era in England’s efforts to punish and reform its criminalized and poorest subjects, centuries before the penitentiary.  Although these early prisons were widely seen as failures, the ideas, arguments and stories they promoted about the means of correcting human character — what I call in this study the rhetoric of correction — proved an enduring success. By examining how writers like More, Shakespeare and Milton engaged with these institutions and these ideas, Objects of Correction offers a literary history of the making of modern punishment.

The connections were often surprisingly direct. London’s Bridewell, the first prison of its kind in early modern Europe, was originally overseen by a printer. Bridewell was located next door to Shakespeare’s indoor stage at the Blackfriars—a gallery bridge connected the two—and workshops in the prison made puppets for the stage. The first English translation of More’s Utopia, with its famous ideas about penal reform, was commissioned and promoted by some of the house of correction’s strongest propagandists. Milton pushed reading as a means of self-discipline while his associates in the Hartlib Circle re-imagined houses of correction as “Literary work-houses.”

By juxtaposing canonical texts alongside prison archives, Objects of Correction offers a new account of how the so-called “Golden Age” of English literature came to be defined against the carceral institutions of the day. At the same time, by working upwards from the practices, philosophy, rhetoric and even the syntax of early modern culture, Objects of Correction provides a history of “correction” itself, in the centuries before this objective became one of modernity’s most powerful obsessions.