Jack Abbott: From the Belly of the Beast
Radical Politics and the Elite
The early 1970s was a time of blatant political extremism in America. Hard-line politics of the most excessive kind seemed to be everywhere. The Weathermen were one of many groups of student radicals who advocated a violent overthrow of the government. Members bombed several buildings including college dormitories, commercial enterprises and military installations. Outspoken activists such as Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and attorney William Kunstler maintained high media visibility and were frequent guests on television talk shows. Another controversial group was the Black Panther Party. They were a loose organization of young, militant blacks who had many run-ins with the law. The Panthers believed in an aggressive version of a black nationalism philosophy and members had a consistent talent for getting themselves into prison.
It was probably the lingering passions of the 1960s and the cynical hostility towards the Vietnam war that inspired so many extreme political views. Sympathetic authors wrote on this era in publications such as the Village Voice, The New York Times and The Nation. Books were published that hailed this new age of social awareness which included a certain tolerance of radicalism, especially on the nation's college campuses. These writers became part of an elite, intellectual group who were in a special category of modern authors. One of the most famous novels to come out of this era was Armies of the Night, written by Norman Mailer, the darling of American liberalism and favorite among the growing anti-war movement of the late 1960s.
All this media attention helped to cultivate a sort of public fascination with extremism that inspired a great deal of interest from Hollywood as well. Films such as The Graduate (1967), Billy Jack (1971), The Candidate (1972) and Coming Home (1978) emphasized the infusion of radical politics in American life and the cycle of cultural change. Even Mailer himself gave a spirited try at Hollywood and wrote several screenplays including Tough Guys Don't Dance (1987) and Beyond the Law (1968).
In the late 1970s, Mailer announced that he was preparing a book on a Utah death row inmate named Gary Gilmore. While Mailer was in the midst of doing research for his new project, he received an unsolicited letter from an inmate who was also incarcerated in Utah State Prison. The prisoner's name was Jack Henry Abbott, 33, then doing hard time for murder. Abbott wrote that he had been in state institutions since he was a boy and knew the ins and outs of the prison system like the back of his hand. He said that if Mailer was willing, he could act as a sort of in-house consultant for the Gilmore story. As a result, a vigorous correspondence between Mailer and Abbott began. In his descriptions of prison life, Abbott was brutally graphic. He spoke with the voice of experience and was able to provide an eyewitness account of what life was like for a prisoner of the state. "I felt all the awe one knows before a phenomenon," said Mailer later, "Abbott had his own voice. I had heard no other like it." The famous author became convinced that he had stumbled upon a new and exciting literary prodigy, one whose talents were too extraordinary to be ignored.