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Death of a Liberal Icon

On February 10, 2002, Jack Henry Abbott--writer, killer, and cause celebre--committed suicide.

11:01 PM, Feb 18, 2002 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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THE FEBRUARY 10 suicide of 58-year-old Jack Henry Abbott in his jail cell in Alden, New York, passed almost unremarked. National Public Radio devoted five minutes to Abbott and Philip Terzian of the Providence Journal-Bulletin used his column to write an excellent essay on his larger significance. Otherwise, zilch. Young readers may even need to be told who Jack Henry Abbott was.

In 1977, Abbott, then 33, had spent all but six months of the past 21 years in reform school or prison, for everything from kiting checks to killing a fellow inmate. Hearing that Norman Mailer was at work on a nonfiction book about Utah killer Gary Gilmore ("The Executioner's Song"), Abbott wrote to offer background information on the mindset of convicts. Mailer was wowed. Abbott, unquestionably a man of considerable intellectual gifts and some writing talent, had run through whole prison libraries. He had a large vocabulary, even though he admitted (or bragged) that half the words he knew--including "college"--he'd only read and never heard pronounced. Mailer arranged to have Abbott's letters reprinted in the New York Review of Books and published as the memoir "In the Belly of the Beast."

In 1981, Mailer argued for Abbott before his parole board and obtained his release from prison. Abbott had other supporters--Susan Sarandon, for instance, who named her baby "Jack Henry" around that time--but none more ready with concrete assistance. He gave Abbott a research job and introduced him around literary Manhattan. Six weeks into his new life, Abbott got into an argument at the Binibon restaurant in lower Manhattan with waiter Richard Adan, who refused to let him use the employees' restroom. He challenged Adan to step outside, and stabbed him to death.

At a 1990 civil suit, the lawyer for Adan's wife said, "Jack Abbott is not a writer who killed. He's a killer who wrote." The evidence of that was everywhere, even in his writings. Only an intellectual could have missed it. As Rutgers professor Bruce Franklin, author of "Prison Writing in the 20th Century," told National Public Radio, "The response tended to be, 'Oh, you know, we thought he was such a nice person, and there's Norman Mailer, who thought he was such a nice person because he's written this book.' But it's not as though Abbott saw himself as a nice person. He's very explicit. In fact, I think it's quite central to 'In the Belly of the Beast' that he saw himself as a very dangerous and violent man who had been created by the prison system."

Abbott's murder of Adan was a watershed. Postwar America had granted social workers a big say in how criminals were treated and rehabilitated. Only with the spike in crime that began in the late 1950s did a constituency begin to form for law-and-order. That constituency found its voice in the 1968 presidential elections, when Richard Nixon made crime a national issue--and the two approaches to crime duked it out, in roughly even balance, for the next 13 years.

Until Abbott murdered Adan. At that point, public opinion shifted radically against the idea that society could "do more" to prevent people turning criminal. What more could society have done for Abbott? His prose, his women (he had two with him that night at the Binibon), his fame, his literary-world connections, his large royalty checks . . . everything that had argued for Abbott's release from jail when he walked into the Binibon argued for throwing the book at him when he fled it with Adan's blood literally on his hands.

America's prison population has quadrupled since then, and is now somewhere north of 2 million. Not without reason, a lot of writers, particularly on the left, have been inclined to describe our draconian system of crime and punishment as a "penal state." Norman Mailer has thus far shown an atypical modesty in refusing to brag about his role in bringing it about.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.