"The Big House" by Stephen Cox

The Big House Image and Reality of the American Prison Stephen Cox, Mark Crispin Miller

Icons of America
Publication date:
27 Feb 2015
Yale University Press
256 pages: 210 x 140 x 19mm
25 b-w illus.
Sales territories:

The complex and fascinating history of what it’s like “doing time” in the “Big House,” and its influence on the American imagination.

“The Big House" is America’s idea of the prison—­a huge, tough, ostentatiously oppressive pile of rock, bristling with rules and punishments, overwhelming in size and the intent to intimidate. Stephen Cox tells the story of the American prison—its politics, its sex, its violence, its inability to control itself—and its idealization in American popular culture. This book investigates both the popular images of prison and the realities behind them­: problems of control and discipline, maintenance and reform, power and sexuality. It conveys an awareness of the limits of human and institutional power, and of the symbolic and iconic qualities the “Big House” has attained in America’s understanding of itself.

Stephen Cox is Professor of Literature and Director of the Humanities Program at the University of California, San Diego. His most recent books are The New Testament and Literature, The Woman and the Dynamo, and The Titanic Story.

"A first-rate piece of writing...captures and renders novel and interesting a remarkable nineteenth century creation that lingers on in the twenty-first."--Andrew Scull, author of Madhouse

?Professor Cox has brought prison studies into mainstream intellectual discourse, something Foucault tried to do but failed.??Nathan Kantrowitz, author of Close Control: Managing a Maximum Security Prison

"Short and very well written, The Big House captures beautifully the complexities, dilemmas, horrors and permanent fascination of prison life. It is humane without sentimentality and realistic without cynicism."?Theodore Dalrymple, author of Life at the Bottom


"In this sociological history of American penology, historian Cox describes the 'Big House' era when state and federal prisons were sprawling structures that housed thousands of convicts. . . . Cox recreates the world-within-a-world of these institutions by addressing the reader directly, marching him through the prison gates, shaving off his hair, dressing him in striped garb, locking him in a spare cell and noisily regimenting him for work, meals and recreation. . . . [This] detailed and vivid historical study . . . provides a valuable look at the untold stories of life, sexuality, friendship and punishment in an overlooked corner?and microcosm?of American society."?Publishers Weekly