Yale University Press’ “Icons Of America” series operates on roughly the same principle as Penguin’s “Great Lives” biography series: short primers on a topic, skimming the the most fascinating surface history of Andy Warhol, the hamburger, or whatever else. At 184 pages, Stephen Cox’s The Big House hones in on a fascinating subject: prison as the site of a peculiarly American archetype. While the modern prison is generally small and rural, the image of prison as rows and rows of men navigating ridiculous levels of daily violence persists culturally. Cox gives a decent historical overview of how the actual institution of prison came about, how it functioned (or failed), and how it permeated the culture. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have time to do more than string together a bunch of facts and anecdotes with a smattering of insight. It’s an oddly twitchy, restless book.
Anyone writing about prisons for an academic press must, at some point, grapple with Foucault’s Discipline And Punish, with its perpetually influential theories about total control, surveillance, and panopticons. Cox is more interested in theory than speculation, and he dispatches Foucault rapidly several times: “Foucault may have regretted that panopticons (literal or symbolic) actually work… yet research inspired by Foucault’s own theories routinely produces proof that total control and surveillance are, and always have been illusory.” That out of the way, Cox is free to focus on The Big House. His most surprising facts are the reminders of how prisons were once prime tourist attractions, selling “salt and pepper shakers in the form of striped-suited convicts.” He thoroughly looks into the construction of huge prisons—often indulging in aesthetic grandeur at the expense of security and financial pragmatics—and the regimentation of prisoners’ lives. He steers clear of academic jargon, though a few academic idiocies creep in, like one chapter’s announcement that “The subject of the next chapter is sexual fantasies and realities” when all the reader has to do is turn the page to chapter five, bluntly titled “Sex.”
Still, better academic pedantry in the service of insight than the light glossing-over Cox indulges in: Later chapters are frequently nothing more than lists of riots and rapes. There’s insight too: In the best chapter, “Rajahs And Reformers,” Cox focuses on self-proclaimed maverick wardens who turned their prisons into microcosms of the Great Society, “each one playing Franklin D. Roosevelt in his own sovereign republic.” But Cox just can’t compress enough thought and history into the series format; the result is an entertaining but wan annotated Further Reading list.