Franklin opens a new area of American literary history: the literature of those social victims who became ""artists with words through their experience of being defined. . . as criminals."" Using historical summary and close textual analysis, he traces common themes of brutality and capitalist oppression in early slave narratives (especially Frederick Douglass') and in Melville's tales of semi-slave laborers--sailors. After Emancipation, the literature of slave and worker combine in the writings of chain gang and prison farm convicts, mostly black, confined under a system of state peonage. While white convict-writers like Malcolm Braly tend to blame themselves for their offenses, the sense of shared persecution--the theme that America itself is a prison for blacks--recurs in modern black convict-writers: Malcolm X, Chester Himes (a major writer, Franklin argues), Cleaver, Etheridge Knight, George Jackson, the Attica poets, and the collective story of the Panther 21. Franklin argues rigorously that this literature is no mere curiosity but goes to the heart of American culture: ""an expression of the interaction between two groups of people, one of European and the other of African descent."" He discredits the limited academic view of ""our"" (read white male) culture, ""our"" literature (""a mere colonial implantation""), and those formalist standards of ""literary excellence"" that place ""art"" above and apart from human experience so it becomes--like Moby Dick without whaling--""as abstract and boring as The Faerie Queene."" Bound to draw fire, this important work is informed by leftist social criticism, passionately argued, and eminently scholarly (Franklin, author of studies of Melville and science fiction, teaches at Rutgers); it includes the first extensive bibliography of American prison literature. It upsets traditional assumptions but is profoundly affirmative; there is an American literature and it is not about Gitche Gumee.