Firsthand accounts of confinement?
April 8, 2020 8:27 PM   Subscribe

I've been under various levels of quarantine for about three and a half weeks and it's gotten beyond frustrating. Some historical perspective from other people in extended, but not endless, confinement would be nice. The more tedious detail in each day the better!

I'm looking for: accounts of passengers on sailing vessels, cloistered pilgrims, transplants to extremely small communities, diaries of hostages, anything where the main perspective is from individuals effectively powerless to end the restrictions early. Any culture, any time period before 2019.

Already read: Anne Frank's Diary, Xavier de Maistre's Journeys Around My Room, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs.
posted by VelveteenBabbitt to Grab Bag (23 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Solzhenitsyn's One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, written after his own time in a camp, seems like the kind of thing you're interested in; Arthur Koestler's Darkness At Noon is also a novel about imprisonment rather than a first hand account per se, but it's informed by his experience of being in [Francoist] prison in civil-war era Spain.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 8:58 PM on April 8, 2020 [5 favorites]

Maybe not what you're looking for, but the French memoir Le Scaphandre et le Papillon, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," was written by Jean-Dominique Bauby, a journalist who rose to the position of editor at the fashion magazine Elle, when he had a stroke while behind the wheel of a car, and it left him with locked-in syndrome; his mind was active, and his body was inert except for one eyelid. He was able to start communicating with the outside world and composed the memoir from a hospital bed, assisted by someone who read the alphabet, one letter at a time, until he reacted to the correct letter. There's a French-language movie based on it that's worth seeing, starring Mathieu Amalric.

Sailing books, I love sailing books. Sailing Alone Around the World, by Captain Joshua Slocum, who is the first recorded person to have performed that feat -- that book is in the public domain. Tristan Jones is another solo-sailor who writes interesting things about his voyages; I think my favorite is probably Ice! in which he sails as far north as he can manage, some of which sailing is done by hauling his boat up on an iceberg and riding it northwards. Joseph Conrad's "The Shadow-Line" (public domain) is written by a half-mad captain on a very sick ship, and treads a bit into supernatural territory. A book I never could get into was Umberto Eco's "Island of the Day Before" which about the life of a man trapped aboard an otherwise empty ship at anchor; sheltered and well-supplied, but he cannot get off it (can't swim), can't go out in the sun (reasons). "Two Years Before the Mast" (public domain again) by Richard Henry Dana, Jr., is the true account of a Harvard Law student who took off 2 years to help his eyesight, sailing on a fur-trading vessel to San Francisco and back, in the 1830s(?). It's not common to see educated, literate men "before the mast," i.e. with the ship's crew instead of officers (whose quarters are 'after the mast,') so it's a rare perspective. Dana would go on to be part of the prosecution for Jefferson Davis's trial.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:39 PM on April 8, 2020 [5 favorites]

Life of Pi and Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor.

Also, Robinson Crusoe, and Abel's Island.
posted by ipsative at 10:04 PM on April 8, 2020

Nicholas Johnson's Big Dead Place (about Antarctica)
posted by praemunire at 11:07 PM on April 8, 2020

If you will consider 'prison literature' and want something award winning, ground-breaking and extraordinary, consider No friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish Iranian journalist and (ex)imprisoned refugee , under Australian jurisdiction on a Papua New Guinea island (now free in New Zealand).
The book was written on a mobile phone using WhatsApp and smuggled out of Manus Island as thousands of PDF files. It was translated from Persian into English by Omid Tofighian, Honorary Associate at the University of Sydney's Philosophy Department, who notes in his translator's note that "No Friend but the Mountains is a book that can rightly take its place on the shelf of world prison literature, alongside such diverse works as Oscar Wilde's De Profundis, Antonio Gramsci's Prison Notebooks, Ray Parkin's Into the Smother, Wole Soyinka's The Man Dies, and Martin Luther King Jr's Letter from Birmingham Jail." It was published by Picador in late 2018.
posted by Thella at 12:33 AM on April 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

Also in prison: The Fixer, Bernard Malamud.
posted by Melismata at 5:22 AM on April 9, 2020

Susanna Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush is not only a classic in the colonizer genre but will make you glad you have groceries. Content warning for colonialism etc.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:25 AM on April 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

Oh! Also Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:30 AM on April 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

The Jon Krakauer essay, On Being Tentbound, which can be found in his book Eiger Dreams. It's not totally firsthand, it's just about various aspects of being stuck in a tent during weather when you should be out climbing.

"If we had ham, we could have ham and eggs. If we had some eggs."

The same book has some other articles which might work, such as the account of his Denali attempt, which includes scenes of being trapped in a snow cave at 17000 feet with a bunch of sick climbers.
posted by bondcliff at 6:15 AM on April 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

If you're open to fiction, The Wall is great.
posted by jabes at 6:19 AM on April 9, 2020

If you haven't read Primo Levi's If This is a Man, I can't recommend it enough.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 6:55 AM on April 9, 2020

Polar literature is full of accounts like this! Here are some good ones:
Farthest North by Fridtjof Nansen
The Home of the Blizzard By Sir Douglas Mawson
South! by Shackleton
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 8:53 AM on April 9, 2020

THE LONG WINTER (Laura Ingalls Wilder)
posted by queenofbithynia at 9:10 AM on April 9, 2020 [3 favorites]

Yes Polar literature! Also Will Steger’s “North to the Pole” and “Crossing Antarctica.”
posted by Melismata at 10:10 AM on April 9, 2020

Since Shackleton's been mentioned, I've gotta offer "The Voyage of the James Caird," the lifeboat that the Endurance crew converted for an 800-mile Southern Ocean voyage from where the crew was stranded at Elephant Island, to South Georgia Island where a whaling station offered their best hope for rescue. 6 men in a small wooden boat travelling 800 miles of the worst ocean there is, followed by a 3-man, 3-day trek across the island with no ice equipment, a trip which is not generally considered survivable without equipment.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:20 AM on April 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

Oh, and then there is Byrd's Alone in which he tries to winter over in Antarctica and ends up almost killing himself via carbon monoxide and eventually has to be rescued.
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 12:37 PM on April 9, 2020

How about A Gentleman in Moscow about a man under house arrest in a hotel he cannot leave? It is also a really, really enjoyable book - one of my favourites of the last decade, certainly.
posted by urbanlenny at 4:13 PM on April 9, 2020

The Northern Irish and British Beirut hostages, Brian Keenan and John McCarthy, each wrote accounts of their years as hostages - An Evil Cradling and Some Other Rainbow respectively. They're very different in style even when they describe the same events - IIRC, Keenan's much more lyrical and reflective, McCarthy's more matter-of-fact.

More obscure, but fascinating, is A Dutch Castaway on Ascension Island in 1725, about a sailor who was cast ashore on the then-uninhabited island in the mid-Atlantic for "unnatural acts" with another guy on board. He kept a diary, which was found by sailors who arrived there later, and which tracks the five months he spent desperately searching for food and fresh water. It's harrowing - he didn't survive and struggled horribly - but an interesting read. You have to pick your way through a bit as the book as a whole is by an amateur (I assume) historian who wrote unnecessarily long, detailed footnotes on practically every entry, so you have to pick your way between those. Confusingly, Amazon appears to have another book on the same subject which gives a different name for the castaway, so he was either Leendert Hasenbosch or Jan Svilt, depending on who you believe.
posted by penguin pie at 5:31 PM on April 9, 2020

An Island to Oneself: The Story of Six Years on a Desert Island by Tom Neale
posted by lucien at 9:31 PM on April 9, 2020

You *have* to read The Yellow Wallpaper. It's a short story in first person that is nothing short of surreal, and horrific.
posted by SkinsOfCoconut at 12:24 AM on April 10, 2020

Response by poster: These are excellent. Thank you, everyone.
posted by VelveteenBabbitt at 7:48 AM on April 10, 2020

The Hiding Place, by Corrie Ten Boom - Nonfiction account of her experience in the Nazi resistance and concentration camps.
posted by Kimothy at 5:33 PM on April 10, 2020

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