Outlined here are eight important moments that occurred during PEN’s first 25 years. All these and many others are treated in more depth and detail in the book PEN: An Illustrated History (Interlink Publishing, September 2021).
Above: English novelist and founding president John Galsworthy, PEN founder Catharine Amy Dawson Scott, and Hermon Ould.
October 5, 1921
CATHARINE AMY DAWSON SCOTT, a poet and novelist who was sometimes described as “unstoppable,” hosted the inaugural dinner of the PEN Club at the Florence Restaurant in London. More than 40 writers and guests enjoyed a six-course banquet in the chandeliered splendor of the main dining room. The urbane John Galsworthy, the first president, offered the toast. “We writers are in some sort trustees for human nature,” he said. “If we are narrow and prejudiced, we harm the human race. And the better we know each other […], the greater the chance of human happiness in a world not, as yet, too happy.
FIRST CONGRESS OF PEN INTERNATIONAL
Within a year, Paris, New York, Brussels, Oslo, Barcelona, and Stockholm all had centers, and by the end of the decade more than 40 clubs with a total membership of about 3,000 had been created across Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania, and the Americas from Mexico City to Shanghai, Warsaw to Cape Town. Argentina, Brazil, Ireland, India, and Japan joined early in the next decade.
From the start, the founding London club served as the hub around which each newly created center “goes as it pleases on terms of perfect equality.” To make this federalist ideal a reality, PEN established a tradition of annual congresses much like the League of Nations itself—London in 1923, followed by New York, Paris, Berlin, Brussels, and Oslo.
FOUNDATION OF THE PEN CHARTER
These were the PEN charter’s three founding articles:
1 Literature, national though it be in origin, knows no frontiers and should remain common currency between nations in spite of political or international upheavals.
2 In all circumstances, and particularly in time of war, works of art, the patrimony of humanity at large, should be left untouched by national or political passion.
3 Members of PEN should at all times use what influence they have in favor of good understanding and mutual respect between nations.
APPEAL TO ALL GOVERNMENTS
PEN did not retreat into quietism as the already fractious climate of the 1920s gave way to the more extreme polarization of the new decade. In 1931, after the rise of Nazism in Germany and fascism in Spain and Italy, the organization issued a strongly worded public “Appeal to All Governments”—in reality, to the 56 countries then represented in the League of Nations.
Written by Galsworthy and agreed to at PEN’s 1931 Amsterdam Congress, the appeal was designed to intervene in the League’s World Disarmament Conference, held in Geneva in February 1932. That conference, which took place against a backdrop of German rearmament, was a turning point in the League’s reputation as an effective champion of world peace. Writing on behalf of some 4,000 writers in 35 countries, Galsworthy declared: “From time to time the conscience of the world is stirred and shocked by revelations of the ill-treatment, in this, that, or the other country, of people imprisoned on political or religious grounds.”
1933 & 1993
The high-profile 1931 “Appeal to All Governments” marked a new departure for PEN, but it did not represent a major shift in its thinking. That happened two years later at the first Congress under Galsworthy’s successor as president, H. G. Wells. Over three tumultuous days in late May 1933, the ancient port city of Dubrovnik, then part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, became the testing ground for Galsworthy’s “new idealism.” The growing persecution of writers in Germany, the book burnings, and the Nazification of German PEN—all in the months immediately after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933—changed everything almost overnight.
Yet it was Wells’s own determination to uphold what he called the “liberty of expression” that gave a new, sharper edge to Galsworthy’s dream of a nonpolitical world “Republic of Letters” and to PEN’s early concerns about censorship. After the German center failed to answer questions about its recent conduct put by Hermon Ould, PEN’s long-serving general secretary (1926–1951), Wells insisted on giving the now-exiled Ernst Toller a platform from which to speak about the realities of Nazi rule. At that point, the German delegates walked out, joined by others from Switzerland, Austria, and the Netherlands.
Did this not mean that PEN itself was now meddling in politics, as the Germans and their supporters argued? Looking back on the events 60 years later, when Dubrovnik was once again host to the PEN Congress and once again at the center of a violent political storm, the Croatian writer and PEN activist Branko Matan confronted this central question head on: “The defenders of freedom in Dubrovnik [in 1933] had the same problem that the Croatian defenders of freedom have now, and also Bosnian, Kosovian, Macedonian, Hungarian, and even those few Serbian ones. To all of them the same thing is being said: ‘What you are telling us is all very nice, but what do you want us to do? To take sides in a political conflict, to support one political view against another in countries that are not ours?’ The answer is the same today as it was in 1933 (but not many seem to be listening): No, what we want from you is not a political, but a supra-political stand; we don’t expect you to say that this or that party or government are good, but to raise your voice against violence, killing, racism, genocide, and destruction of cities.”
APPEAL TO THE CONSCIENCE OF THE WORLD
These principles underpinned the 1940 “Appeal to the Conscience of the World,” a sequel to Galsworthy’s public declaration of 1931. Signed by prominent members of English PEN, including Storm Jameson, H. G. Wells, J. B. Priestley, Walter de la Mare, E. M. Forster, and Rebecca West, the new appeal called on writers of the world “to make clear to the people in your country that we with our Allies are not fighting only for ourselves, but for the belief we share with every man, of any race or religion, who holds that men should respect each other and minds should be free.”
The “Appeal” was released in June 1940, shortly after allied forces had been forced to retreat from Europe, leading to the mass evacuation of troops at Dunkirk. At a bleak moment in the war, the writers of English PEN wanted to reach out to like-minded liberals around the world to spread a message of solidarity and hope. Led by the indefatigable Storm Jameson, English PEN was at that point also helping to secure grants for refugee writers and providing assistance on many other matters through the Arts and Letters Refugee Committee, which it had founded in collaboration with other organizations. By 1941, the committee was host to seven PEN centers in exile: Yiddish, Austrian, German, Polish, Catalan, Norwegian, and Czech.
PEN AND THE UNITED NATIONS
The next major turning point in the evolution of PEN’s philosophy happened in the immediate aftermath of World War II when the American center put forward two resolutions at the 1946 Stockholm Congress. Both redefined the organization’s sense of deliberate purpose, linking it directly to the new international order taking shape under the auspices of the United Nations. One resolution committed PEN “to dispel race, class and national hatreds and champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace in one world.” These words reflected PEN’s new, more broadly humanitarian outlook. They were intended, as the resolution put it, “to rekindle the Hope in Mankind which these dark years of Terror have almost extinguished.”
The second resolution reaffirmed, but also radically extended, PEN’s commitment to free expression. Now no longer simply concerned with writers, it pledged “our adherence to the principle of unhampered transmission of thought” and, in a handwritten addition, “to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression.” The original wording also declared “for a free press consistent with public order.” The last four words were cut from the final version, however, given concerns about how the wording might be manipulated in Francisco Franco’s Spain.
PEN MEETS UNESCO
In 1948, PEN acquired special consultative status to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, and a year later the United Nations recognized PEN as “representative of the writers of the world.” For PEN, this formal association strengthened and consolidated the looser relationship it had forged during the interwar years with the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation (ICIC), the relatively underfunded precursor to UNESCO in the League of Nations.
For UNESCO, it represented a unique alliance. While all the other UN-related international associations—for the arts, theatre, and music—were creatures of UNESCO itself, PEN was and remained autonomous. In the immediate post-war years, the two organizations collaborated on a number of cultural initiatives, including conferences on the role of the writer in the post-war reconstruction and the dissemination of the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The partnership with UNESCO, which continues today, reflected a significant shift in PEN’s thinking in the wider, post-war world.
From PEN: An Illustrated History. Published by Interlink Books, an imprint of Interlink Publishing Group, Inc., Northampton, MA. Reprinted by permission.