PEN America at 100: A Reading List
This year is PEN America’s 100th anniversary, and to celebrate, we have a new reading list highlighting members of the organization who have produced some of the most influential works of the past century. What began in the aftermath of World War I as an American literary club with the intent of providing intellectual community among poets, playwrights, editors, essayists, and novelists has evolved into an organization that is at the forefront of the global defense of free expression and the largest of the more than 100 PEN centers worldwide.
To track this evolution, PEN America has also curated an anniversary exhibit, PEN America at 100: Celebrating a Century of Defending the Written Word 1922-2022, which will be open from July 22 to October 9, 2022. We hope to see you there!
In this reading list, we are looking back at the works of some of the many people who made PEN America what it is today. In the books below, themes that are central to PEN America’s legacy, including internationalism, censorship, and human rights, emerge again and again, and demonstrate why PEN America was first established. They remind us that writers have been tackling these themes with passion, skill, and creativity throughout the generations.
The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt is a candid look at the life of a remarkable humanitarian and First Lady. The book traces Roosevelt’s eventful life, from her beginnings as the daughter of one of New York’s most influential families, to her involvement in her husband’s political career, to her work on international human rights after his death. Her story is not only remarkable because of her historic legacy but because of what it reveals about the astounding transitions that America went through during the twentieth century, spanning from the Gilded Age to the Cold War.
The Ways of White Folks steps away from Langston Hughes’ well-known body of poetry to showcase his lesser-known talents as a short story writer. This collection from the Harlem Renaissance writer depicts the interactions between Black and white people in America in the 1920s and 30s, painting a picture of the country as it was when PEN America was founded.
Death of a Salesman tells the story of an aging salesman who is forced to confront the shortcomings of his American Dream and realize the full extent of his denial and illusion. Arthur Miller, a previous PEN America president, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for this play, and it is highly regarded as a modern classic for its compelling story, characters, and inventive structure, since the play tells the salesman’s entire life story through events and recollections that occur over the course of 24 hours.
Regarding the Pain of Others follows Susan Sontag’s famous work, On Photography, and dives further into the subject of visual representation by exploring the moral implications of viewing cruelty and violence through the media we consume. It asks how this spectacle of suffering affects us as viewers, and what it means to care about the pain of others. The questions that Sontag raises are critical to the mission of PEN America and the work we do to raise awareness of injustices around the world.
The Bluest Eye is Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison’s acclaimed and frequently banned first novel, which provides a fascinating glimpse into the origins of her precise and poetic voice. Here, she uses techniques such as stream-of-consciousness and multiple perspectives to tell the story of a young Black girl’s obsession with beauty and conformity in a world that values whiteness.
Originally published in 2020 and written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and current PEN America president Ayad Akhtar, Homeland Elegies is a deeply personal work that explores identity and belonging in a post-9/11 world. This novel, which follows an immigrant father and his son as they navigate life in Trump’s America, was listed as one of Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2020.
A Collection of Poems by Robert Frost brings together the famous poet’s early works. Frost describes the details of rural life in twentieth century America with beautifully flowing language.
Many of his poems are considered classics of modern American literature, including “The Road Not Taken” and “Fire and Ice.”
Since its publication, The Satanic Verses has become one of the most controversial novels ever written. It caused Salman Rushdie to go into hiding for a decade, after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini condemned the novel and issued a fatwa calling for his death. Rushdie, a past president of PEN America, incorporates elements of magical realism and the life of the Prophet Muhammad into this highly contentious and powerful novel.
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