As PEN’s World Voices Literary Festival kicked off with a gala at the Museum of Natural History, the literati came out to honor E.L. Doctorow and support the rights of writers.

What does it mean that during the worst economic times any publisher can remember, a time when houses are pulling back from hiring, publishing, and sponsoring events, the 2009 PEN Gala on Tuesday night was sold out—565 people at 60-plus tables at 10K-ish per table? It could be that there’s economic optimism in the air—but then, most of these tickets were purchased months ago. No, it may be that this is an era about more than a troubled economy: With Obama in the White House, and revelations about U.S.’s participation in torture and other war crimes that rob people of human rights, even the economically challenged are waking up to PEN’s message. While the event is almost always a popular one, last night’s presentation at the Museum of Natural History had a gravitas, and a relevance, that other less globally oriented ones lack: It’s one thing, maybe, to skip the National Book Awards, or the Poets and Writers benefit, but to pay your money to learn about, and potentially help jailed Tibetan publisher Paljor Norbu might be worth shaking the coffers. PEN’s agenda, after all, jibes far better with the ethos of the “literate and literary” (in the words of Penguin’s John Makinson) Obama administration than with the previous one. To wit: “The PEN Literary Gala honors members of the international community who risk their lives and livelihoods to promote and defend free speech,” according to the press release. Put another way, PEN “is about something important,” opines John Weis, himself of the Committee to Protect Journalists (an endangered species these days if there ever was one).

“By supporting the freedom to write, we’re also supporting the freedom to read.”

So, while it’s always a bit of see-and-be-seen at this annual event, there were some originally touching moments last night, most notably when Paljor Norbu’s 14-year-old granddaughter, Khachoe, resplendent in traditional Tibetan garb, accepted, along with her mother, the Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish award on his behalf. Or when Keith Sharman’s video interview with Liu Xiaobo, a writer who served as president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center from 2003 to 2007, was shown and Barbara Goldsmith accepted the award for him, because the writer is being detained in an undisclosed location in Beijing, and will likely soon spend some years in jail. And lest Yanks be forgotten, there was also an award to acclaimed American author E.L. Doctorow, “whose critically acclaimed work helps readers understand the human condition in original and powerful ways. ”Known for novels that depict both the glory and grime of 19th- and 20th-century America (Ragtime, The Book of Daniel, The March, among others), Doctorow’s prize—presented by Ron Marshall, the new Borders CEO—was stunningly both historical and American: a Mark Twain-edited first edition of a two-volume set of Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs.

Still, it’s hard to escape the more quotidian problems closer to home, and there were plenty of jokes about such current events as the state of the economy, of literacy and the outbreak of swine flu. Penguin Chairman and CEO John Makinson, acknowledged as a “man with deep pockets,”—for serving as publishing chair of the event to the tune of $100,000—but, in his brief speech he also declared himself a believer in the “absolute values” PEN embodies, particularly at this time. It’s “imperative” that the literate world support these values especially in times of “economic adversity,” he said, before going on to name some of the house’s international initiatives of late (e.g. the Penguin African writers series). In the spirit of kinship, he also allowed as how many other houses are working on similar international programs. It seemed a perfect way to echo what PEN president Kwame Anthony Appiah had said at the start: that by supporting the freedom to write, we’re also supporting the freedom to read. For whatever other lofty goals publishers may have by supporting PEN, the possibility of finding and reaching a wider readership is one that inevitably strikes closest to home.