More Than 60 Items and Artifacts Celebrate Writers, Literary Culture, and Historic Steps Toward Inclusion

(NEW YORK) — PEN America marks a century of work at the forefront of the ever-urgent fight for free expression with PEN America at 100: A Century of Defending the Written Word, which presents letters, photographs, posters, awards, and other artifacts dating from 1922 to the present. On view at the New-York Historical Society, PEN America at 100 traces the evolution of the organization from a dining club formed by a handful of well-known writers into a literary and human rights organization that unites authors in defense of the fundamental freedoms to write, read, and speak. Spotlighting consequential debates and dramatic moments in history that continue to reverberate today, PEN America at 100 offers a jumping-off point for conversations about the First Amendment, censorship, government intrusions in the free flow of information, digital and press freedom, and the exclusion, silencing, and persecution of writers and journalists.

With more than 60 objects, PEN America at 100 presents a chronological survey tracing the human rights and literary concerns that have engaged PEN America’s writers in activism and literary community through the decades. It captures celebratory moments among literary luminaries who have played roles in PEN America’s history; Ralph Ellison, T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, Jack Kerouac, Susan Sontag, Sinclair Lewis, Dorothy Thompson, Jerzy Kosinski, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, John Steinbeck, Chinua Achebe, James Baldwin, Arthur Miller, and Eleanor Roosevelt (who invited a PEN America group to the White House in 1939) mingled with current-day giants of the written word including Margaret Atwood, Ayad Akhtar, and many others.

PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel, said, “PEN America at 100 opens a remarkable window into PEN America’s century-long effort to unite writers in defense of the freedoms that underwrite a flourishing society and culture. PEN America has a long legacy of mobilizing literary luminaries to contest the forces of censorship, silencing, and the stifling of thought. This show helps bring to light the dilemmas and tensions that have marked that effort, including battles over whose voices are heard and who determines what is written and read. It is a story of productive struggle that sheds essential light on pressing present day battles against new threats to expressive rights.”

Curated by PEN America Trustee Bridget Colman and Lisa Kolosek, the collection on display through Oct. 9 is based on their research in PEN America’s archives at Princeton University Library and at the Ransom Center at University of Texas at Austin; St. Lawrence University; and Beinecke Library at Yale.

Highlights include:

  • A 1930 photograph of the PEN dinner in which Sinclair Lewis, who had been named to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature that year, was guest of honor and challenged the audience to take their writing more seriously, saying, “Unless we do that we will have no place in the world.”
  • A 1956 letter from Ralph Ellison to PEN America President Marchette Chute discussing a recent PEN International Congress in London where one of the social events, “for those so favoured,” was a presentation to the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret.
  • A 1957 note from poet and novelist Jack Kerouac, in which he wrote that he was “still living on a ‘beat’ basis” and deferred payment of his PEN America membership dues until receipt of his royalties.
  • A 1966 photograph taken in a Greenwich Village bookstore before a PEN International Congress in New York that illustrates the camaraderie between playwright Arthur Miller and Chilean writer, poet, and diplomat Pablo Neruda, developed despite the very different political, social and literary worlds they occupied. Neruda had been banned from the United States for over 15 years due to his political views.
  • A 1973 letter from beat poet, activist, and longtime PEN America board member Allen Ginsberg to PEN Vice President Henry Carlisle, in which Ginsberg relays information about government cases against Timothy Leary and John Lennon.
  • A 1986 photograph of Karen Kennerly, Starry Kreuger, Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, Meredith Tax, and Betty Friedan, gathered at that year’s International PEN International Congress, where women mobilized to challenge their underrepresentation (just 14% of the guests of honor were women).
  • A photograph of Susan Sontag, E.L. Doctorow, Gay Talese, and Norman Mailer from a 1989 event that PEN America organized to spark action by the literary and human rights communities on behalf of author Salman Rushdie, who then was the focus of a fatwa from Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini calling for his death. Rushdie became PEN America’s president in 2004.

Bridget Colman, the curator, said her research at Princeton and other collections turned up historic finds from both literary and activist perspectives, along with unforeseen discoveries, including a 1974 letter from Salvatore Vincent “Bill” Bonanno, consigliere of the Bonanno crime family, to Marie Behan on the PEN America staff, who had contacted him after reading his “Prison Life” article in The New York Times in 1973. He began writing while in federal prison. (Nearly 50 years later, PEN’s Prison and Justice Writing program offers resources and mentors for incarcerated writers nationwide.)

Colman said, “PEN began after World War I as a writers’ dining club in New York City with the goal of bringing writers together across national borders.” PEN America’s founding in 1922 followed by a year the creation in London of PEN International; PEN America is today the largest of some 125 centers that form this global network engaged in activism on behalf of free expression and persecuted writers worldwide.

According to Colman, the American writers, by establishing bonds of trust and camaraderie, quickly expanded this formative idea of convivial literary evenings across borders into human rights activism. By 1926, the PEN writers were confronting free expression concerns of the day, speaking out, and using their influence, whether for a writer who was being persecuted by a government abroad, for others who could not get visas to come to the United States, or for non-writers whose free expression rights had come under attack. “These writers became the human capital that inspired potent and meaningful advocacy for free expression,” said Colman.

Colman also noted that her research turned up “quiet” evidence from the archives that showed PEN America (originally an acronym for poets and playwrights, editors and essayists and novelists) was having an impact on literary culture through its role as a convener of conversations of the moment. As an example, she cited a casual letter by poet and author LeRoi Jones (who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka) from 1963 in which he mentioned attending a PEN America “symposium” focused on “The Problems of the Negro writer.” Soon thereafter, the Saturday Review of Literature would publish an article on this topic. “What was important to me,” said Colman, “was that PEN was bringing people together to discuss these important topics and by facilitating these conversations, it became a place for people to speak their truths, which gained wider attention.”

PEN America at 100 includes historical digital archive pieces (directed through QR codes) on the 1986 PEN International Congress, 1989 Writers in Support of Salman Rushdie, and 1989 Representations of AIDS in the Press, all offering more context and depth to the written materials and still photographs on display.

PEN America at 100 is the centerpiece of a yearlong celebration of PEN America’s centenary, which began with the 2022 PEN America Literary Gala on May 23 and continues through the 2023 gala next May. Also included in the commemoration will be a daylong public symposium in New York City featuring Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, and Dave Eggers, among others; and Flashpoints, a series of talks on free speech and civil rights in cities nationwide that continues with an event Thursday, July 28, in Birmingham, AL on how the mid-1960s were a turning point for the Civil Rights Movement and for the history of free speech.  

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About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

About New-York Historical Society

Experience 400 years of history through groundbreaking exhibitions, immersive films, and thought-provoking conversations among renowned historians and public figures at the New-York Historical Society, New York’s first museum. A great destination for history since 1804, the Museum and the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library convey the stories of the city and nation’s diverse populations, expanding our understanding of who we are as Americans and how we came to be. Ever-rising to the challenge of bringing little or unknown histories to light, New-York Historical will soon inaugurate a new annex housing its Academy for American Democracy as well as the American LGBTQ+ Museum. These latest efforts to help forge the future by documenting the past join New-York Historical’s DiMenna Children’s History Museum and Center for Women’s History. Digital exhibitions, apps, and our For the Ages podcast make it possible for visitors everywhere to dive more deeply into history. Connect with us at nyhistory.org or at @nyhistory on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Tumblr.

Contacts:

At PEN America: Suzanne Trimel, STrimel@PEN.org, 201-247-5057;

At Blake Zidell & Associates: Blake Zidell, Blake@blakezidell.com, 718-643-9052