The 1920s: PEN’s Founding and Early Years
Throughout the year, we’ll be celebrating PEN’s 90th anniversary by looking at the key events, cases, and characters from the organization’s history. As part of our online retrospective, we’ll be placing those benchmark moments in a monthly series of interactive timelines, broken down by decade. First up: the ’20s and the founding of both PEN International and PEN American Center.1921 Founding of International PEN Club Catharine Amy Dawson-Scott, a British poet, playwright, and peace activist, founds the International PEN Club (poets, playwrights, editors, essayists, and novelists) to foster international literary fellowship among writers that would transcend the ethnic and national divides that contributed to World War I and endured after the war’s end.
Guests at Dawson-Scott’s first PEN Club dinner party in London included John Masefield, Arnold Bennet, Joseph Conrad, George Bernard Shaw, and PEN’s first president, John Galsworthy, who spoke of an international literary movement that could serve as a “League of Nations for Men and Women of Letters.”
1922 Global Intentions Soon PEN clubs are established in Paris, Beijing, and other culture capitals of the world. Dinner gatherings provide the free forum where writers can share ideas irrespective of their culture, language, or political standing. John Galsworthy approaches Kate Douglas Wiggin and Joseph Anthony, an American writer and Managing Editor of Century magazine, to start an American PEN Club in New York City. Anthony, living in London at the time, writes to Alexander Black and Maxwell Aley asking that they organize the club. American PEN Club Founded The American PEN Club holds its first meeting for 40 members at the Coffee Club House in New York City. Among the first members are Booth Tarkington (the first President), Robert Benchley, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Walter Lippmann, Eugene O’Neil, Robert Frost, Sidney Howard, Willa Cather, Kate Douglas Wiggin, Joseph Anthony, and Alexander Black. [AFG_gallery id=’4′] 1923 A Question of Politics International PEN holds its first international Congress in London bringing together writers from 11 Centers. Attendees envision an international organization standing for free expression, peace, and friendship, that rises above the fray of national politics. Money Talks International PEN asks American PEN to host the second international Congress in New York City. Unable to raise the money necessary to pay for the gathering, American PEN asks members to begin paying dues. Initial cost of annual membership: $5. 1926 International PEN Congress in Berlin PEN’s fourth international Congress is held in Berlin, the first such international gathering hosted in Germany since the end of WWI. In a meeting with Galsworthy, several young German writers, Bertolt Brecht, Alfred Döblin, and Robert Musil among others express concern that the German PEN Center did not represent the true face of German literature. Playwright Ernst Toller insists that PEN can not ignore politics, saying, “it is everywhere and influences everything.”
Galsworthy presents three resolutions that form the foundation of PEN’s future charter:
1. Literature, national though it should 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 the PEN will at all times use what influence they have in favor of good understanding and mutual respect between nations.
1927 Lost in Translation At the PEN International Congress in Brussels, Henry Seidel Canby, the American PEN president, presents his idea of an “international clearing house” for translation to “make more efficient the flow of literary expression across language frontiers.” While the idea is enthusiastically received, funding and organization fall short. See more from PEN’s 90th anniversary celebration.