I should begin by pointing out that a mere four months is by no means enough time to get through PEN’s enormous archives at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.
In order to approach the archive, I had to work closely with Professor Rachel Potter, the PI on the project, to ascertain precisely the best way to tackle the archival holdings which comprise hundreds of archive boxes.
These boxes hold not only committee and meeting minutes but also financial records, personal and organisational letters between figures from H.G. Wells to Glenda Jackson, Salman Rushdie to George Bernard Shaw and countless other items of ephemera from theatre programmes to menus from PEN dinners.
We decided to concentrate primarily on working through the meeting minutes, year by year, which would guide us outward to other documents whilst making sure that we still viewed events within their historical context and in chronological order.
This would help to track the development of discussions around free expression but also the growth and influence of the organisation as a whole.
As Rachel had already made inroads into the earlier part of the archive, my job was to begin in 1951 with the congress in Lausanne, Switzerland.
This method allowed me to watch the history of the second half of the twentieth century unfurl through PEN, observing how its members, their debates and opinions echoed the debates taking place internationally.
I began then, with the aftermath of World War Two, with PEN dealing with UNESCO to address the ongoing paper shortage on a practical level.
On a political level, meetings at this time were also preoccupied with the difficulties of dealing with the re-establishment of Centres in formerly fascist countries and with extending membership to writers who had either sympathised with or who had not actively condemned the actions of fascist governments.
Clearly, for countries such as Czechoslovakia, Poland and France, it was unconscionable to allow collaborators back into PEN and this raised a number of thorny issues around PEN’s commitment to stand above politics and national sympathies.
There followed through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, significant clashes between Communist and Western centres, each citing PEN’s commitment to political impartiality, whilst trying to uphold PEN’s commitment to defend free speech, and to prevent the writer from becoming part of the apparatus of the State.
As a clipping from The Times discussing PEN’s 1959 Congress explains: ‘‘Behind a façade of unity there lies a deep rift among members of the club about the attitude the club should take toward the Cold War. This has resulted in a policy of “neutrality” and “coexistence”, to which the directors have given a distinct fellow-travelling tinge’ (The Times, 24 March 1959).
This attitude changes markedly throughout the 1960s and 1970s, which often see PEN taking a harder line with countries such as Russia and Hungary, who were persecuting writers who could be seen as subversive or critical of the Communist state.
PEN remained engaged in these debates until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the admittance of a mainland China Centre in 1980 and a Russian Centre in 1989.
Beyond the machinations of the Cold War, PEN addressed many other key issues of the times, speaking out about the use of atomic weapons, critiquing the Communist witch-hunts of McCarthyism in the US and even fighting Apartheid in South Africa.
It was also at the forefront of campaigning for writers’ freedom for almost a century, playing a key role in the cases of Boris Pasternak, Salman Rushdie and Ken Saro-Wiwa, among many hundreds of others.
There was even a spirited discussing in the 1990s about whether Nelson Mandela qualified as a writer and therefore could legitimately be given PEN’s support, unfortunately it was decided that this was something of a stretch and the organisation should concentrate their activities elsewhere. They remained vocal supporters of Mandela however, despite not themselves undertaking direct action to secure his release.
The incredible historical value of this archive has now been properly recognised and it is being fully-catalogued and, in places, digitised which we hope will help other researchers to tease out other areas of the archive.
I had no time, for example, to look at the records relating to individual national Centres housed at the HRC (as well as in PEN Centres and former Centres across the world), or to investigate fully PEN’s activities with, for example, queer activism, feminism or postcolonialism.
There is much work currently being undertaken – as you can see from our growing research network – and much, much more still to be done.
The next stop for me and the rest of the team is the PEN Archive at the McFarlin Library at the University of Tulsa.
Do you work on any aspect of PEN’s work, on freedom of expression or on another writers organisation? Do get in touch.
If you would like to write a blog for our website about any of the topics discussed in this post, do get in touch.