Today we consider one of PEN’s most famous early members. It is no accident that E. M. Forster decided to join International PEN a month after the infamous 1928 London trial of Radclyffe Hall novel, The Well of Loneliness. Hall’s novel was banned as obscene in 1928 because of its sincere representation of a lesbian relationship. As a writer with first-hand experience of self-censoring his writing of gay sexuality, the Well trial, which split apart British culture, was important in Forster’s assumption of a more public intellectual role defending free expression.
Forster, who described himself as a liberal who has found liberalism ‘crumbling beneath him’, was insightful about both the importance of free expression to individual self-development and the dangers associated with the powerful censoriousness of popular opinion, particularly with regard to the suppression of gay and lesbian sexuality.
He became a prominent and active PEN member. His name was liberally applied to PEN’s paperwork from 1928 onwards. He was asked, but politely declined, to become London PEN President on 12thJuly, 1935, but did take over the reins briefly when, along with François Mauriac and Ignazio Silone, he formed part of a joint International PEN Presidential committee during 1946 and 1947.
He signed many key PEN protest letters and declarations, including the reaffirmation of PEN’s principles on free expression in 1935, the letter sent to General Franco in support of imprisoned writer, Arthur Koestler in 1938, the International PEN statement to the Press defending ‘freedom of conscience’ and the ‘liberty to speak’ against Nazism-Fascism on July 10th1940, and the collective English PEN letter to The Times in 1957 on behalf of imprisoned Hungarian writers, including Tibor Déry.
As well as signing letters and declarations, Forster also presided over the 1944 London PEN conference which celebrated the tercentenary of Milton’s Areopagitica, updating Milton’s argument for his criticism of the suppressive state mechanisms of both authoritarian regimesand modern democracies. He appeared as a prominent guest speaker at the 1945 All-India PEN Congress on literature in Jaipur, one of the largest literary congresses ever held in India, with writers and politicians such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan in attendance.