When Catherine Dawson Scott took the decision to create International PEN, she immediately contacted John Galsworthy to see if he would agree to become PEN President. He was to steer the organisation from 1921 until his death in 1933.
The globally well-connected novelist, playwright, and essayist was pivotal to the organisation’s early success, as he persuaded an impressive array of writers to join as honorary members, including Rabindranath Tagore, W. B. Yeats, Joseph Conrad, Bertrand Russell, Selma Lagerlöff, Maurice Maeterlinck, Robert Frost, Maxim Gorki, Vicente Ibanez, Arthur Schnitzler and Benedette Croce, and spearheaded the establishment of centres across Europe and further afield, with early centres being created in Mexico City, New York, Toronto, China and South Africa.
Dawson Scott’s internationalist ambitions chimed with Galsworthy’s new liberal internationalism. Galsworthy had long been a defender of women’s rights and free expression, particularly in the theatre. His views shaped the structure of the PEN organisation, with its annual International Congresses, its protocols on membership and voting rights, and, significantly, its binding principles, which he penned in 1926, and succeeded in getting ratified at the annual congress in 1927. These principles, which included the declaration that ‘Literature, national though it may be in origin, knows no frontiers, and should remain common currency between nations, even in time of war’ and that ‘works of art’ are ‘the patrimony of humanity’ continue to form the basis of PEN’s international charter.
While Galsworthy’s initial activities on PEN’s behalf were focused on establishing new centres, he also shaped its early activism. In 1931, he issued PEN’s first declaration in direct response to a specific event. The ‘Appeal to All Governments’ called on governments to respect the rights of religious and political prisoners, and was designed to respond to and intervene in the League of Nations World Disarmament Conference which was held in Geneva in February 1932. ‘From time to time’, the Appeal stated, ‘the conscience of the World is stirred and shocked by revelations of the ill treatment, in this, that or the other country, of people imprisoned on political or religious grounds.’ This admonishment to the World that it respect the rights of the unfairly imprisoned was the first, but by no means the last, PEN appeal to the world’s ‘conscience’.