Today’s PEN member is one of the unsung heroes of the organisation, labouring behind the scenes in the early days, he was instrumental to the shaping of PEN.
Hermon Ould served as Secretary of English and International PEN from the beginnings of the organisation until his death in 1951.
During Ould’s time PEN grew from a dining club for writers to an influential international organisation. The poet and dramatist gave up his own promising career as a writer to guide and fashion the fledgling organisation through its early years.
Although International Presidents often had limited time in which to serve, the International Secretary position was so onerous that once a candidate agreed, they often held the position until they were forced to withdraw due to ill-health (or instincts of self-preservation!)
In this role they provided a central point for Centres around the world, as well as acting as a secretary to English PEN, organising all of the international events and overseeing PEN’s dealings with international organisations such as the UN.
This meant that figures such as Ould and his successor David Carver had a very significant influence on shaping PEN, often over several decades, and provided a steadying influence and sense of continuity through the choppy political waters of the twentieth century.
Ould became Secretary to the English Centre and International Secretary at the Berlin Congress in 1926 (following a brief tenure by Dawson Scott’s daughter Marjorie Watts) – roles which he made his own and which ideally suited his personality: His friend Beatrice Webb said that Hermon’s greatest gift was for friendship and his ability to befriend but also to bring together writers from across the world was transformative for PEN.
It was Ould, working under various English and International Presidents, who spearheaded campaigns, such as the Refugee Fund which he and Storm Jameson launched in the 1930s.
At the end of that decade he helped to calm the waters between the pacifist sections of PEN and those who saw another war as essential in ridding Europe of the scourge of Nazism.
It was Ould who helped organise one hugely successful Congress and two conferences in war-torn London – the 1941 International Congress, the Coming of Age Conference celebrating PEN’s 21st birthday in 1942 and the Milton Areopagitica Conference (celebrating 300 years since this ground-breaking publication on early censorship and free speech) in 1944.
His wartime work was such that members fundraised in 1945 to hold a dinner in his honour and even raised money to give Ould a small bonus, a generous cheque to thank him for the countless extra hours he put in for the organisation during the war.
Writing to encourage members to donate and to attend, writer and PEN member L. Steni describes Ould as serving PEN with ‘single hearted devotion’ often to the detriment of his own literary career.
He goes on to point out that ‘that we have emerged from the years of conflict with increased prestige (and also augmented responsibilities) is due, for the most part to Hermon Ould.’
Ould’s letters show him as gatekeeper, organiser, friend, literary agent, confidant and much more to PEN’s many English members and to others across the world.
Ould served as Secretary to the English Centre and International Secretary until his death in 1951, which left the organisation reeling.
It was Ould’s close friend David Carver who stepped into his role, himself convinced that Ould was irreplaceable.
A true internationalist, it is no overestimation to say that Ould’s influence on PEN – due to his longstanding role and his unique personality – made him as influential a force in shaping the organisation as Galsworthy, Wells and Dawson-Scott herself.