#100PENMembers No. 53: John Lehmann

John Lehmann, editor, publisher, writer was a central figure in British literary life and an active member of English PEN.

His sister, the writer Rosamund Lehmann was President of English PEN but John carefully avoided taking on official PEN duties, although he did serve on the Writers in Prison Committee.

Photo: National Portrait Gallery

Lehmann founded New Writingthe London Magazine and after a spell with Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press, his own press, John Lehmann Limited. He also wrote poems and a number of memoirs. Perhaps the most intriguing and notable of his writings was his novel, In the Purely Pagan Sense (1976), a thinly-disguised memoir of the life of a gay man coming of age in early twentieth century Britain. Its unselfconsciously joyous account of homosexual love and lust, of sensual pleasure and the pursuit of true and lasting love through Berlin, Vienna and wartime London, makes it a little-known classic.

He was an attendee of the 1941 wartime congress in London, when almost 800 guests from across the world braved the conditions of London in the Blitz to demonstrate the solidarity of the world literary community in the face of Nazi brutality and censorship. As Lehmann himself wrote in his autobiography, it was ‘a demonstration against the Axis not merely because it was held in battered London and attended by so many distinguished writers from the free world, but also because the refugee writers from occupied Europe who were settled in England used it to send out their challenge to the military masters of their homelands.’

Lehmann was a regular contributor to the PEN Refugee Fund and even set up – as an offshoot of the hugely successful New Writing – a journal for refugee writers, the rather-short-lived Daylight which was integrated into New Writing after its first issue.

He also worked for the Ministry of Information in Britain, reporting back on his liaisons with Russian publishers and editors.

This connection to Russia also played out in Lehmann’s connection to PEN. Lehmann was part of the committee that helped to transferArthur Koestler’s Fund for Intellectual Freedom, designed to support anti-Communist writers in Soviet countries and to help them to publish in the West, over to PEN in the early 1950s. 

Lehmann was also a Vice President of another organisation, COMES Comunita Europea Degli Scrittori [European Writers Community] which was dragged into debates between PEN and the Soviet Writers Union in 1964. In this instance, Alexei Surkov General Secretary of the Soviet Writers Union and regular correspondent of David Carver, had accused PEN in a newspaper article of censoring and ostracising their Soviet members and of being ‘out-of-work Trotskyites, turncoats from Communist parties, renegades of every description, and suchlike rabble’, in league with the CIA to conspire against socialist countries. He cited COMES as his allies in this attack, quoting Giancarlo Vigorelli, the leader of the organisation, as telling his committee that ‘Anti-Communists are just as bad as fascists and Nazis’ and calling for them to be expelled from COMES. Lehmann, as a longstanding member of both COMES and PEN was called in to invigilate between the two organisations. He facilitated several meetings between the two which led to a closer relationship, particularly when it came to protesting the mistreatment of Soviet writers. Lehmann helped to coordinate, in this case, collaborations between the two organisations in the cases of Sinyavsky and Daniel and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Lehmann remained an active PEN member until the end of his life.

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