French writer and critic Jules Romains was a significant and divisive early member of International PEN. He served as the organisation’s third International President from 1936 until 1941, but his activities during his tenure as President led to a damaging split within the organisation.
Romains is best known now for his sequence of novels Les Hommes de Bonne Volonté. When the Paris PEN Centre was established in 1922, Romains was one of its first members. He was an active and influential figure, who often spoke at PEN Congresses and was a vocal pacifist, free speech champion and French liberal. He was an early advocate for a stronger and more centralised PEN structure, proposing in the mid-1920s that the organisation create a ‘superior council’ of members responsible for policy. He also sought to increase Parisian power over PEN. At the Paris Congress in 1925, the French centre proposed that the International PEN Council have its headquarters in Paris; an idea that went down very badly with PEN Founder Dawson Scott. She got John Galsworthy to intervene, and the idea was dropped. If it had carried, she said, ‘It would have meant the end of the PEN’.
As the incumbent International President, it was Romains who stood up to oppose F.T. Marinetti’s chairmanship of a PEN Congress session in Buenos Aires in 1936; arguing forcefully that Marinetti’s Fascism was absolutely inconsistent with the pacificist and internationalist principles of the PEN Club. While his attack on Marinetti found a lot of support in the Congress Hall, he was also criticised for his own, often unexamined, culturally imperialist attitudes to PEN centres outside Europe.
During the Second World War Romains’ activities led to a dramatic fall-out with London PEN. In face of the Nazi advance on Paris, Romains fled, first to Tourain and then eventually to New York. He was lionised at the PEN World Congress of Writers that formed part of the World’s Fair in New York in 1939, with a special Dinner and Reception ‘in honor of Jules Romains’. However, he also launched PEN dramatically into the political arena, using the occasion to assert that the organisation must ‘act in order’ that tyranny shall not exist. His call on PEN members to support their governments in opposing the Nazis was widely reported in the press as a radical change in PEN’s role, with straplines such as ‘Romains Demands End of Neutrality: Tells Writers it is Time for the Pen to Fight the Sword in World Crisis’ and ‘The Time has Come to Take Sides’. London PEN issued a protest, insisting that ‘pledging’ PEN members to ‘unreservedly’ support the ‘political policy of their governments’ was contrary to the ‘policy and constitution’ of PEN. He spoke on the radio through the Voice of America.
Nonetheless, Romains actions did not win him any favour with other PEN members who viewed his flight to America and subsequent calls to arms as hypocritical at best and outright cowardly at worst.
J.B. Priestley wrote to Hermon Ould in 1943 that ‘I […] think that a fatal mistake was made when Romains was elected international President and subsequent events have shown that I was right.’