The poet Humbert Wolfe is a little known English PEN member, who played a key role in helping liaise between the British government and PEN to get refugee writers out of Europe in the 1940s.
Born in Italy, Wolfe was an early member of English PEN and involved in its committees throughout the 1930s, including the English Executive which he sat on alongside H.G. Wells, Noel Streathfeild and Storm Jameson.
It was his post at the Ministry of Labour which made him especially useful to PEN during this period, particularly once the requests for help and support from German writers after the Nazis came to power in 1933.
In July of that year Hermon Ould, the International Secretary and Secretary of English PEN, wrote to Wolfe, enclosing a letter from the Home Office about German refugee writers. He asked for Wolfe’s help in understanding the Home Office’s stance and how best to manage it. Ould – completely underestimating the problem – wrote that ‘the likelihood of German writers wishing to come to England and attempt to earn their living here is not very great, but as it is possible that some may wish to do so the Executive Committee wondered whether the Home Office would be willing to regard the PEN in an advisory capacity should applications be made.’ Wolfe was asked for his advice, at a time when the other apparatus put in place during the refugee crises following the First World War– namely the Nansen passport – had been disbanded, leaving those seeking safety with inadequate paperwork to make the move to England on a permanent basis.
With retrospect, we now know that the need and ‘likelihood’ of German writers wishing to come to Britain and to work would become very high indeed, added to in 1935 and 1938 respectively by Austrian, Czechoslovakian and Polish writers too, leading to the setting up of the PEN Refugee Fund in 1938. During this time PEN were, indeed, advising the government on new arrivals as well as carrying out crucial relief work for refugees already in Britain.
Later that month, Ould invites Wolfe to join the Executive Committee of English PEN, perhaps recognising the advantages of having a high-ranking civil servant on side during a time when PEN might increasingly have to liaise with government offices.
Wolfe was also involved, as a member of the Executive, in negotiations about the possibility of Marinetti hosting the PEN Congress of 1937 in Fascist Italy. Obviously this was highly contentious, and whilst it was ostensibly agreed in a vote at the Congress in 1936 in Buenos Aires, PEN actually spent the next six months trying to get out of it. As Ould describes to Wolfe in November 1936: ‘Frankly I am amazed the H.G. [Wells] should imagine that it would be possible to influence Fascist Italy by holding a P.E.N. Congress there and speaking our minds!’
Wolfe replied, very astutely and with great irony: ‘[Marinetti’s] attention should be drawn to certain articles in which he deliberately advocated vetoing the import of foreign literature, together with a progressive militarisation of intellect.’ The incompatibility of PEN’s stance on the ability of ideas (and literature) to traverse national borders and its commitment to the freedom of the individual mind would be incompatible with the Fascist leader’s stance. Wolfe added, ‘I don’t believe that even Marinetti could so far contradict himself as to accept these two fundamental principles.’ Marinetti was, of course, a fractious and deliberately provocative member of PEN during these years, using his position and politics to bait PEN’s liberal members, but the conference in Rome did not go ahead.
Wolfe continued to advise PEN on refugee and labour matters throughout the 1930s, providing crucial guidance through the intricacies of Whitehall and placing PEN in useful dialogue with relevant government offices. His assistance with PEN’s refugee work doubtless saved many lives and contributed to the tremendous effectiveness of PEN’s refugee activism during this time.