J.B. Priestley was one of PEN’s earliest members. The Yorkshire novelist and playwright also served as one of the first Presidents of English PEN, from 1937-1938 but he was often very ambivalent about PEN and his role in the organisation.
He spoke at the 1939 New York World’s Fair PEN event via the airwaves, making this, perhaps, PEN’s first virtual author appearance. When Hendrik van Loon introduced him over the radio, Priestley apparently exclaimed ‘My God! He’s early’. He delivered his speech, where he spoke of literature as ‘the art of noble persuasion’, arguing that writers should fight for democracy. He condemned what he saw as the two extremes faced by writers; of what he labelled the ‘ivory-tower attitude’, on the one hand, and the requirement to be political, what he described as the necessity to describe ‘the death agonies of the International Brigade on all occasions.’ He said that ‘some writers had allowed the world’s cruelty to seep into their work’, but also defended the ‘right of the author to deal with current affairs.
He lent his name to ‘To the Conscience of the World’ the 1940 letter which appealed especially to America to stand with Europe where ‘inasmuch as we are fighting for the consciences of our children we are fighting for the people of every nation, without exception’, and to countless other campaigns throughout his life.
He was one of the earliest supporters of the PEN Refugee Fund – as one of the organisations’ most successful members, both professionally and financially. He also acted as guarantor to vast numbers of refugees. Again, his comparative financial solvency was an advantage here – one letter from the administrator of the fund begged him to guarantor an Austrian writer’s visa, stating simply that ‘Storm Jameson would have done it… if her overdraft at the bank had been smaller.’
However, Priestley was always pessimistic about the future of the organisation, writing to Hermon Ould in 1943 that ‘while I think the P.E.N. represents a good idea, I have no confidence in its future. I have never at any time felt easy in it in the past because although there would good people in the movement, it had a habit of attract- [sic] a certain type of inferior author and, with a few exceptions, I never felt that its functions here or in America really were represented by my profession.
‘My own feeling is that the whole P.E.N. situation ought to be carefully reviewed. I should like to see an international society of authors established after the War, but I feel extremely doubtful now if the present P.E.N. is the best foundation for such a society.’
Ould invited him to lunch with himself and Storm Jameson to try to assuage his doubts, but Priestley’s correspondence was often coloured by negativity about PEN and its work, in spite of his generous personal and financial support of many of its campaigns.
Nonetheless, he seems to have been persuaded to stay and into the 1950s continued his work with PEN, arranging a lecture tour on ‘The Art of the Dramatist’ with the British Council to raise money for Hungarian writers and intellectuals. Despite his hostility toward PEN at several points in his life, Priestley’s better nature always compelled him to help and to support PEN when it mattered.