#100PENMembers No. 96: Stephen Spender

British poet and editor Stephen Spender was a PEN member from the 1930s onwards, and agreed to become English PEN President in 1976. He helped set up the free speech organisation, Index on Censorship in 1972. 

It was after the Second World War that Spender first played a key role in PEN, as he liaised between PEN and the newly formed UNESCO, where he worked from 1947. 

He wrote in 1947 to Hermon Ould that he had just been appointed to represent the UNESCO at the PEN Club Conference in Zurich, pointing out the potential connections between the two organisations: ‘UNESCO can be of use to the PEN Clubs and PEN Clubs of use to UNESCO.’ As he explained, he wanted to suggest to PEN members at the Congress how they might help in ‘the urgent tasks of reconstruction and re-education […] are foremost parts of [UNESCO’s] programme.’ 

Spender was also a regular at the refugee events of the 1950s. His involvement in the United Nations at this time made him an important point of contact for PEN although even he expressed his frustration at being unable to help refugees as much as he wished. In 1957 he wrote, in response to the Hungarian crisis of the previous year ‘I also had a telegram, a few days ago, from a group of Hungarian writers, asking me to protest to the Secretary General of the United Nations’ but adding ‘I have the feeling that protests only demonstrate one’s ineffectiveness.’ 

Nonetheless he suggested that PEN coordinate with the literary magazine Encounter – which he edited – to try to find ‘a demonstration more effective than putting one’s name to things.’ Certainly, Encounter frequently carried articles by PEN members or relating to PEN campaigns.

Spender liaised with the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which funded many prestige publications, including Encounter magazine, and which was covertly funded by the CIA. While Spender always insisted he was unaware of the CIA’s funding of the CCF, others were less naïve. PEN members were wary of the possible links and unwilling to alienate their Soviet and Communist Centres, by forming too obvious or too public a relationship. For PEN International during that period, it seemed more important to keep up a dialogue with Communist authors or authors in Communist countries in order to help to influence and promote free expression than to push any hard ideological line, regardless of how financially lucrative that might prove to be. 

In 1976 Spender agreed to take on the role of English PEN President, and hosted the PEN Congress in London in that year. In his speech, he spoke of the continued difficulties of the Cold War age, describing: ‘I think a lot of people feel that the purely literary discussions of the PEN Congresses are violated, traduced, ruined by people talking politics when they ought to be talking literature.’

He explained to the writers gathered from all over the world: ‘I don’t quite feel this partly because I think that whenever the word freedom is mentioned politics comes in. And whenever words like oppression and censorship are realities politics also come in.’

He went on to discuss PEN’s role in upholding its Charter and protecting free expression but also for the need to be flexible in interpreting the document, calling for a ‘hypocrisy’ in which PEN’s principles were always simultaneously upheld and undermined in order to promote the internationalism and freedom which the organisation sought to promote. In this, Spender hit on one of the major inconsistencies of the Cold War age, in which PEN’s free expression credentials had to be balanced with its commitment to discuss and uphold different points of view.

Spender continued to be involved with free expression campaigning until the end of his life, receiving in 1995 the Golden PEN Award from English PEN, in honour of his ‘lifetime’s distinguished service to literature’.

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