PEN International was founded in London in 1921 by feminist novelist Catherine Amy Dawson Scott, with John Galsworthy as President, and May Sinclair, Radclyffe Hall, Vera Brittain, Bertrand Russell, E. M. Forster, W. B. Yeats, Joseph Conrad and H. G. Wells as founding members. It saw itself as unique because it was a London centre where well-known writers of ‘both sexes’ could meet and, as this list of names suggests, it had a strong feminist membership in its early years. It was funded by subscription, so was independent of government control and its internationalism entailed an expansionist spirit of international friendliness through encounters with writers from other cultures and traditions.
The well-connected Galsworthy was pivotal to its early success, as he persuaded a number of prominent global writers, including Anatole France, Maurice Maeterlinck, Rabindranath Tagore, Robert Frost, Maxim Gorki, Selma Lagerlöf, Vicente Ibanez, Arthur Schnitzler and Benedette Croce, to join up.
PEN Centres quickly sprang up in Western Europe, the newly formed states of Eastern Europe, and the US in 1922 and 1923, and then further afield, with writers from Mexico City gathering together in 1923, and then centres being created in Santiago, Milan and Toronto in 1925, Tel Aviv and Buenos Aires in 1929, Beijing in 1930, La Paz in 1932, Baghdad and Bombay in 1933, Cairo in 1934, and Tokyo in 1936, amongst many others. Yiddish PEN, meanwhile, with centres in New York and Warsaw, was admitted into the organisation in 1930 on a ‘non-territorial’ basis.
By the mid-1930s there were centres in many areas of the world, with clusters of activity in Europe, Northern America, the middle East, South America, South East Asia and Australasia. There were areas of the world without a PEN presence – most notably, the Caribbean, the Soviet Union, Indonesia and the African continent, which boasted just two centres in Johannesburg and Cape Town. This would start to change after the Second World War, with Jamaica and Indonesia, for instance, establishing centres in 1948 and 1950.
Many prominent world writers were either directly involved in the organisation in its early years, such as H. G. Wells, E. M. Forster, Jules Romains, André Malraux, Mulk Raj Anand, Ernst Toller, F. T. Marinetti, Karel apek, Ortega Y Gasset, Tôson Shimazaki, or were loosely affiliated, such as the writers listed above, and including Rabindranath Tagore, André Gide, D. H. Lawrence and Thomas Mann, or gave lectures at P.E.N. events, such as James Joyce.
After the war, International PEN gained advisory status to the United Nations and worked with UNESCO on various initiatives. It expanded, as new centres opened across the world, and continue to fight for the rights of imprisoned writers, writers in exile, and censored writers.
The organisation acts as a thread through this project because of its longevity, the historically revealing nature of some of the debates that have taken place within it, and the prominence of its membership, which has included some of the most significant writers of the long twentieth century including Rabindranath Tagore, Thomas Mann, André Gide, H. G. Wells, E. M. Forster, Mulk Raj Anand, Arthur Miller, Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, Harold Pinter, Margaret Atwood, and Salman Rushdie.