Victoria Ocampo was the Vice-President of PEN Buenos Aires in 1936, when the centre hosted one of the most important and divisive congresses in its history.
She was a renowned Argentine feminist, writer, critic, and cosmopolitan, who created the important avant-garde magazine Surin 1931 and edited it for many years. Sur published writers including Jorge Luis Borges, Albert Camus, José Ortega y Gasset and Gabriela Mistral, as well as significant translations, such as Borges’ translations of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.
She was internationally very well-connected, hosting a number of visiting cultural figures, including Rabindranath Tagore, who stayed at her famous Villa Ocampo in 1924 when he was ill, as well as Igor Stravinsky, André Malraux, Indira Gandhi and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. She had a flirtatious, and volatile friendship with Virginia Woolf from 1934 until 1939, and strongly attempted to persuade Woolf to speak at the 1936 PEN Congress. Failing to convince Woolf to attend, Ocampo delivered a speech in which Woolf’s writing, and particularly her idea of the common reader, featured centrally.
The 1936 Congress involved passionate political disagreement between its European delegates. It was also contentious within Argentine cultural circles. Buenos Aires PEN had a number of Fascist and right-wing nationalist members, including its President, Carlos Ibarguren. As such, it was an example of what anti-Fascist and anti-government Argentine writers viewed as the broader government and right-wing nationalist encroachment into cultural organisations. The Argentine anti-Fascist organisation, The Agrupaciōn de Intelectuales, Artistas, Periodistas y Escritores (AIAPE), which was founded in 1935, issued a declaration to PEN Congress members in 1936 alerting them to the ‘conditions under which free-minded intellectuals and writers are compelled to live in Argentina’ and that ‘the official institutions related to the problem of culture are practically in the hands of fascism.’
Ocampo, who had herself flirted with Fascism when she met Mussolini in 1935, was, by the time of the 1936 PEN Congress, already in the middle of a rapid political transition; she sided with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, and, in 1937, along with the other editors of Sur openly came out against Fascism. In her role as Vice-President of Buenos Aires PEN at the 1936 Congress, then, she was forced to confront Fascism, both within and beyond Buenos Aires PEN. She was criticised by F. T. Marinetti during her speech on Woolf’s common reader for failing to understand what he viewed as the necessary hierarchies of artistic creation.
Ocampo would continue to be an influential figure in Argentine cultural circles and abroad, attending the Nuremburg Trials in 1946. In 1953, when she was thrown into jail by Juan Domingo Perón’s political dictatorship, it was Ocampo’s turn to receive help from fellow PEN members. Gabriela Mistral, who had long been involved with PEN, successfully lobbied Roger Caillois at UNESCO and David Carver at London PEN on behalf of Ocampo, highlighting her importance as an Argentine woman ‘accustomed to defending culture, freedom and justice in her country’. She also wrote to Perón himself, begging him to release her. Ocampo was freed a few days later.