#100PENMembers No. 25: Robert Neumann

Austrian writer Robert Neumann transformed PEN repeatedly, playing key roles in the evolution of its Charter, its remit and its politics during his fifty-year membership of the organisation.

Robert Neumann

A German Jew, Neumann first came to PEN when his works fell victim to the Nazi book burnings in 1933. He left his home in Vienna in 1934 and fled to Britain where he was the founder of the Austrian PEN Centre in exile in 1938.

During World War Two, he worked tirelessly on behalf of refugee and exiled writers in London, despite being interned as an ‘Enemy Alien’ himself for several months in 1940. Alongside English President Storm Jameson and International Secretary Hermon Ould he worked as a fundraiser for the PEN Refugee Fund and even provided a weekly drop-in session – as part of his role as an editor with Hutchinson International –  to give writers advice on how to publish or find work as translators in London.

After the war he helped to revive and became Honorary President of the Austrian PEN Club in 1947 and PEN Vice President in 1950. This membership and his history with the organisation gave him a unique platform to critique and influence PEN policy at every level.

A lifelong socialist, Neumann could be a vehement critic of PEN’s more conservative tendencies, particularly during the early postwar years.

Neumann’s experiences in Austria left him with a very personal and violent response to any indication of government interference in free expression. He had seen first-hand where such interventions could end.

In 1953, he lobbied the PEN International Congress in Dublin to add a very important element to PEN’s Charter. 

The contribution formed part of a raft of measures proposed by the French Centre to formally reassert PEN’s commitment to freedom of expression, to condemn censorship and the banning of books by governments. 

There were a number of these types of reaffirmations in PEN Press releases and meetings at the time, which reflected an organisation seeking to find terra firma in the postwar world and to ensure that the slide to fascism could not be repeated.

It was also a response to simmering Cold War tensions within the organisation, which was starting to become aware of the threats to free expression in Eastern European countries.

Neumann wanted to add in a clause which would stipulate that all national PEN Centres must report regularly on the state of intellectual freedom within their respective countries and ‘their own actions to combat victimizations and other Government and private interferences with that freedom. He wanted UNESCO to assist PEN in publishing these findings.

Issues were raised with the Amendment, among those PEN Centres in Iron Curtain countries who might find themselves having to report regular and humiliating infringements on their liberties but also among those in the West, who feared leaving potentially-infiltrated centres in the East to raise free expression issues. Neumann himself had long been wary of the domination of more centrist and right-wing politics within PEN, speaking out at the 1950 Congress about PEN’s internal Cold War under President Charles Morgan.

The debate marked a fissure which would rupture PEN policy and campaigning on free expression throughout the Cold War.

It also came to mark a crucial point in PEN’s history and its sense of the role of itself and its Centres in monitoring and reporting on free expression worldwide.

Most tellingly, this type of reporting would come to form a crucial element of PEN’s work with human rights charities and is now a routine part of UN monitoring of human rights across the world: Where a report is being compiled local PEN Centres are asked to provide information on attitudes to writers and writing, conditions of censorship, the imprisonment of writers, because – as Neumann so shrewdly recognised – the way a society treats its writers is hugely indicative of the health of its democracy.

Neumann continued to take a leading role in PEN until the end of his life, serving as a Vice President . In 1971, just five years before his death he was at the Congress in Yugoslavia, submitting an amendment on writers in Israel and Palestine and continuing his lifelong fight for free expression.

#100PENMembers No.11: Arthur Miller

The acclaimed playwright was the first American to hold the International PEN Presidency, following his unanimous election to the post at the 1965 Bled Congress.

Arthur Miller
Photo: AP Images

Arthur Miller’s term as President, from 1966 until 1969, was shaped both by the Cold War and by the explosion of racial tensions within PEN.

He entered his Presidency as PEN pulled itself apart over the implications for its Charter and its ethos of the Playwrights’ boycott of South Africa. In 1965 playwrights from across the world had begun to refuse to allow their work to be performed in South Africa because theatres were so strictly racially segregated, with white and black South Africans attending entirely separate performances. Often non-white South Africans were not allowed into theatres at all.

South African PEN – at that point a largely white organisation – protested vehemently to PEN arguing that the restriction of performances in South Africa represented an infringement of PEN’s free speech commitments, whilst not recognising their own complicity in a system which not only restricted the non-white population’s access to the arts but also censored their writing and voices at every level.

Among Miller’s early duties was an attempt to manage this dispute when the majority of PEN International centres voted in support of the boycott and to try to smooth tensions within the divided organisation.

Perhaps the most famous myth surrounding Miller’s Presidency was when, in 1969, he apparently helped free Wole Soyinka from prison. Soyinka, at this point a little-known playwright, had been imprisoned by General Yakubu Gowon’s government during the Biafran war. The story goes that, while many attempts by PEN to free Soyinka had tried and failed, and many letters of protest had been sent, Gowon, on receiving one signed by Arthur Miller asked if this was, in fact, the husband of Marilyn Monroe. On being assured that the letter had indeed been sent by that Arthur Miller, he had apparently released Soyinka immediately. Soyinka, of course, went on to become one of the world’s most admired writers and to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986.

The problem with the story is that there is no evidence for it in the archives – though Miller did receive regular updates on Soyinka’s imprisonment and dispatched various members of PEN staff to Nigeria to further make his case. In fact, Soyinka himself rubbished the claims years later having, in his own words, ‘checked with the man who signed the release warrant.’ The story continues in perpetuity as one of PEN’s most compelling and oft-quoted myths, demonstrating perhaps the ongoing feeling within the organisation that its petitions and tireless campaigning was often ineffective with comparison to the harnessing of the star power of its more famous members and affiliates.

Nevertheless, Miller was no stranger to adversity and censorship himself – he was descended from Polish refugees and had himself been interrogated by the infamous HUAM (House Un-American Activities Committee) which sought to root out Communist sympathisers within American society. This witchhunt, which he later scrutinised in his work, most notably The Crucible, may have informed his desire to interact with Soviet writers.

His overriding ambition during his tenure as President was to establish a PEN Centre in the Soviet Union. In fact, PEN, from its very beginning, had wanted to create a centre in Russia. Along with International Secretary David Carver, Miller held many meetings with the Soviet Writers Union to further this aim. The Soviets were apprehensive about joining PEN, honing in on the organisation’s commitment to free speech over and above political affiliations, a stance they viewed as hostile to Soviet commitments to political ideas of free expression and socially-engaged literature. 

Nevertheless, Miller persisted. He invited the Soviet writers to the incendiary 1966 New York International PEN Congress. The Soviets did not attend, having been tipped off shortly before the Congress that a defector – the writer and PEN member Valery Tarsis – would attend and would denounce the Soviet regime and his treatment at its hands to the gathered international audience.

Miller and Carver’s progress with the Soviet branch was largely halted by this development, of which they had been largely unaware. There were a number of fascinating interactions between PEN and the Russians during Miller’s Presidency, much to the disgust of the large number of PEN branches exiled from Iron-Curtain countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Slovenia and Latvia. However, his hands-on style and his desire to encourage dialogue between all sides during this particularly fraught period of the Cold War was in some ways essential for holding the organisation together. 

Miller remained a PEN member and campaigned for free expression throughout his long life. The annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture stands as testament to his legacy within the organisation. It has been delivered by Christopher Hitchens, Hilary Clinton, Salman Rushdie,  Roxane Gay, Arundhati Roy and, of course, Wole Soyinka.