PEN Past and Present: PEN’s first meeting

On 5th October 1921 a group of writers gathered at the Florence Restaurant in London.

Some were big names in the literary world, such as John Galsworthy, Viola Hunt, May Sinclair and Rebecca West, others were lesser known but extremely well-connected.

They were gathered at the behest of Amy Dawson Scott, a playwright and well-known figure in the London literary scene.

The aim of the meeting was to bring together writers working in London for regular dinners and meetings to discuss their work and build their professional networks.

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Image of the menu from the first PEN meeting appears courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas

It was also – in the wake of the devastation in Europe after World War One – to help to promote friendship and understanding between writers of different nations, through their shared interest in literature.

It was to be resolutely unpolitical – politics only led to war – and must promote literary art and freedom as the pinnacle of civilised life.

The choice of restaurant was very much a testament to their love of continental culture, as shown by the picture of Florence on the front of the menu (below).

The 42 guests enjoyed the finest French cuisine – Turbot Mornay, Beef Bordelaise and a Bombe Pralinée.

This modest start grew throughout the following decades, spreading from Prague and Berlin to New York, Buenos Aires and Bombay and becoming what we now know as PEN International. See  the spread of PEN Centres throughout the world on our interactive map.

 

 

PEN Key Figures: Hermon Ould

Hermon Ould served as Secretary of English and International P.E.N. from the beginnings of the organisation until his death in 1951.

Hermon, DawsonScott and Galsworthy

Hermon Ould (right) with John Galsworthy and C.A. Dawson Scott, founder of PEN

The poet and dramatist gave up his own promising career as a writer to guide and fashion the fledgling organisation through its early years.

During Ould’s time P.E.N. grew from a dining club for writers to an influential international organisation.

He served as Secretary to the English Centre from its inception in 1921 and became International Secretary at the Berlin Congress in 1926– a role which he made his own and which ideally suited his personality.

His friend Beatrice Webb said that Hermon’s greatest gift was for friendship and his ability to befriend but also to bring together writers from across the world was transformative for PEN.

It was Ould, working under various English and International Presidents, who spearheaded campaigns, such as the Refugee Fund which he and Storm Jameson launched in the 1930s.

At the end of that decade he helped to calm the waters between the pacifist sections of PEN and those who saw another war as essential in ridding Europe of the scourge of Nazism.

It was Ould who helped organise one hugely successful Congress and two conferences in war-torn London – the 1941 International Congress, the Coming of Age Conference celebrating PEN’s 21st birthday in 1942 and the Milton Tercentenary Conference in 1944.

His wartime work was such that members fundraised in 1945 to hold a dinner in his honour and even raised money to give Ould a small bonus, a generous cheque to thank him for the countless extra hours he put in for the organisation during the war.

Writing to encourage members to donate and to attend, writer and PEN member L. Steni describes Ould as serving PEN with ‘single hearted devotion’ often to the detriment of his own literary career.

He goes on to point out that ‘that we have emerged from the years of conflict with increased prestige (and also augmented responsibilities) is due, for the most part to Hermon Ould.’

Ould’s letters show him as gatekeeper, organiser, friend, literary agent, confidant and much more to PEN’s many English members and to others across the world.

Ould served as Secretary to the English Centre and International Secretary until his death in 1951, which left the organisation reeling.

It was Ould’s close friend David Carver who stepped into his role, himself convinced that Ould was irreplaceable.

A true internationalist, it is no overestimation to say that Ould’s influence on PEN – due to his longstanding role and his unique personality – made him as influential a force in shaping the organisation as Galsworthy, Wells and Dawson-Scott herself.