PEN was one of the world’s first non-governmental organisations and amongst the first international bodies advocating for human rights. It was the first worldwide association of writers, and the first organisation to point out that freedom of expression and literature are inseparable – a principle we continue to champion today in all PEN Centres and which is expressed in the PEN Charter, a signature document 22 years in the making from its origins in 1926 and ratification at the 1948 Congress in Copenhagen.
PEN has grappled with the challenges to literature and freedom for nearly one hundred years, beginning just after World War I to the buildup and eruption of World War II, then throughout the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union and into today’s more nuanced climate worldwide. It has responded to modern history’s most dramatic turns, and its activists and advocates have included the most celebrated intellectuals of each era as well as countless, tireless and dedicated global members fighting to ensure that the right to write, speak, read and publish freely is forever at the heart of our global culture.
‘PEN’: What’s in a Name?
The organisation name was conceived as an acronym: ‘Poets, Essayists, Novelists’ (later broadened to ‘Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, Novelists’). Following World War Two, as the notion of an executive developed, PEN became known as International PEN, comprising a growing number of Centres around the world. Over time, as membership expanded to include a more diverse range of people involved with words and freedom of expression, the aforementioned categories no longer exclusively defined who could join. Today, PEN is simply PEN. In 2010, as part of a general rebranding, the organisation was renamed PEN International.
PEN held its first Congress in 1923, with 11 Centres taking part. Throughout the 1920s, PEN was unique in bringing writers together regardless of culture, language or political opinion – especially considering the political turmoil the world had begun to experience. In fact, one of the founding ideas guiding PEN was expressed as ‘no politics in PEN Clubs – under any circumstances’. PEN saw itself standing for freedom of expression, peace and friendship, not political debate.
PEN International is now active in over 100 countries, and still echoes it’s founding fathers, Dawson-Scott’s and Galsworthy’s original principles advocating freedom of expression, peace and friendship.
The PEN Charter
PEN affirms that:
Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.
In all circumstances, and particularly in time of war, works of art, the patrimony of humanity at large, should be left untouched by national or political passion.
Members of PEN should at all times use what influence they have in favour of good understanding and mutual respect between nations and people; they pledge themselves to do their utmost to dispel all hatreds and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace and equality in one world.
PEN stands for the principle of unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and between all nations, and members pledge themselves to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in the country and community to which they belong, as well as throughout the world wherever this is possible. PEN declares for a free press and opposes arbitrary censorship in time of peace. It believes that the necessary advance of the world towards a more highly organised political and economic order renders a free criticism of governments, administrations and institutions imperative. And since freedom implies voluntary restraint, members pledge themselves to oppose such evils of a free press as mendacious publication, deliberate falsehood and distortion of facts for political and personal ends.
Where did our Charter come from?
The Charter of PEN International has guided, unified and inspired its members for over 60 years. Its principles were implicit at the organisation’s founding in 1921. However, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the PEN Charter was forged amidst the harsh realities of World War Two. It was approved at the 1948 PEN Congress in Copenhagen.
PEN’s first president, the British novelist and playwright John Galsworthy, wrote the first three articles of the Charter after the 1926 Congress in Berlin Tensions had arisen then among the assembled writers, and debate had flared over the political versus non-political nature of PEN. Back in London, Galsworthy installed himself in the drawing room of PEN’s founder, Catharine Amy Dawson Scott, to work on a formal statement to ‘serve as a touchstone of PEN action’. Galsworthy’s resolution passed easily at the 1927 Congress in Brussels, and these articles remain part of the PEN Charter.
The onset of war
PEN was tested by the rise of Nazism in Germany, especially at the 1933 Congress in Dubrovnik. A few months earlier, in bonfires across Germany, the Nazi Party had burned many thousands of books it deemed ‘impure’ – that is, inconsistent with, or hostile to its ideology. At the Dubrovnik Congress, led by PEN’s president H. G. Wells, the Assembly of Delegates reaffirmed the Galsworthy resolution as a response to these events. The following day, the German delegation attempted to prevent Ernst Toller, an exiled Jewish-German playwright, from speaking. While some members supported this effort, an overwhelming majority rejected the German position and reaffirmed the principles on which they had just voted. The German delegation walked out of the Congress – and, essentially, out of PEN, until after World War Two.
At the first Congress after the war, in Stockholm in 1946, American PEN – backed by English PEN – presented two resolutions. One urged PEN members ‘to champion the ideals of one humanity living at peace in one world’; the other addressed the issue of censorship. Debate on the wording and scope of the resolution continued at the 1947 Congress in Zurich, but eventually delegates came to an agreement. The resolution became the foundation of the fourth article of the PEN Charter.
From 1948 to the present day
Finally, at the 1948 Congress, the Assembly of Delegates approved the Charter of PEN in its entirety. In 2017 at the 83rd Congress in Lviv, Ukraine, Article 3 was modified so that the former limitation of the classes of ‘hatreds’ which members must oppose (race, class and nations – all identities of key importance in the 1920s) became ‘all hatreds’ and the word ‘equality’ was added.
Joanne Leedom-Ackerman Former International Secretary and Vice-President of PEN International