PEN America at 100: A Century Defending Literature and Human Rights

In the beginning, PEN International was little more than a dinner party. But it steadily evolved with a grand mission: to defend literature and human rights worldwide.

PEN defends literature and human rights.

Effective writing, whether it be for marketing tech or writing a play, takes a strong ability to connect with other humans. Effective writing can pierce the heart and tap into people’s strongest desires, hopes, and dreams—sometimes with a single word. The art of fostering emotion through the written word is a powerful one, and because of its power, it has historically been seen as a threat. Literature and human rights are bound together.

Let’s go back in time one hundred years. It’s the aftermath of World War One, and nations, communities, and individuals are navigating unimaginable economic chaos and social unrest. With almost an entire generation of young men lost in the conflict, distrust in government and a general feeling of cultural despair hangs in the air. 

Such destruction and catastrophic loss can either enforce further division or inspire unification. After the devastation of World War One, both reactions took place. In Germany, Italy, and elsewhere, far-right movements founded on anger and isolation rose to prominence. But on October 5, 1921, poet, playwright, and peace activist Catherine Amy Dawson-Scott chose unification. At Florence Restaurant in London, she and novelist and playwright John Galsworthy founded PEN International — a community with the goal of uniting writers and providing a space to share ideas regardless of culture, language, or political opinion. 

In the beginning, PEN International was little more than a dinner party. But as the decades passed, it steadily evolved into something much bigger with a grand mission: to defend literature and human rights wherever they’re under threat. 

Peace Can’t Escape Politics

In the years following its founding, it quickly became clear that political turmoil was inescapable, and that PEN International had to respond to the challenges that literature and human rights continued to face around the world. During World War Two, British novelist H. G. Wells, who became PEN’s president in 1933, led a campaign against the burning of books by the Nazis in Germany. This led to the eventual expulsion of German PEN, who supported the nationalistic agenda at the time. 

PEN also became active in appealing on behalf of imprisoned writers, with one of their first successes being the case of Hungarian-born journalist and author Arthur Koestler, who had been imprisoned in Fascist Spain and sentenced to death. Koestler was freed soon after PEN vigorously campaigned for his release and later went on to write Darkness At Noon. 

PEN continued to appeal for and support imprisoned writers, and by 1960 the official Writers in Prison Committee was formed, which bolstered PEN’s growing national influence. Today, the Writers in Prison Committee is actively involved in representing persecuted writers worldwide, monitoring between 700-900 cases each year and taking action through Rapid Action Network alerts, targeted regional campaigns, and UN intervention. There are now 146 PEN centers around the world, with the largest being PEN America, which was launched on April 19, 1922 and is headquartered in New York City. Comprising more than 7,500 writing professionals and devoted readers, PEN America upholds the principles and values of literature and human rights that were brought forth by PEN’s founders, which were made into an official charter by PEN International in 1948. 

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Celebrating Literature and Human Rights

To commemorate a century of PEN America’s fight to defend the fundamental freedoms to speak, write, publish and read freely, the New York Historical Society has put on an exhibition running from July 2022 to early October, showcasing artifacts of PEN America’s evolution and work throughout the decades. The event, titled PEN America at 100: A Century of Defending the Written Word, displays letters, photographs, prizes, and posters from critical moments in the organization’s history. The event also includes celebratory work from modern-day literary giants such as Margaret Atwood, Ayad Akhtar and Kwame Anthony Appiah. Some highlights include a 1973 letter from poet and PEN America board member Allen Ginsberg to PEN Vice President Henry Carlisle, in which Ginsberg relays information about government cases against Timothy Leary and John Lennon, as well as a 1930 photograph of the PEN dinner in which Sinclair Lewis, who was guest of honor and had been named to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature that year, urged the audience to take their writing more seriously, stating: “Unless we do that we will have no place in the world.”

Another highlight of the exhibition included an outdoor installation by renowned artist Jenny Holzer titled SPEECH ITSELF, in which quotes from over 60 authors were projected onto the facades of three buildings in Rockefeller Center for a series of nights. One quote from PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel states: “Free speech has long been a potent weapon for disenfranchised groups, used to expose repression and prevent the powerful from silencing dissent.” Holzer is a neo-conceptual artist, known for displaying words and ideas in public places on a large scale. Her work typically relates to feminism and sexism and uses capital letters to instill a sense of urgency and speak loudly. 

The Fight for Free Expression Continues

Unfortunately, whether an inevitable part of the human condition or one of our most significant failures, history has a way of repeating itself. Many modern-day schools have taken it upon themselves to ban certain literature. Earlier this year, the Alpine School District, the largest school district in Utah, threatened to ban 52 books for fear that they contain “sensitive material” and do not have “literary merit”—with 21 featuring LGBTQ+ characters or themes. Some examples include Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult, Forever… by Judy Blume, and This One Summer, by Mariko Tamaki. In response, PEN America stated that this was a “worrying escalation of education censorship”, and called upon the Alpine School District to retain the books and demonstrate greater respect for students’ rights. For now, the pushback has worked, and the district has retracted the ban, though they are still imposing temporary restrictions. 

PEN America’s Writers at Risk Database keeps track of writers, journalists, artists, academics, and public intellectuals who are imprisoned or under threat around the world, and their Freedom to Write Index is an annual census of detained writers. This past year in 2021, PEN America’s case-tracking program found 277 writers, academics, and public intellectuals unjustly imprisoned or detained in 36 countries around the world, with nearly one-fifth serving sentences of 10 or more years. The PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award is one tool that PEN America uses in attracting global attention towards imprisoned writers in an effort to end their persecution. 

Austria promoted its delicious wines with great copy

The Austrian Tourist Board (ATO) was planning to launch a major campaign across New York City—aimed at promoting the country’s delicious wines. But before the ATO could get started, it needed help with copy, including a 12-page brochure, a postcard, an insert, and more. With just one month to drum up publicity, MarketSmiths had to work fast, partnering with MST Creative, a restaurant PR firm, to spread the word on Austria’s many tipples. Our successes speak for themselves: 14 New York restaurants featured Austrian Wine Month, while the event quickly appeared in Zagat, Time Out, and Village Voice, to name just a few.

> Read the full case study here

The Power of The Written Word

The ability to convey ideas, evoke emotion, and drive action through writing is one of the most powerful tools we have as human beings. It’s a large part of what accelerated our evolution and separated us from other species. However, because of its power, this inalienable right has been taken away for far too many. PEN International was the first organization to acknowledge that freedom of expression, literature, and human rights are inseparable and that this freedom, although powerful, is also fragile, and must be protected at all costs. 

PEN encourages and inspires written expression of all kinds, from undertaking prison writing programs to sponsoring translations of works written in obscure or neglected languages. PEN understands that no matter who you are, you have something valuable to say, and that silencing someone not only does a disservice to that individual, but to humanity as a whole. 

As copywriters, we are constantly looking for ways to connect with an audience through the written word. Literature is in our blood, much like the poets, writers, and journalists that founded PEN and continue to defend its principles. Without the freedom to write, knowledge is hidden, and connection is stifled. Literature and human rights, therefore, are inherently linked.

At MarketSmiths, our goal is to bring the human touch back to B2B copy, to infuse emotion into an otherwise matter-of-fact world. Learn more about how we keep the human voice alive in copywriting. If you need copywriting that connects, contact our team.

Lily Grant

Lily Grant

Lily moved to New York after traveling around Southeast Asia for three years, where her home base was Hanoi, Vietnam. She delights in learning about different cultures and trying new cuisines, and she brings the same amount of enthusiasm and curiosity to her writing. When she is not typing away, Lily can be found tending to her plants, playing with paint, or exploring new food around NYC.

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