Theses Doctoral

PEN International and its Republic of Letters, 1921-1970

Doherty, Megan

In 1921 a circle of writers formed a dinner club in London to welcome foreign writers visiting from abroad. Punningly dubbed the "P.E.N."--for the poets, playwrights, essayists and novelists invited into its fold--the group argued that writers above all could best promote communication and civility across national lines.

Over the years, PEN survived a series of onslaughts that undermined this humanistic idea: fascist infiltration, yet another World War, revelations of Holocaust, the shock of atomic warfare, and CIA meddling. By 1970 PEN had become global, transforming from a British club into an organization devoted to protecting freedom of expression and facilitating communication worldwide. In doing so, its members strove to create an institutionalized form of the Republic of Letters, a federation that aimed to model cultural civility to the wider world.

PEN survived challenges to its existence because it molded itself to evolving contexts while insisting on the stability of its core values. PEN justified its existence by arguing that its definition of literary values were universal. Yet PEN's ideals needed to be protected and promoted by an institution precisely because they were neither universally accepted nor secure. PEN promoted a distinctly liberal, humanistic, and aesthetically middlebrow definition of literature and its social role. By claiming its values were universal, giving them institutional expression, and attracting the attention of funders and competing governments during the Cold War, PEN helped make liberal humanism seem synonymous with internationalism.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Blake, Casey N.
Pedersen, Susan G.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 28, 2013