Book Balls, Fox-Trots, and Boeuf Bordelaise: The Early History of PEN International

By Charlotte Nunes
(Originally appearing in the Spring 2016 Ransom Edition. The full issue here.)

In the course of researching how South Asian writers circulated in literary London between the World Wars, I spent some time immersed in the Harry Ransom Center’s expansive PEN archive. Although I was primarily focused on London PEN’s gatekeeping function—PEN members such as the editor John Lehmann of the Hogarth Press were influential in determining whether and how the work of young South Asian writers reached a British readership—I also appreciated the dynamic insights the PEN archive provides into the early identity of the organization, which has operated continuously since its founding in 1921.

Program for the PEN Club Book Ball held at the Hyde Park Hotel in London on November 30, 1926

Today, PEN (Poets, Essayists, and Novelists) International has an explicitly political identity. The organization runs international campaigns to support freedom of expression by advocating for writers who have been criminally prosecuted and imprisoned due to their work. When PEN was established in London during the early 1920s, its founding members espoused the values of freedom of expression and international peace that continue to anchor contemporary PEN; rather than forming political campaigns, however, early PEN members fore-fronted hospitality and society among writers internationally as means to facilitate peace among nations.

A quick glance at the PEN homepage today provides an immediate sense of the organization’s mission and objectives: subheadings include “Writers At Risk,” “Impunity in Honduras,” “Linguistic Rights and Education,” and “International Advocacy.” But during the early years of the organization, political activism in the name of PEN was actively discouraged by early leaders. A PEN newsletter dated November 15, 1927, covers a speech by PEN President John Galsworthy, in which he cites a resolution recently passed by PEN leadership:

Literature, national though it be in origin, knows no frontiers, and should remain common currency between nations in spite of political and international upheavals. In all circumstances… works of art, the patrimony of humanity at large, should be left untouched by national or political passion.

PEN News. November 15, 1927

PEN emerged during a moment of postwar optimism regarding the potential of human fellowship to overcome the contingencies of geopolitical power. Although this optimism would recede with the advent of fascism and the onset of World War II, it determined PEN’s emphasis on social rather than political relations during the interwar period. In a foreword to the 1926 PEN Club Book Ball fundraising gala program (pictured below), Book Ball planning committee member John Drinkwater reflected on the rationale behind PEN’s founding:

It was felt by the founders of the Club that writers the world over formed a class of people whose mental habits and daily occupation made them independent of political prejudices, and inspired them with a living ideal of international goodwill that might in time replace commercial and diplomatic jealousies… It was thought that if writers could be given the opportunity of developing this idea in friendly intercourse, they would, with their faculty of expression, be able to hand it on to the peoples of their respective countries, not, indeed, by direct propaganda, but by personal influence and the general character of their writings.

Here, Drinkwater details the logic behind the formation of PEN as a social rather than a political organization. In the process, he demonstrates the powerful faith his community of liberal poets, essayists, and novelists had in the capacity of friendly individual relationships and civil discourse to effect “international goodwill” and create conditions for peace.

Given this emphasis on the social, it follows that the earliest materials in the PEN archive strongly feature food, drink, and dance. At its founding, PEN identified as an informal “dinner-club” where, according to an early statement on membership criteria, “well-known writers of both sexes can meet,” and where “visitors from abroad can hope to find them.” PEN dinners during the early 1920s took place on Tuesday evenings at the Florence Restaurant on Rupert Street in London.

Who attended early PEN dinners? This seating chart for a 1923 PEN Club “Dinner to Our Foreign Friends,” beautifully rendered in calligraphy, demonstrates the geographical range of the organization two years after its founding. Guests hailed from Norway, Spain, Romania, and elsewhere; notable guests included Rebecca West, Lady Rhondda, and H. G. Wells.

As PEN gained momentum and notoriety, its programming extended beyond dinners. PEN leaders formalized fund-raising efforts to entertain visiting writers in fashion. During the late 1920s, PEN organized gala events such as the Book Ball of November 30, 1926, in order to raise funds for further, more opulent social occasions.

In his foreword to the Book Ball program, Drinkwater appealed to members to donate to the cause of entertaining writers from abroad.

In our own London centre…, we have from the beginning given special consideration to the entertainment of foreign guests… The Club has felt that its hospitality in such cases should always be liberal. The revenue from subscriptions is, however, insufficient to meet this charge upon the Club resources… It is now felt that it would be… satisfactory to have a separate fund set aside for this purpose.

Florence Restaurant Menu for PEN Club dinner held on October 5, 1921.

This emphasis on lavish society anchored the organization at least through the early 1940s, as evidenced by a September 1943 appeal letter to PEN members from General Secretary Herman Ould. In the letter, Ould states the fund-raising goal of “establishing a Club-House in London” that would “serve not only as the headquarters of the English PEN, but also all the purposes of a good club, with reception rooms, where meetings, lectures, etc., could be held; a restaurant, writing and reading rooms, bar, snack-bar, etc.” Although both Drinkwater and Ould name PEN in their appeals, the operative word is “club”—with all of its connotations of social glamour and elite exclusivity. In Ould’s proposed PEN club-house, restaurant, bar, and snack-bar are no less crucial to the organizational mission than are writing and reading rooms. In keeping with this organizational mission, highlights of the 1926 Book Ball according to the program included ticket-drawings for autographed books from a Bran Pie (a tub of bran from which small prizes were traditionally pulled at holiday celebrations), a Dance Programme including one-steps, fox-trots, and waltzes to such tunes as “Oh! Lady, Be Good” and “I’d Rather Charleston,” and a decadent menu featuring such delicacies as Consommé Double en Tasse, Pommes Mignon, and Charlotte à la Russe.

Event program for 1927 PEN International Ball.

In the name of international goodwill, then, early PEN invited members to eat, drink, and kick up their heels—tails optional. An undated announcement of a PEN dinner at the Garden Club in Chesterfield Gardens indicated that “Evening dress, morning dress, tails or dinner jackets are all admissible.” Unless, that is, members opted to arrive in costume. Both the 1926 Book Ball program and the 1927 PEN Ball announcement offer prizes “for the best costumes representing characters from famous books.” Costume judges at the 1927 ball included H. G. Wells. 

Soon enough, PEN’s mission and identity would become sources of immense controversy as members disagreed about whether to issue a formal statement on book-burnings in Germany during the lead-up to World War II. But at the outset of PEN, members ate well, celebrated fiction through costume, and danced their way to international fellowship among men.

About the Author
Charlotte Nunes is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Scholarship at Southwestern University. She visited the Harry Ransom Center in June 2015 to conduct research on the circulation and reception of South Asian writers, including Mulk Raj Anand, Ahmed Ali, Raja Rao, and Sajjad Zaheer, in literary Bloomsbury between 1920 and 1940. Her findings will be published in an essay co-authored with Snehal Shingavi, to appear in the collection British Literature in Transition, 1920-1940, edited by Charles Ferrall and Dougal McNeill and under contract with Cambridge University Press. Nunes’s research was supported by a fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment.

Feature photo: Seating chart for PEN Club dinner for “Foreign Friends,” held on May 1, 1923.