NEW YORK – Toni Morrison moderating a discussion about writing in the Soviet Union. Joan Didion defending Salman Rushdie against an Iranian death decree. Pablo Neruda explaining the role of the Latin America author.
PEN America, the literary and human rights organization, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that it had assembled more than 1,500 hours of audio and visual material for a digital archive featuring many of the world’s leading writers and public thinkers of the past half-century. The website, https://archive.pen.org/, is the culmination of a 5½- year project drawing upon materials stored at Princeton University.
“Over nearly 100 years, PEN America has convened America’s leading literary and intellectual lights in debates and dialogues that have framed the most pressing social, cultural and political issues of the time,” Suzanne Nossel, the organization’s executive director, said in a statement. “With the release of the PEN America Digital Archive, these essential voices have been brought back to life, brimming with personality, passion, opinion and sometimes bombast. Hearing directly from these greats will offer information and inspiration to writers, scholars and free-expression advocates for generations to come.”
The archive covers subjects ranging from the hostage crisis in Iran to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to such ongoing issues as racism, censorship and the author’s place in society. They also document the evolution of literary culture from a more formal time, when many writers were born without a television in their home, to the rise of the internet. During a 1966 panel, the Scottish politician and intellectual Douglas Young sounded like an old schoolmaster as he moderated a discussion about writers “in the electronic age,” or what he called life under “electronic circuitry.”
“The modern mass media make the general physiognomy of a writer known to the public,” he said. “They may be surprised that, in most respects, we are quite ordinary guys.”
PEN’s mission of support for besieged writers and of building a literary community was especially urgent in February 1989, when Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called for Rushdie’s death for the alleged blasphemy of the novel The Satanic Verses. A week after the decree, or “fatwa,” PEN staged a reading in New York of Rushdie’s work that was attended by Doctorow, Don DeLillo and many others.
“Today we are all Salman Rushdie,” announced one reader, author Robert Stone.
One of PEN’s most star-studded – and controversial – assemblies, the 1986 International Congress, is documented extensively. Norman Mailer was the chief organizer and he enraged many attendees when he invited President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, George P. Schulz, as a keynote speaker. Mailer was also criticized for including few women besides Susan Sontag on panel discussions and replied that “there are not that many women, like Susan Sontag, who are intellectuals first, poets and novelists second.”
But the 1986 gathering also illustrated PEN’s history of attracting the cultural elite and addressing the intersection of literature and politics. An opening-day press conference with Schulz included a call from PEN for the abolishment of the Cold War era McCarren-Walter act, which had prevented those suspected of communist sympathies from entering the United States. (The act was repealed in 1990.) Morrison, Rushdie, Sontag and Derek Walcott were among those addressing a forum on “Alienation and the State.”
At the press conference with Schulz, PEN International President Per Wastberg promised the next few days would offer “dinners, parties, gossip, gossipy chats, glitter,” along with discussions about censorship and imprisoned writers.
“I see no real dichotomy,” he said, “in that by fighting for the freedom of those friends and colleagues prevented from speaking their mind, we express our wish to see them seated around our tables, by candlelight, in deep conversation, or joking at the absurdity of life. PEN, after all, is about meeting other writers, across any kind of frontier.”