The following address was delivered on January 12 at the opening of the Forty-eighth International PEN Congress at the New York Public Library.
When I was invited, one year and a half ago, to become president of the American Center, I believe it was hoped I would prove enough of a figurehead to draw attention to PEN’s affairs. This unspoken understanding was agreeable to me. I had always wished to be president of something.
Contemplate, then, the horror, a few months after induction, when I found myself laboring as diligently at fund raising for PEN as at my own literary projects. I had become a hard-working figurehead; a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron.
Now I could pretend that the noble activities of PEN are precisely what spurred me to such labors, since PEN is indeed one of the last of the poor and noble organizations. Supported by small funds, the people who work for the American Center under the all-consuming dedication of our executive director Karen Kennerly (who in my mind is the real president) do undertake labors that few people of good will would wish to disagree with. We are an organization devoted to the collegiality of writers everywhere in the world—we seek to rescue writers, or at least alleviate the conditions of authors who prove too outspoken in their work, whether they are men and women opposed to the prevailing right-wing, left-wing, or centrist oppressions of their own land.
We work on the unspoken premise that the freedom to write is one of the inalienable rights of humankind—we are passionate about improving the liberty of writers everywhere—that, to us, is a self-evident noble cause. Occasionally we succeed in these efforts. Even tyrants may have a love of literature. When a letter requesting improvement in the conditions of a jailed poet is signed by fifty prominent writers, the results are sometimes more effective than one would expect.
We are also a fraternal organization. We have funds—not nearly enough—to offer writers who have immediate needs—rent for the month or money for pressing medical work—we offer prizes to fellow writers, to editors, translators, occasionally we even honor a publisher. We have prison programs for incarcerated men and women who want to learn to write, we have similar programs for the handicapped. We have public symposiums, we have PEN parties for our members. I could pretend I took up PEN work in the last year and a half because I was moved to the core by our good activities.
I will not, however, make this pious claim. If I had an attractive motive, it was my enthusiasm for the theme of this congress. Created in the fine minds of Donald Barthelme and Richard Howard, it posed the writer’s imagination against a new concept—the imagination of the state.
It is here that intellectual dangers commence, Writers are as bigoted about their favorite concepts as other human beings. Since our power, literary power, is …