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PEN (originally an acronym for ‘Poets, Essayists, Novelists’) was formed in London in 1921 in the wake of the First World War. Its founder, Catharine Amy Dawson-Scott, sought to bring writers together for discussion and fellowship, and its first President, novelist John Galsworthy, described its potential as a ‘League of Nations for Men and Women of Letters’. Over the following years, PEN quickly became an international movement – with groups established throughout the world. It was to become closely associated with the championing of press freedom. Its members campaigned against Nazi book-burnings, and intervened in cases of authors imprisoned for their works. In 1967, PEN (under the Presidency of Arthur Miller) successfully appealed to Nigeria on behalf of Wole Soyinka, who was slated for execution by the country’s leader. Soyinka went on to become a Nobel Prize winning writer of international renown, and is today a Patron of Humanists UK. 

Over the years, a huge number of humanists have been involved with PEN, demonstrative of the humanist commitment to freedom of expression and of belief. These have included a number of PEN Presidents, notably Storm Jameson (PEN’s first female President), and E.M. Forster. The membership card of Dora Russell, a tireless humanist activist for human rights the world over, is shown here. The special collections at UCL also hold the PEN membership cards of humanist thinker George Orwell, for the years 1949-1950, during which period Orwell wrote – in ‘Reflections on Gandhi’ – one of his most unequivocally humanist sentiments: ‘Man is the measure of all things, and… our job is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have.’

Image: Dora Winifred Russell Papers, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam.

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