Stacks of books are laid out in a display case, the spines of the books tilted towards the viewer. Do they represent decades of banned titles from 1944’s Strange Fruit to 2019’s Gender Queer, beckoning to be read, or waiting to be tossed onto a burning heap? A photo from 1930s Germany in another display case shows how many books fared before the Nazis started burning people.
Below the stacks are the words of Andrew Solomon, the out-gay writer best known for his 2013 book Far from the Tree: “My book was censored in China. Now it’s blacklisted in Texas,” based on his 2021 New York Times essay.
It’s a reminder of how book banning and burning might have been associated with totalitarian regimes, but is now a staple of American politics.
PEN America at 100: A Century of Defending the Written Word opened in the lobby of the New York Historical Society in Central Park West this summer. This remarkable exhibition of letters, books, photographs, documents and ephemera shows that PEN, which originally stood for Poets, Essayists, Novelists, is more relevant than ever 100 years after its founding in 1922 after World War I.
Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, went so far as to say that in the United States there has never been “so many books banned and such an orchestrated, systematic movement to use book bans as a tool of sorts in the culture wars. ”
That is why the words of Solomon, a former PEN President, have such power. They are also an example of how the exhibition clearly shows how closely intertwined LGBTQ writers and history were also for the important group’s development and longevity.
Sometimes they are members who take center stage in both orientation and breed. Langston Hughes, long after he rose to fame in the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, advanced the group on racial issues. His original membership survey commenting on these issues and a 1963 PEN dinner newsletter entitled “The Problems of the Negro Writer” are on display.
How writers work together to solve other writers’ problems – whether it’s persecution by repressive regimes or discrimination at home – Nossel called “the notion of writer-to-writer solidarity…”.
In addition to Solomon and Hughes, the litany of material and correspondence on PEN from its members and supporters across the LGBTQ spectrum includes key supporter Eleanor Roosevelt; Susan Sontag, a former PEN President; a handwritten letter from Alan Ginsberg; and much more.
Perhaps the most notable piece is a letter Larry Kramer wrote to Sontag in 1987, during her tenure as President, imploring the organization to do more to address the AIDS crisis. He resigned his membership and sent a copy of the letter to the New York Times.
The exhibition was curated by PEN America Trustee Bridget Colman and Lisa Kolose. Colman highlighted the Kramer letter during a tour of the exhibit, stating, “I would really like to ask you to take some time to look at the letter from Larry Kramer, because this is maybe one of those moments where PEN not doing exactly what perhaps some of its authors wanted, and makes it very clear.
Colman continued, “He wanted them to acknowledge the AIDS crisis as it’s affecting gay writers and ask why it wasn’t having an impact, which he had asked many times. And he is writing this to Suzanne Sontag.” However, the letter prompted a change that led to the 1989 press session depictions of AIDS.
Decades later, when Mark Ruffalo played Kramer in the 2014 TV-Movie version of The Normal Heart, Kramer was a PEN Special Honoree.
Leading the cases is a smiling image of James Baldwin, another writer whose work focused on issues of sexuality and race, on a poster at a PEN event in 2001, many years after his death in 1987.
“I think it speaks so much to how PEN has always reflected on and drawn strength from the past,” Colmann added. “We see him looking at the history of PEN America. We can also capture some of the amazing moments.”
PEN America at 100: A Century of Defense of the Written Word | Until October 9 | New York Historical Society | Until October 9 | 170 Central Park West (on 77th Street) | www.nyhistory.org