Piles of books are laid out in a display case, their spines tilted to the viewer. Representing decades of banned titles from 1944’s Strange Fruit to the 2019 Gender Queer, are they beckoning to be read or waiting to be tossed in a burning pile? A photo from 1930s Germany in another display case shows happened to many books before the Nazis began burning people.
Underneath the piles 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 be associated with totalitarian regimes, but is now a staple of American politics.
PEN America at 100: A Century of Defending the Written Word opened over the summer inside of the lobby of the New York Historical Society on Central Park West. This remarkable exhibit of letters, books, photographs, documents, and ephemera demonstrates that 100 years since its 1922 founding in the aftermath of World War I, PEN, which originally stood for Poets, Essayists, Novelists, is more important than ever.
PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel went as far as saying that even today in the United States, there has never “been as many books banned and as much of an orchestrated, systematic movement to use book bans as kind of a tool in the culture wars.”
It’s why the words expressed by Solomon, a former PEN President, have such power. They are also an example of how the exhibit clearly shows how interwoven LGBTQ writers and history have also been to the development and longevity of the important group.
Sometimes they are members at the crux of both orientation and race. Langston Hughes, long after developing his fame through the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, propelled the group forward on issues of race. His original member survey where he comments on these issues, and a newsletter on the 1963 PEN dinner entitled “The Problems of the Negro Writer,” are on display.
How writers work together to solve problems of other writers — whether persecution under repressive regimes or discrimination at home — is what Nossel called “the notion of writer-to-writer solidarity…”
Beyond Solomon and Hughes, the litany of material and correspondence about PEN from its members and supporters along 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 remarkable piece is a letter written by Larry Kramer to Sontag in 1987 during her time as president when he implored the organization to do more to confront the AIDS crisis. He resigned his membership and sent a copy of the letter to the New York Times.
The exhibit was curated by PEN America trustee Bridget Colman and Lisa Kolosek. Colman made a special point of highlighting the Kramer letter in a tour of the exhibit, explaining, “I really would ask you to spend some time taking a look at the Larry Kramer letter, because it is perhaps one of those moments where PEN wasn’t actually doing exactly what maybe some of their writers wanted, and makes it very clear.
Colman continued, “He wanted them to acknowledge the AIDS crisis, how it’s affecting the gay writers, and asking why hadn’t it had an impact that he had asked many times. And he writes this to Suzanne Sontag.” The letter prompted change, however, leading to the 1989 Representations of AIDS in the Press meeting.
Decades later, when Mark Ruffalo played Kramer in the 2014 TV movie version of The Normal Heart, Kramer was a special PEN honoree.
In highest position within the cases is a smiling image of James Baldwin, another writer whose work concentrated on issues of sexuality and race, on a poster from a 2001 PEN event many years after his 1987 death.
“In my mind, it speaks so much to how PEN has always reflected and taken strength from the past.” Colman added. “We see him sort of gazing at the history of PEN America. We also can take in some of the amazing moments.”
PEN America at 100: A Century of Defending the Written Word | Through October 9 | New-York Historical Society | Through October 9 | 170 Central Park West (at 77th Street) | www.nyhistory.org