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PEN Teaching Guides

The PEN Teaching Guides contain materials for the use of instructors to support teaching on human rights, politics, literature, and cultural history. These materials include manuscripts, drafts, clippings, correspondence, official publications, books, posters, video recordings, and additional items from the PEN Digital Collections and related collections held at the Harry Ransom Center.

These guides are designed to allow students to engage not only with evolving conversations surrounding human rights and free speech in the twentieth century, but also with landmark events and broad historical trends, from the rise of fascism in the interwar years, through the intensification of the Cold War, and into the era following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in the late 1980s and 1990s.

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Teaching Guides Classroom Experiences

Produced with suppport from National Endowment for the Humanities.

These teaching guides were written by Reid Echols and Adrienne Sockwell with help from Jennifer Follen, Sarah Gutberlet, Christopher Mendez, and Chido Muchemwa.

International Human Rights Writers and Free Speech Writers in Exile / Global Refugees Writing the Cold War Writing World War II Digital Collections

Writers and Free Speech

The PEN Records and the Ransom Center's collections contain many materials that document the ongoing struggle of writers against censorship from official, social, and economic sources. As PEN developed as an organization, its leadership responded to the need to advocate for writers working in (or fleeing from) totalitarian regimes, first in Nazi Germany and later in Soviet-bloc nations, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, apartheid-era South Africa, and elsewhere. While the infamous fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie upon the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988 was a galvanizing moment for PEN Centres around the world, the question of writers' freedom of expression was foundational to PEN's mission throughout the twentieth century. The materials in this guide document particular moments of conflict and crisis in the developing discussion of censorship at PEN over the last hundred years. They offer opportunities for students to explore questions of free speech, human identity, and the often fraught relationship between politics and culture.


Origins: PEN, Fascism, and Free Speech

The 11th International PEN Congress in Dubrovnik was pivotal in PEN's history, marking one of the first significant shifts in its identity from an informal gathering of writers to a reluctantly political organization. The 1926 Congress in Berlin had seen President John Galsworthy establish the resolutions that would become PEN's charter after German playwright Ernst Toller insisted that the organization could no longer ignore politics in the face of rising nationalist movements. These resolutions were put to the test in 1933 when the members of German PEN were challenged by the English and American delegates for their failure to protest the book burnings and censorship enacted by the National Socialist Party, and for the expulsion of communist members from the German centre.

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11th PEN International Congress, Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, 1933. Minutes of a Session. May 26, 1933.

PEN Records 82.1

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Report of the PEN Congress, by Henry Seidel Canby, American delegate; and speech by Ernst Toller representing exiled writers. 1933.

PEN Records 82.1

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Speech by H. G. Wells at opening of the 11th PEN International Congress, Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia. May 25, 1933.

PEN Records 82.1


Censorship on the British Stage

From 1737 to 1968, the Lord Chamberlain's Office was responsible for determining whether plays staged in Britain were suitable for public performance. While the British theatre has a long history of confronting censorship from both church and state, the Lord Chamberlain's exclusive power became a particular point of conflict during the twentieth century, as modern dramatists increasingly tested the boundaries of social, political, and artistic convention. These items offer a snapshot of this conflict in the work of several prominent playwrights, and of an attempt by PEN to intervene in the censorship of an English production of Ferdinand Bruckner's Races (Die Rassen): one of the first plays to directly criticize fascism and anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany.

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Typescript draft of "The Censorship of the Stage in England" by George Bernard Shaw, ca. 1899. Published in The North American Review. August 1899.

George Bernard Shaw Collection 6.9

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Correspondence between Samuel Beckett and George Devine regarding the censorship of Beckett's Endgame by the Lord Chamberlain's Office. January 3, 1958–July 28, 1958.

Royal Court Theatre Company Collection 1.2

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Races, a drama by Ferdinand Bruckner [pseud.] translated from the German for the first time by Ruth Langner, (New York: Knopf). 1934.

PT 2642 A3 R32 1934 HRC-TA

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Typescript letter from Ferdinand Bruckner to the PEN Club. June 24, 1934.

PEN Records 8.4

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Correspondence between PEN and The Lord Chamberlain's Office regarding Ferdinand Bruckner's Races (Die Rassen). April 25, 1934–May 8, 1934.

PEN Records 21.1



Censorship and Children's Publishing in the U.K.

In January 1992, the English PEN Centre published a report on censorship in children's literature based on a survey of authors, illustrators, and publishers. This report stemmed from concerns about the effects of "political correctness" on authors' and illustrators' freedom of expression. These items illuminate the market effects of increasing calls for equal representation of race and gender in children's literature, and the resulting conflicts these pressures raised between writers and publishers. Many authors felt the desire for "political correctness" had gone too far, citing instances of being given ratios for the representation of non-white characters, being told to remove references that might offend particular religious groups, or having their work rejected when they refused to make changes. Others, however, expressed their support for equal representation and recognized the need for action from the industry in the face of decades of imbalance. While some of the views disparaging "political correctness" in these reports implicitly proceed from racist and xenophobic assumptions, they nevertheless offer an opportunity for students to engage in ongoing debates regarding freedom of speech, the interaction of market forces with social justice, and the role of literature in representing a diverse society.

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"Summary of Answers to P.E.N. Questionnaire from Children's Writers and Illustrators Guild." August 25, 1992.

PEN Records 234.1

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PEN Censorship Committee Report: Summary of research since last committee meeting. November 3, 1992.

PEN Records 234.1

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News clippings featuring responses to PEN Report on Censorship. 1992.

PEN Records 234.1



Wole Soyinka

Nigerian playwright, poet, and critic Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka, known as Wole Soyinka, was the first African writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1986). During the 1967 Nigerian Civil War, Soyinka was arrested and held for two years by the government of General Yakubu Gowon, officially accused of conspiracy with the rebel forces of Odumegwu Ojukwu, for an article he had published asking for a cease-fire. These items demonstrate both the very real threats facing writers whose work challenged authoritarian governments, and the tactics used by PEN and other organizations to advocate on these writers' behalf.

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Letter from the Transcription Centre to the Times editor advocating the release of Wole Soyinka, and a list of prominent writers who signed the letter. Undated.

Transcription Centre Papers 18.1

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Letter from Wole Soyinka to Aminu Abdulahi. August 17, 1967.

Transcription Centre Papers 18.1

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Letter from Olaide Idowu Soyinka to Major General Yakubu Gowon. October 31, 1967.

Transcription Centre Papers 18.1

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Report of Visit to Lagos to see Wole Soyinka from Peter Elstob to PEN Writers in Prison Committee. November 10, 1967.

Transcription Centre Papers 18.1



Salman Rushdie

The publication of Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses (1988), which contained material some considered blasphemous to the Islamic faith, led to a condemnation of the work by the religious leader of Iran, Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Mūsavi Khomeini, who issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie's death. Rushdie was forced into hiding for several years. During this time, PEN International and many PEN Centres across the globe advocated for the lifting of the fatwa, lobbying governments both in their home countries and in Iran, raising funds, and condemning the issuing of a death sentence for a writer's work. While the issue led to some division among the centres, with many members criticizing the book for insensitivity, or debating PEN's role in the charged political situation, the Rushdie case generally united PEN and its centres around a common goal of advocacy for free speech and against violence towards writers. The debates surrounding Rushdie's case offer striking comparisons with recent controversies surrounding religion and freedom of expression, including the Charlie Hebdo attacks and recent conflicts over hate speech on university campuses.

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PEN News 10: The PEN Rushdie file. May 1989.

PEN Records 262.7

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Letter from English PEN to Prime Minister John Major. November 11, 1991.

PEN Records 324.1

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Letter from Prime Minister John Major to English PEN. December 2, 1991.

PEN Records 324.1

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Letter from Japan PEN Club to Alexandre Blokh describing the murder of Rushdie translator Hitoshi Igarashi. July 19, 1991.

PEN Records 262.7

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Summary record of a meeting between the Foreign Secretary and Rushdie Defence Committee delegation. June 6, 1991.

PEN Records 262.7



Books for Prisoners/Writers in Prison

PEN has a history of advocating for incarcerated writers dating at least as far back as the mid-1930s, when President H. G. Wells, E. M. Forster, and Aldous Huxley, along with many other members, lobbied for the release of Federico García Lorca and Arthur Koestler during the Spanish Civil War. This commitment led to the creation of the International Writers in Prison Committee in 1960, which would come to form a large part of PEN's global outreach efforts. This committee investigated the case of writers imprisoned solely for their opinions or writing. One of their earliest major campaigns, led by Arthur Miller, was for the release of Wole Soyinka in 1967—an effort that ultimately succeeded. Beginning in 1986, the PEN Books for Prisoners Committee was also created to solicit donations for books from publishers to provide to imprisoned writers across the globe. This was a means for PEN not only to ease the suffering of incarcerated writers in a small way, but also to make new contacts, to gather information about ongoing crises, and to put pressure on governments in support of free speech. The items below illustrate PEN's work on behalf of incarcerated writers and offer students a number of opportunities to reflect on the importance of watchdog organizations in uncovering and condemning international human rights abuses.

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Correspondence between PEN Books for Prisoners Committee and several Israeli officials, including the Minister of Education, regarding books for Palestinian writers in Ketziot Prison. May 23, 1992–August 26, 1992.

PEN Records 233.8

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Letter from Nepalese writer Gopal Gurung to PEN Books for Prisoners Committee. March 27, 1990.

PEN Records 233.8

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International PEN: Writers in Prison Committee Report. April 6, 1990.

PEN Records 242.5



The Well of Loneliness

English novelist Radclyffe Hall, who was present at the original PEN meetings hosted by feminist novelist Catharine Amy Dawson Scott, was one of the first writers to have their work officially censored for containing depictions of LGBTQIA+ characters and queer desire. The materials below relate to the censorship and legal battles surrounding Hall's novel, which was successfully defended in the U.S. by attorney Morris Ernst. Examining the case and materials surrounding the censorship of Hall's novel offers students an opportunity to see how battles over freedom of expression, and over the definition of obscenity, are also often conflicts over shifting boundaries of gender and sexuality.

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The Well of Loneliness, 1926–1930: People of the State of New York v. Donald Friede and Another, notes and draft legal papers. 1926–1929.

Morris Ernst Papers 234.2

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Scotland Yard and The Well of Loneliness typescript, documenting the suppression of The Well in England. April 1929.

Radclyffe Hall and Una Vincenzo, Lady Troubridge Papers 17.5

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The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, Victory Edition, (New York: Covici Friede). 1929.

PR 6015 A33 W43 1929



PEN International Women's Committee

These materials relate to the efforts of PEN America's Vice President Meredith Tax to form an International Women's Committee for PEN, largely in response to the underrepresentation of women writers at the 1986 New York Congress, where 90% of the delegates were male. Newly appointed president of PEN America, Norman Mailer, had sparked headlines in the New York conference by stating that the gender imbalance existed because "there were not enough women of sufficient intellectual caliber." Margaret Atwood, Betty Friedan, and many others protested this response, stating their goal that the next congress, to be held in Toronto and Montreal in 1989, display a parity of representation between genders (which, thanks largely to these writers' efforts, it did). These accounts of the initial resistance to the formation of an International Women's Committee highlight the conflict in PEN's identity, even at the height of the Salman Rushdie crisis, regarding its status as a political organization. Students might explore the intersectionality of Tax's call for international support for and among women writers, or the gender dynamics of Mailer's statements and PEN's initial reticence.

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"Thinking locally, acting globally," clipping from The Women's Review of Books Vol. IX, No. 8. May 1992.

PEN Records 242.3

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"Gender-Based Censorship: Another Human Rights Abuse," newsletter. 1992.

PEN Records 242.3

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Letter from Meredith Tax to PEN International regarding International Women's Committee. July 4, 1989.

PEN Records 223.1

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Letter from Antonia Fraser and Josephine Pullein-Thompson to Meredith Tax regarding American PEN's Proposal for an International Women's Committee. September 7, 1989.

PEN Records 223.1



Censoring Streetcar on Stage, Page, and Screen

Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) is consistently listed among the most influential works of twentieth-century American drama. It features controversial depictions of mental illness, sexuality, and violence. As such, both the play and its subsequent film adaptation faced considerable censorship. This series of items focuses on a particular scene, in which the character Blanche, played by Vivien Leigh in both the London debut of the play and the later film, reveals that she had found her first husband in bed with another man. Both the London play and the film edit this exchange to erase the implied sexual relationship between the two men. Students approaching these materials will be able to observe the striking differences in subsequent versions of Williams's work as a result of censorship from both the British government and Hollywood, inviting discussion of the cultural norms and official standards that would find the depictions of sexuality in the play unsuitable for public consumption.

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Cuts required by the Lord Chamberlain to the London production of A Streetcar Named Desire. 1947.

Tennessee Williams Collection 43.9

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Vivien Leigh's playscript of A Streetcar Named Desire, Act 2, Scene 2. 1949.

Tennessee Williams Collection 44.12

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A Streetcar Named Desire, motion picture mimeo script. 1950.

Tennessee Williams Collection 44.6



PEN and Section 28: The U.K. Obscenity Act

In 1980s Britain, amidst the AIDS crisis and the rise of Margaret Thatcher's conservative government, gay and lesbian rights became a major source of both political conflict and social activism. While sex between men had been decriminalized in 1967 in the U.K., gay men and women, including many writers and artists, still struggled against discrimination and censorship. This series highlights for students how equal rights and free expression do not always follow from initial legislative actions, and offers opportunities to explore the history of LGBTQIA+ rights in the contexts of censorship, literature, and the arts.

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Letter from Francis King to Customs and Excise Board regarding seized books. June 27, 1984.

PEN Records 208.13

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Letter from English PEN to the Times editor regarding Section 28. February 1, 1988.

PEN Records 208.13

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Before the Act: A celebration to counter the effects of Section 28. June 5, 1988.

PEN Records 208.13


We have attempted to minimize harm or adverse impact by selecting primary sources that we believe will not place people at risk. Please notify us at reference@hrc.utexas.edu if you believe we need to remove any materials from this digital collection.

Takedown Notice: This material is made available for education and research purposes. The Harry Ransom Center does not own the rights for these items; it cannot grant or deny permission to use this material. Copyright law protects unpublished as well as published materials. Rights holders for these materials may be listed in the WATCH file. It is your responsibility to determine the rights status and secure whatever permission may be needed for the use of any item. Due to the nature of archival collections, rights information may be incomplete or out of date. We welcome updates or corrections. Upon request, we'll remove material from public view while we address a rights issue.