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Growing Pains (and Pleasures) of PEN USA Center West

September 16, 1990|JACK MILES | Miles, Times book editor (on leave Oct. 1, 1990 , through Sept. 30, 1991) , is a past board member of PEN USA Center West. For information on the "Garden Party and Literary Auction" (tickets $15), call Angela Weimer at (213) 824-2041

PEN International — founded in 1921 by a group of writers including John Galsworthy, Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence and G. B. Shaw--is a literary mutual benefit society, but mutual benefit has meant in PEN practice not the stuff of writers' conferences--marketing tips, how to find an agent, etc.--but such things as letter-writing campaigns for writers in prison. When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was exiled from the Soviet Union of unhappy memory, it was International PEN President Heinrich Boll who met him at the airport.

In this country, PEN has consisted, for many years, pretty exclusively of the works and pomps of PEN American Center, based in New York with chapters in a number of other cities, including San Francisco. PEN in Los Angeles, however, is not a chapter of PEN American Center and has had a distinct and little-known history of its own.

In a few unusually large or disparate countries, PEN International has franchised two separate, autonomous PEN centers. Canada is one such country, Australia another. In 1952, the United States became a third when PEN Los Angeles Center was established as an autonomous PEN center with the right to establish chapters of its own. What followed on that founding, however, was a far cry from the duplication, in the Western United States, of the admirable programs of PEN American Center.

Around 1980, recently moved to Los Angeles from New York, I was invited to join PEN Los Angeles Center and accepted with alacrity. To my dismay, however, the first, badly edited newsletter I received contained nothing of what I thought of as PEN's traditional, even historic mission. What it contained, instead, was, among similar examples of hokey boosterism, an item on a member who had placed third in an obscure dog story competition. The contrast between PEN in New York and PEN in Los Angeles was enough to confirm the worst stereotypes about Los Angeles that literary New York might entertain. I asked for my dues money back.

Happily, a few equally disgruntled PEN members did something better than resign: They expanded and reorganized. Malcolm Boyd, president from 1984 to 1987; Digby Diehl, president in 1987-1988; Ruth Harmer-Carew, in various official capacities; and a number of other local writers took the relatively sorry condition of PEN L.A. as a challenge rather than as a cosmic verdict.

Los Angeles has been, notoriously, a city where writers could hide out, but Boyd and Diehl used their considerable personal and professional networks to blow a certain amount of cover. The literary resources--the personnel, you might say--of Los Angeles had for years been much greater than what was reflected in PEN's membership. During the mid-1980s, that gap began to shrink. Not yet a true roster of the city's writers, the PEN directory nonetheless began to become an extremely interesting list.

It also began to become something more than a Los Angeles list. There were clusters of writers in other Western cities who kept in touch with Los Angeles through PEN. PEN Los Angeles Center began, somewhat surprisingly, to become what it had apparently been intended to be 35 years earlier. And in fact, in 1988, PEN Los Angeles Center petitioned PEN International to have its name changed.

But to what? That became the question. PEN American Center did not define itself as PEN East, so it seemed inappropriate for PEN Los Angeles Center to be PEN West. There was also an affiliate of PEN American Center in San Francisco that was known as PEN West. Very well then: PEN USA Center. But once this proposal was made, PEN American Center suddenly discovered the East and insisted on a name and a mandate for PEN Los Angeles Center that would stop at the Mississippi. Thus did PEN Los Angeles Center become PEN USA Center West, a name that reads like the twin of PEN USA Center East, though there is no PEN USA Center East.

Names are never all that important, of course. What happened to make PEN International take the request from PEN Los Angeles Center seriously was performance more than ambition, and performance of a fairly concrete sort. In impoverished literary circles, particularly in impoverished Third World literary circles, when a letter to the family of a writer in prison contains not just encouragement but also a little money, it can cause a small sensation. PEN USA Center West has recently been putting some of its money where the general PEN mouth has always been in these matters, and the gestures have been far more generally noticed than the donors ever expected they would be. At a recent PEN congress in Madeira, the warmth of the welcome for the Los Angeles delegation was a surprise to nearly everyone.

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