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Avid Readers: How the 1936 PEN Congress Redefined World Literature

In 1936, as fascism and nazism were on the rise in Europe and the Spanish Civil War began, 83 writers from across the globe gathered in Buenos Aires. They thought they would be participating in a series of closed-door debates about literature and its relationship to European politics. Instead, the Argentinian public swarmed the sessions and followed the writers around the city.

In a talk on Friday, January 12 titled “Dancing on the Edge of the Volcano: Politics, Language, and Writing in the 1936 PEN Conference in Buenos Aires,” Mónica Szurmuk argued that what happened at the PEN Congress introduced a new kind of interaction between audience and writer and redefined the role of the intellectual. Szurmuk believes that the horizontal, ethically engaged interactions between audiences and authors at the 1936 PEN serve as models for thinking about world literature today.

What might it mean to extend our definition of world literature beyond academic masterpieces to widely-consumed texts? What would world literature look like if we focused less on broad global categories and more on locally situated instances where authors and the public discuss literary and political issues? Szurmuk,  a professor at the University of Buenos Aires and a researcher at Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), dove into the Argentinian press coverage of the PEN Congress for accounts of this new model of engagement.

At the time of the PEN conference, Szurmuk noted, Argentina’s population was nearly half composed of immigrants or expatriates, and each community founded newspapers in its own language. Many Buenos Aires residents were multilingual, and avidly consumed literature and media in a range of languages. The PEN Congress received extensive coverage in local newspapers and political pamphlets. A Yiddish daily newspaper, for example, devoted its entire paper–including the children’s column–to coverage of the Congress.

Argentina in the 1930s was no stranger to nationalist movements and political unrest. The political coup in 1930s put a nationalist leader with fascist leanings in charge of the country. Buenos Aire’s multilingual and immigrant residents were all along the political spectrum, from fascists to socialists to refugee communities caught in between.

When Filipo Marinetti, the Futurist writer, gave his speech in Italian rather than one of the conference’s three official languages, he knew that he was politicizing his defense of Italian fascism to build alliances with Argentinians from Italy. At the same time, writers from displaced communities, such as Yiddish or exiled German writers, found enthusiastically engaged readers ready to support their concerns in Buenos Aires.

Szurmuk’s analysis of the PEN Congress coverage reveals a non-hierarchical, open network of bodies transmitting and exchanging ideas. The varied reading interests of cosmopolitan Buenos Aires also break down the boundaries of what counts as “literature.” No one remembers the name of PEN’s president, Szurmuk joked, but crowds flocked to hear “middlebrow” writers of popular literature.

The cosmopolitan crowds communicating in a host of languages created “alternative emancipatory networks of action and reflection,” said Szurmuk. These types of interactions, which moved literary discourse away from pedagogy and reading to an exploration of subjectivity and political engagement, are models for how we can think about world literature now. If we think of readers as simultaneously fans, political agents, and members of a crowd ready to disrupt institutions, we also have to rethink what counts as “literature” and what an author is and does.

Usually, world literature scholars tend to focus either on text-centric undergraduate pedagogy or on distributing a canon of literary “masterpieces.” This work is necessary, Szurmuk argues, but it doesn’t go far enough, nor allow narratives of world literature that include displaced writers, multilingual readers, or popular literary works.

In the unruly crowd attending the 1936 PEN Congress, argues Mónica Szurmuk, we find a “horizontal exchange of ideas” that allows us to redefine world literature as a network of relationships across class and language lines, and see the interaction between author and readers as “a form of ethical engagement.”

This talk was co-sponsored by the DHI, the Hemispheric Institute of the Americas, and the Department of Comparative Literature.

–Samantha Snively, DHI Humanities Correspondent and PhD candidate in English literature

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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