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From James Baldwin to Susan Sontag, Listen to Recordings from PEN America’s Vast Archive

After finding its literary archives inaccessible, PEN America launched a five-year project to digitize 1,500 hours of audio and video.

The PEN America Digital Archive (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
The PEN America Digital Archive (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

The PEN America Digital Archive launched on July 26 with over 1,500 hours of audio and video material newly accessible to the public, from the inaugural visit of Pablo Neruda to the United States, to Haruki Murakami’s first public speaking event. The archive chronicles 50 years of PEN America’s programming on literature and freedom of expression, featuring the voices of authors and advocates like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, and Salman Rushdie.

On its site, PEN shared the origin story of the archive, adapted from text by Antonio Aiello, the former web editor and content director of PEN America who spearheaded the project. As Aiello describes, it was inspired by a 2011 visit to the PEN archives at Princeton University, where researchers found this material so fragile that it was unable to be heard:

Arriving at the small, sun-filled reading room, eager to dive into recordings featuring the likes of Pablo Neruda, Susan Sontag, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and many more, our staff met a dead end: Princeton denied us access to the recordings. A loud argument ensued. Our staff insisted on seeing the collection; both the archivist and the curator said no. Our staff begged. The curator stood his ground. The recordings had been deemed so vulnerable that a single spin of a record through a player could cause irreparable damage that would render the recording unusable.

Over the following five years, with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Archives, the most high-risk materials were carefully preserved and digitized. Now visitors to the PEN America Digital Archive can search the recordings by author/participant, date, genre, location, and media (including audio and video).

Kyle Dacuyan shared “A Literary Activist’s Guide to the PEN America Digital Archive” on the PEN site, highlighting a 1985 marathon reading marking the first International Writers for Peace Day, and the 1984 “An Evening of Forbidden Books & Forbidden Writers,” featuring Susan Sontag, Arthur Miller, and John Irving reading works by authors then barred from the United States, such as Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, and Pablo Neruda. Electric Literature also delved into the offerings, discovering Toni Morrison’s 2008 discussion of the writer’s role in freedom of expression, and the 1992 “Thirty Years of Feminism” event considering gender discrimination and writers reacting to social stigmas. Hyperallergic made its own exploration into the incredible archive, with a few selections embedded below:

“PEN International Congress: The Writer in the Electronic Age (1966):
Speakers include Buckminster Fuller, Pablo Neruda, Kathleen Nott, Adolf Hoffmeister, and Norman Podhoretz

“Adirondack Oral Biography Collection: The James Baldwin Interview” (1973)

“PEN Conversations with Distinguished Foreign Writers: Haruki Murakami” (1991), the author’s first-ever speaking engagement

“Native American Voices of A Dialogue Across the Generations Public Reading” (1994): Speakers include N. Scott Momaday, Sherman Alexie, James Welch, Joy Harjo, and Muriel Miguel

“Conversations with Distinguished Foreign Writers: Susan Sontag and Chinua Achebe” (1989)

“Lost Women Writers” (1988): Speakers include Toni Morrison, Cynthia Macdonald, and Maureen Howard reading work of three “lost” early 20th-century women writers

The PEN America Digital Archive is available to explore online through PEN America. 

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