Dean Deborah Fitzgerald and members of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences welcomed the PEN New England organization to the group’s new home at MIT during a reception held at the MIT Faculty Club on Monday March 5. The gathering, which brought together people in writing, publishing and scholarship gave a foretaste of potential creative collaborations between the PEN and MIT communities.
Celebrating literature and writing
Located in Building 14, near the Writing and Humanistic Studies headquarters, PEN New England is the largest branch of PEN America, and affiliated with PEN International, the oldest human rights and literary organization in the world. “The mission,” said Executive Director Karen Wulf, “is to celebrate great writing and writers, and to defend the freedom of speech. We welcome all who are passionate about literature and the free exchange of ideas.”
The spectrum of PEN New England programs includes panels and workshops, programs for youth and prisoners, campaigns on behalf of writers imprisoned for their writing, and special events, such as the recent "Lyrics as Literature" event honoring songwriters Leonard Cohen and Chuck Berry. PEN also presents two distinguished annual literary awards: the PEN Hemingway Award, for best American debut fiction, and the PEN New England/Winship Award for the best New England writers of fiction, poetry and non-fiction.
In a toast, Fitzgerald said, “We are really very honored to have the PEN New England writing community based here at MIT.” The match is a natural, she noted, citing common purposes of ideas and creativity. Fitzgerald noted that the Institute has been a longstanding home to distinguished literature and writing faculties whose awards include the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, Peabody Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Through these and other SHASS faculties, the Institute gives all undergraduates sustained training in writing and critical thinking, skills that have become hallmarks of an MIT education.
Members of PEN expressed pleasure in the new relationship with MIT SHASS. Among those present were novelist and Boston Globe columnist James Carroll, novelists Alexandra Marshall and Christopher Castellani; Richard Hoffman, PEN New England chair; boardmember Amy Macdonald, who with Chris Lydon and MIT poet Erica Funkhouser, runs the monthly PEN Reading Series; designer Michael Borum; Jill Kneerim, of Kneerim Williams literary agency; publisher Helene Atwan of Beacon Press; authors Dale Peterson and Kim McLarin; Renee Loth, Boston Globe columnist and editor of Architecture Boston; poet Kathi Aguero, and novelist Helen Elaine Lee, who first catalyzed the new PEN/MIT connection.
Lee, MIT SHASS associate professor of writing and a PEN New England boardmember, first saw the possibility of a PEN/MIT connection. "I saw a great resonance between MIT and PEN," she said in remarks at the event, "and I am so grateful to MIT for recognizing that the work PEN New England does in promoting literature, service, the exchange of ideas, and free expression is MIT’s work, as well.
Tom Levenson, head of the MIT-SHASS Graduate Program in Science Writing, and a documentary television producer, also noted the creative possibilities for PEN and MIT, observing that MIT is a center for the “many new forms that writing is taking.”
Other members of MIT’s literary community include James Buzard, head of the MIT-SHASS Literature Faculty, Alan Lightman, author of Einstein’s Brain; Joe Haldeman, one of America's science fiction masters; Junot Díaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; Stephen Tapscott, poet and literary critic; Philip Hilts, head of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships.
In his remarks, PEN NE chair Richard Hoffman observed that MIT is a meaningful campus for 21st century writers who are engaged with creating and understanding new forms and technologies. Invoking the spectrum of PEN programs, Hoffman then announced the inaugural PEN/MIT collaboration: the 2012 Henry David Thoreau Award Event, to be held at MIT, Tuesday, April 10, at 7 p.m. in 10-250. The award — for literary excellence in nature writing — will be presented to poet Gary Snyder, a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets, and Professor of English, University of California-Davis. The event is open to the public.