PEN America has a new digital archive, and it will give you access to hundreds of hours of interviews, panels, and debates with your favorite authors. The literary and human rights organization just posted approximately 1500 hours of audio and video from events online.
The conferences, readings, and other events date back to 1966. Among the collection's highlights are Haruki Murakami’s first-ever public speaking event, audio from Pablo Neruda’s first visit to the U.S. in 1966 (as part of an event with the iconic, dome-obsessed architect Buckminster Fuller, among others), audio from a 1986 reading with Mario Vargas Llosa and Salman Rushdie, and video interviews with Toni Morrison.
For example, here’s a video from a 1982 event on banned books that featured Morrison, Grace Paley, John Irving, Gay Talese, and more.
It’s the first time PEN America has been able to make its entire audio and video archive available to the public. Digitizing the recordings will also help the organization preserve its history, since many of the analog recordings were in danger of deteriorating over time.
"With the release of the PEN America Digital Archive, these essential voices have been brought back to life, brimming with personality, passion, opinion, and sometimes bombast,” PEN America’s executive director, Suzanne Nossel, said in a press release. “Hearing directly from these greats will offer information and inspiration to writers, scholars, and free expression advocates for generations to come."
You can search the archive by keywords or author names, or check out the curated featured collections, which right now include programming with Toni Morrison from the past 30 years and multimedia from PEN’s 1986 annual congress, headed by Norman Mailer.
John Knowles’s 1959 novel about a conflicted prep school friendship has become a coming-of-age classic.
1. KNOWLES BASED A SEPARATE PEACE ON HIS OWN EXPERIENCE.
Like his protagonists Gene and Finny, who are students at the elite Devon School during World War II, Knowles attended the exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in the early 1940s. He then served in the military for a short time before graduating from Yale in 1949. The West Virginian Knowles later wrote that despite the culture clash (and the cold) he fell in love with the school. "The great trees, the thick clinging ivy, the expanses of playing fields, the winding black-water river, the pure air all began to sort of intoxicate me. Classroom windows were open; the aroma of flowers and shrubbery floated in," he wrote. "The summer of 1943 at Exeter was as happy a time as I ever had in my life … Yale was a distinct letdown afterward."
2. THE BOOK HAD AN EARLIER EXISTENCE AS A SHORT STORY.
After graduating from Yale, Knowles worked as a drama critic at the Hartford (Conn.) Courant and as a freelance writer. One of his first published short stories, “Phineas,” appeared in Cosmopolitan in 1956 and contained the narrative seeds of A Separate Peace.
3. THERE WAS A REAL-LIFE JUMPING TREE …
In several key scenes in A Separate Peace, Gene and Finny dare each other to jump off the overhanging limb of a huge tree into the river below. In the beginning of the novel, naturally adventurous Finny takes a flying leap off the branch. Gene, who is more reserved, follows his friend's lead, which cements their friendship. Later, Gene loses his balance while standing on the limb, and Finny catches him. Like his characters, Knowles admitted to being in a secret society with an initiation requirement that involved jumping from “the branch of a very high tree” into a river. Knowles did suffer his own fall, which injured his foot and compelled him to use crutches for some time.
4. … AND A REAL-LIFE FINNY.
His name was David Hackett, and Knowles met him during a six-week summer session at Exeter in 1943. Hackett attended Milton Academy in Massachusetts during the regular school year. There, he was a standout athlete on the hockey, football, and baseball teams. He also quickly befriended the future U.S. attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy, and later served under him in the Justice Department.
5. KNOWLES NEVER REVEALED IF GENE WAS REALLY TO BLAME.
At the novel's climax, Gene and Finny decide to jump off the tree branch together. Gene shakes the branch, causing Finny to plunge and break his leg. Though readers have debated Gene's intentions since the book was published, Knowles never said whether Gene meant to cause Finny's fall. Upon the author's death in 2001, his brother-in-law Bob Maxwell said, "John used to say he would never answer that question."
6. THE BOOK’S TITLE IS BORROWED FROM HEMINGWAY.
The protagonist in Ernest Hemingway’s 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms, an American soldier fighting in Italy during World War I, grows disillusioned after a disastrous battle and deserts the army. “I had made a separate peace,” he declares. Hemingway also uses the line in his 1925 short story collection In Our Time, with the character Nick saying it to a dying soldier. Knowles may have chosen the title to illustrate the parallel of the collective peace after war and the personal, subjective peace between individuals. In this case, Gene reaches a state of peace after he and Finny reconcile following the accident.
7. KNOWLES DIDN’T EXPECT SALES TO EXCEED 3000 COPIES.
Eleven publishers turned down A Separate Peace. The book first appeared in print in 1959 thanks to the London publisher Secker and Warburg, while the initial U.S. publication took place on leap year day—February 29, 1960. Though the book received mostly positive reviews, it wasn’t an immediate bestseller. But as more and more English teachers discovered A Separate Peace, they brought it into their classrooms, and the book gained a colossal momentum. Knowles’s first published novel would prove by far his most successful one, ultimately selling more than 8 million copies.
8. FINNY AND KNOWLES WERE BOTH SWIMMING CHAMPS.
Knowles once wrote about serving as the anchor man in a swimming relay race while at Exeter, beating the school’s rival, Phillips Andover Academy. He became “an athletic mini-hero for about 15 minutes.” In A Separate Peace, Finny breaks Devon’s 100-yard freestyle swimming record—but the winning time was unofficial, as Gene, who served as timekeeper, was the sole witness.
9. THE BOOK HAS BEEN SAID TO HAVE A HOMOEROTIC SUBTEXT.
Though there was no description of any sexual encounter in the novel, some readers have contended that the book has a gay undercurrent. A handful of critics have objected to this perceived dynamic, including parents in a central New York school district who, in 1980, denouncedA Separate Peace as a “filthy, trashy sex novel” that encouraged homosexuality. For what it’s worth, Knowles said, “If there had been homoeroticism between Phineas and Gene, I would have put it in the book, I assure you. It simply wasn't there.”
10. THE AUTHOR WAS CONSULTED FOR A FILM VERSION.
Fred Segal wrote the screenplay of A Separate Peace; Knowles read through the script and made suggestions for improving it. Directed by Larry Peerce with a largely amateur cast, the movie came out in 1972 to so-so reviews. Knowles was proud of the fact that the production was able to shoot on location at Phillips Exeter Academy, the inspiration for the fictional Devon School.
Frankenstein, the story of a mad scientist who brings the dead back to life, only to discover that he has created a monster, continues to be one of our lasting horror stories. On the 200th anniversary of its original publication, here are the nuts and bolts about the tale that forever touched on our fears about what can go wrong when people play God.
1. FRANKENSTEIN WAS WRITTEN BY A TEENAGER.
Mary Shelley’s teenage years were eventful, to say the least. At age 16, she ran away with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Over the next two years, she gave birth to two children. In 1816, the couple traveled to Switzerland and visited Lord Byron at Villa Diodati. While there, 18-year-old Mary started Frankenstein. It was published in 1818, when she was 20 years old.
2. THE NOVEL CAME OUT OF A GHOST STORY COMPETITION.
The Shelleys visited Switzerland during the “year without a summer.” The eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia had caused severe climate abnormalities and a lot of rain. Stuck inside, the group read ghost stories from the book Fantasmagoriana. It was then that Lord Byron proposed that they have a competition to see who could come up with the best ghost story: Byron, Mary, Percy, or the physician John Polidori.
In the end, of course, Mary won the contest. Neither Byron nor Percy finished a ghost story, although Polidori wrote The Vampyre, which later influenced Bram Stoker while writing Dracula.
3. MARY SAID SHE GOT THE IDEA FROM A DREAM.
At first, Mary had writer’s block, unable to come up with a good idea for a ghost story. Then she had a waking dream—“I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think,” she said. In the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein [PDF], she described the vision as follows:
“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life. … He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.”
Mary opened her eyes and realized she’d found her story. “What terrified me will terrify others,” she thought. She began working on it the next day.
4. SHELLEY WROTE FRANKENSTEIN IN THE SHADOW OF TRAGEDY.
Before she started Frankenstein, Mary gave birth to a daughter, Clara, who died six weeks later. (In fact, only one of Mary’s four children lived to adulthood.) Soon after the baby died, she wrote in her journal, “Dream that my little baby came to life again—that it had only been cold & that we rubbed it by the fire & it lived—I awake & find no baby—I think about the little thing all day.” This circumstance, as well as the suicide of her half-sister, must have contributed to the novel.
5. FRANKENSTEIN WAS THE NAME OF THE SCIENTIST, NOT THE MONSTER.
In the novel, Victor Frankenstein is the scientist. The monster remains unnamed and is referred to as "monster," “creature,” "demon," and "it.” But if you’ve made the mistake of calling the monster Frankenstein, you’re not alone. Everyone from The Reef novelist Edith Wharton to the writers of the movie Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein has done it.
Mary said she made up the name "Frankenstein." However, Frankenstein is a German name that means Stone of the Franks. What’s more, historian Radu Florescu claimed that the Shelleys visited Castle Frankenstein on a journey up the Rhine River. While there, they must have learned about an unbalanced alchemist named Konrad Dippel, who used to live in the castle. He was trying to create an elixir, called Dippel's Oil, which would make people live for over a hundred years. Like Victor Frankenstein, Dippel was rumored to dig up graves and experiment on the bodies.
7. MANY THOUGHT PERCY SHELLEY WROTE THE WORK.
Frankenstein was first published anonymously. It was dedicated to William Godwin, Mary’s father, and Percy Shelley wrote the preface. Because of these connections, many assumed that Percy Shelley was the author. This myth continued even after Frankenstein was reprinted in Mary’s name. In fact, some people are stillarguing that Percy authored the book. While he edited the book and encouraged Mary to expand the story into a novel, actual authorship is a stretch.
When Frankenstein came out in 1818, many critics bashed it. “What a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity this work presents,” John Crocker, of the Quarterly Review, wrote. But gothic novels were all the rage, and Frankenstein soon gained readers. In 1823, a play titled "Presumption; or The Fate of Frankenstein" cemented the story’s popularity. In 1831, a new version of the book was published, this time under Mary’s name.
9. FRANKENSTEIN WAS CONSIDERED THE FIRST SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL.
In penning her gothic novel, Shelley was writing the first major science fiction novel, as well as inventing the concept of the “mad scientist” and helping establish what would become horror fiction. The influence of the book in popular culture is so huge that the term “Frankenstein” has entered common speech to mean something unnatural and horrendous.
Mary went on to write other science fiction, such as her 1826 short story Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman, about a man who has been frozen in ice, and her novel The Last Man, about a survivor in a world destroyed by plague, from the same year.
10. THOMAS EDISON ADAPTED THE STORY FOR FILM.
In 1910, Thomas Edison made a one-reel, 15-minute film of Frankenstein, one of the first horror movies ever made. It was thought lost until it was rediscovered in the 1950s. Watch it above.