In the second half of the twentieth-century, the promise of universal human rights emerged as arguably the most powerful ideal in international politics. During this same period, global literatures also became increasingly entangled with the cause of human rights, as writers from diverse regions of the world, including Chris Abani, Denise Levertov, J.M. Coetzee, Ngugi wa Thiong’O, Muriel Rukeyser, Seamus Heaney, Adrienne Rich, and Nadine Gordimer, used their work to claim and imagine rights for themselves and for others. My dissertation reconstructs the history of how human rights and literary history came to be entwined in the twentieth–century, set against the backdrop of the Cold War, decolonization, South African Apartheid, and the legacies of European empire, World War II, and the Holocaust. More specifically, the dissertation argues that this entanglement of human rights and global literatures –– nascent in the 1940s, ascendant in the 1970s and 1980s, and dominant today –– has transformed both fields in fundamental though still unaccounted for ways. Just as the rise of human rights opened up new avenues for writers to imagine and connect across borders, writers helped redefine human rights for the contemporary world. To develop this claim, I remap the literary history of the twentieth-century into four multilayered studies and chapters: the legislator, the refugee, the prisoner, and the witness. All of these figures, I suggest, hold out significance for the history of writing and rights, and open up space to examine how each has shaped the other. Grounded in extensive research in personal archives and the papers of PEN and Amnesty International, my four thematic chapters explore how the form, sociology, and politics of literature have been variously shaped by the crises and possibilities of human rights. I show, for instance, how the first generation of refugee writers, including Arthur Koestler, Anna Seghers, Bertolt Brecht, and Hannah Arendt, were provoked by the new realities of statelessness to craft literary genres and styles adequate to narrating life outside the bounds of citizenship and the nation. I also interpret and synthesize work by writers such as Ngugi, Wole Soyinka, and Breyten Breytenbach, which flew out of the world’s prisons beginning in the late 1960s, circulating with remarkable speed in translations and anthologies sponsored by organizations like PEN the Open Society. And I show how these clandestine documents inspired writers as diverse as Margaret Atwood, Harold Pinter, J.M. Coetzee, and Luisa Valenzuela to join the ranks of human rights NGOS and turn their creative energies to the topic of political imprisonment, torture, and the everyday oppressions of distant strangers. At the same time, however, I argue that just as literature was being shaped in new ways by the idea and practice of human rights, these very rights, long upheld as the “self evident” and “inalienable” possessions of universal “Man,” were made poetic and protean as they became the impetus and subject of literature. If human rights before the mid-twentieth century were thought of as universal and immutable principles, the story I tell shows how these rights were made into mutable terrain, open to being shaped and reshaped through human action and imagination. This story begins during the founding of the United Nations in 1945. Concentrating on the years around World War II, Chapter 1 (the legislator) deals explicitly with the way that a particular writer in the twentieth-century reimagined the eighteenth-century “Rights of Man” as open and unstable rather than as eternal laws of nature or god. The chapter builds on extensive research in the archives of the American poet and politician Archibald MacLeish, revealing his involvement with the founding of the UN and the drafting of the most important human rights declarations of the century: the UN Charter (1945) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). By comparing and theorizing the confluences and differences between his postwar poetry and his draft declarations from the UN, this chapter contends that MacLeish tried to reimagine universal rights as the outcome of perpetual human remaking. MacLeish, I suggest, used his poetry to articulate what he could not in his declarations: that universal rights do not precede human action, but are rather the yield of this action, and therefore forever under construction. Both philosophical and archival in its grounding, this chapter lays the groundwork for the dissertation as a whole by reframing twentieth-century human rights as a terrain of contested universalisms. The philosophy of Hannah Arendt bridges the first chapter to Chapter 2 (the refugee). Like MacLeish, Arendt, a once stateless German, was distrustful of human rights as they were articulated and declared after World War II. Arendt judged the UDHR an “unrealistic” document, precisely because it did not attend to the political and existential facts of statelessness. But if the UN and other “well meaning humanitarians” didn’t apprehend the problem and potential solutions to the crisis of the refugee, who did? The chapter offers an answer to this question by assembling an original archive of refugee writings from the mid-century, writings which have not previously been read together –– works by Bertolt Brecht, B. Traven, Anna Seghers, and Arthur Koestler. These writers, I argue, variously described and imagined what is lost in the experience of statelessness, and thus also prefigured possible experiences, exchanges, resources that could to redress this loss. This chapter also works with the early archives of PEN International, and its short-lived (and unknown) PEN Refugee Writing Committee (RWC). I contend PEN’s refugee work –– what I call “humanitarianism of the pen” –– dramatically expanded what was understood as “life,” folding acts of creation into an otherwise biological category. I conclude by showing how the idea of human rights and human life generated by the earliest refugee writers continue to animate contemporary reforms and critiques of humanitarian reason. Chapter 3 (the prisoner) moves from displacement to incarceration. Like the chapter on the refugee, these pages unfold in relays between individual works and institutional histories, using the archives of the PEN Writers in Prison Committee and Amnesty International. This chapter argues that imprisoned writers who became the subject of international human rights campaign –– writers such as Ngugi, Soyinka, Kim Chi Ha, Agostinho Neto, and Bryten Breytenbach –– helped make long held ideas about the writer’s freedom one of the animating principles that drove the rise of the human rights movement in the 1970s and 1980s. But while the intervention of human rights organizations helped free imprisoned writers globally, in doing so, they also permanently influenced the dynamics of world literature. Cultural power and prestige was arrogated to the bruised and imprisoned bard, with longstanding effects on how writers outside the prison, including Atwood, Coetzee, Gordimer, Pinter, and Heaney, negotiated and articulated their relative freedoms and responsibilities. Chapter 4 (the witness) advances the dissertation’s work on the responsibility of the writer in the age of human rights. The most genealogical of the all the chapters, it traces a somewhat counterintuitive history of the witness as a figure defined by their attention and ethical posture towards violence. This history begins with the renouncement of the witness by Jean Paul Sartre in his seminal What is Literature? and terminates at the end of twentieth-century, when the Nobel Prize in Literature celebrated its centenary with a celebration of “Witness Literature.” In the years between, I argue, it was less the legacies of the Holocaust that governed ideas of who was and who could not become a witness, and more the global politics of liberation and decolonization. Moving across a wide spectrum of texts and events, from the foundational writings of Sartre and Albert Camus on the Algerian War, to Levertov, Rich, and Joan Didion’s late Vietnam writings, to J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello, this chapter contends that the paradigm of witnessing that arose in the last decades of the twentieth-century ultimately took the form of a lived critical posture towards late imperial and postcolonial violence.




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