| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Younghill Kang was born in Hamkyong Province in
northern Korea. Educated at first in the Confucian tradition, he later attended
Christian schools, which were established all over Korea by American
missionaries. Kang immigrated to the United States with only $4 in his pocket
in 1921, just three years prior to the enactment of laws that excluded
immigrants from Korea for more than three decades. Originally, Kang was
interested in science, but he found himself uncomfortable in the laboratory and
said that he was forced to write because he couldn’t find what he wanted said
expressed anywhere else. Describing himself as “self-educated,” Kang read
English and American classics voraciously, attending classes at Harvard and
Boston Universities while working at various jobs to support himself. Between
1924 and 1927, Kang wrote in Korean and Japanese, and in 1928 he began writing
in English with the help of his Wellesley-educated American wife, Frances
Keeley. He found work as an editor at Encyclopaedia Britannica and obtained a
position as a Lecturer in the English Department at New York University, where
he befriended Thomas Wolfe. At the time, Kang was working on The Grass Roof, a
novel about a young man’s life in Korea to the point of his departure for
America. Wolfe read four chapters of the book and then took it to his own
editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons, where it was published in 1931. Between 1933
and 1935, Kang went to Germany and Italy with a Guggenheim Award in Creative
Literature. In 1937, Scribner’s published East Goes West, the story of a Korean
intensely lonely man, Younghill Kang was never afforded a permanent niche in
American life. Always a visiting lecturer, he was never offered a stable
teaching position. Instead, he traveled from speaking engagement to speaking
engagement in an old Buick, spellbinding Rotary Club audiences with his
recitations of Hamlet’s soliloquy and his lectures on Korea. Widely read and
possessing a remarkable memory, he lived with his wife, two sons, and a
daughter, in genteel poverty in a ramshackle Long Island farmhouse overflowing
with books. He is said to have commented that it was his great misfortune that
Pearl Buck’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel about China, The Good Earth, was
published in the same year as The Grass Roof, eclipsing his own tale of Asia.
he is best known for The Grass Roof and East Goes West, Kang also published
translations of Korean literature, such as Meditations of the Lover and Murder
in the Royal Palace, a children’s book based on the first part of The Grass
Roof (The Happy Grove, 1933), as well as a number of book reviews in the New
York Times on Asian culture. Hospitalized in New York for post-operative hemorrhaging
after a massive stroke, Kang died in 1972.
considered East Goes West “more mature in style and technique” and more highly
developed in content than The Grass Roof, which American critics generally
preferred. Perhaps because they did not think that America and Americans should
be part of a Korean immigrant’s discourse territory, they applauded Kang’s
portrayal of Korea as a “planet of death,” but they found fault with his
criticism of American racism and prejudice.
Kang’s work represents a new beginning in Asian American literature, a
transition from the viewpoint of a guest or visitor acting as a “cultural
bridge” to the perspective of the immigrant attempting to claim a permanent
place in American life.
Elaine H. Kim|
University of California at Berkeley
In the Heath Anthology
East Goes West
Part One, Book Three
The Grass Roof
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The complete text of this magazine's cover story on Kang's travels and three autobiographies.