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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Younghill Kang

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 in America.

An 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.

Although 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.

Kang 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.

Younghill 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 (1937)

Other Works
The Grass Roof (1931)

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KoreAm Journal
The complete text of this magazine's cover story on Kang's travels and three autobiographies.

Secondary Sources