Kang, Younghill 1903–1972

views updated

Kang, Younghill 1903–1972

PERSONAL: Born May 10, 1903, in Song-Dune-Chi, Hamgyong, Korea; died following a stroke, December 11, 1972, in Satellite Beach, FL; immigrated to United States, 1921; married Frances Keely (a writer), 1929; children: one daughter, two sons. Education: Attended university in Yungsaing, Korea, 1981; attended Dalhousie University, 1921, Boston University, 1925, and Harvard University, 1927; also studied in Rome, Italy, 1933, Munich, Germany, 1934, and Paris, France, 1935.

CAREER: Writer and translator. Early work included writing for Encyclopedia Britannica. New York University, New York, NY, instructor in English, Oriental culture, and comparative literature, c. 1920s; University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, William V. Moody lecturer, 1933; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, curatorial staff member for Far-Eastern collection; U.S. Military Government Office of Publications, Korea, chief of publications, late 1940s; advisor to Twenty-fourth Corps Office of Civil Information, Korea.

MEMBER: Authors' League of America, Authors Guild, American Oriental Society.

AWARDS, HONORS: Two Guggenheim fellowships, 1933–35; Halperine Kaminsky prize (France), 1937; Louis S. Weiss Memorial Prize for Adult Education, New School of Social Research, 1953; honorary D.Litt., Korea University, 1970.


(Translator) Translations of Oriental Poetry, 1929.

The Grass Roof (novel), Scribner's (New York, NY), 1931, reprinted, Norton (New York, NY), 1975.

The Happy Grove (for young readers; based on selections from The Grass Roof), illustrated by Leroy Baldridge, Scribner's (New York, NY), 1933.

East Goes West: The Making of an Oriental Yankee (novel), Scribner's (New York, NY), 1937, reprinted, Kaya Production (New York, NY), 1997.

(Translator) Michiro Maruyama, Anatahan, 1954.

(Translator, with Frances Keely) Meditations of the Lover, 1970.

(Translator) The Flight of Dragon-Cloud in the Land of Morning Calm: The Poetry of Han Yong Woon, 1987.

Also author of unpublished play "A Murder in the Royal Palace."

The Grass Roof was translated into French and German.

SIDELIGHTS: Often considered to be the first Korean-American author to successfully publish in the United States, Younghill Kang is best known for his two autobiographical novels: The Grass Roof and East Goes West: The Making of an Oriental Yankee. Though containing fictionalized elements, the books are based heavily on Kang's experiences growing up in Korea and then, after emigrating in 1921, trying to adjust to his new home in America.

Born in 1903, Kang was seven years old when Japan officially annexed Korea into its empire. Feeling that his opportunities were limited in his homeland, he traveled to Japan when he was twelve to get a better education. Returning to Korea four years later, he found his country oppressed by its Japanese rulers. He fled to the United States in 1921, just before the U.S. government restricted immigration from Asia. With only four dollars to his name, Kang quickly ran out of money. However, he managed to find work at the Encyclopedia Britannica and saved money to attend Boston University and, later, Harvard University. With a knowledge of Japanese and Korean, as well as the English language and Western literature, Kang got a job as an instructor in comparative literature at New York University. There he met author Thomas Wolfe, who put him in touch with Scribner's & Sons' famous editor Maxwell Perkins. Thus began Kang's literary career.

His first novel, The Grass Roof, covers Chungpa Han's childhood and maturation in Korea until 1921, when he is about to leave for the United States, just as Kang did. At the time Kang wrote the novel, he was still honing his English skills, and some reviewers have noted that this shows in Kang's use of language and the style of the text. Writing in the Saturday Review of Literature, however, Lady Hosie praised Kang for revealing "a true poet's love of the country" in "an interesting, exciting account of his youth and manhood." Elaine H. Kim, on the other hand, advised in an essay published in Asian-American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context that "The Grass Roof is not a description of Korea … [but] a justification of Kang's departure from Korea."

Kim also observed that critics in the United States "preferred Kang's descriptions of Korea to his discussions of his American experience" in East Goes West. Although Kang considered his second novel a more accomplished piece of literature because his English-writing skills had improved, American critics at the time the book was published in 1933 did not favor East Goes West because of its depiction of racism and prejudice against Asian immigrants. In the novel, Han has come to America, where he finds adjusting to the culture difficult and the "American dream" elusive. Two of the Asian friends he meets, Kim and Jun, serve as foils who also illustrate that theme: Kim ends up committing suicide, and Jun resigns himself to not achieving his dreams. Han similarly discovers that he will never fully adapt to or find acceptance in America, but he decides that he can gain some measure of success by getting a college education.

Kang himself did not achieve the level of success he desired; never earning a full-time professorial position at a university, he had to spend much of his life traveling and lecturing wherever he could find work. He was also never permitted to become an American citizen. However, as essayist Rowena Tomaneng concluded in the Reference Guide to American Literature, "his novels remain valuable historical documents authenticating an almost lost Asian American past. Kang is truly a representative of the genesis of Korean American literature."



Asian-American Literature, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Asian-American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context, Temple University Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1982, pp. 32-43.

Lim, Shirley Geok-lin, and Amy Ling, editors, Reading the Literatures of Asian America, Temple University Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1992, pp. 79-95.

Reference Guide to American Literature, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1994.


English Journal, April, 1980, review of The Grass Roof, p. 102.

Korea Journal, winter, 1991, Kyhan Lee, "Younghill Kang and the Genesis of Korean-American Literature," pp. 63-78.

Library Journal, November 1, 1998, Michael Rogers, review of East Goes West: The Making of an Oriental Yankee, p. 130.

New York Times Book Review, October 17, 1937, Katherine Woods, review of East Goes West, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly, September 26, 1966, review of The Grass Roof, p. 131.

Saturday Review of Literature, April, 1931, Lady Hosie, "A Voice from Korea," review of The Grass Roof, p. 707.