What if the finest, funniest, craziest, sanest, most cheerfully depressing Korean-American novel was also one of the first? To a modern reader, the most dated thing about Younghill Kang’s East Goes West, published by Scribner’s in 1937, is its tired title. (Either that or its subtitle, “The Making of an Oriental Yankee.”) Practically everything else about this brash modernist comic novel still feels electric.
East Goes West has a ghostly history: at times vaguely canonical, yet without discernible influence, it has been out of print for decades at a stretch, and surfaces every quarter-century or so as a sort of literary Brigadoon. (Last year’s Penguin Classics edition is its third major republication.) Kang’s debut, The Grass Roof (1931), captures the twilight of the Korean kingdom in the first two decades of the twentieth century, as Japan colonizes the peninsula. Its narrator, Chungpa Han, is a precocious child whose thirst for education takes him from his secluded home village to Seoul, three hundred miles away; into the heart of Japan; and finally to America, where East Goes West picks up on the pilgrim’s progress.
Though both novels were first published to great acclaim by Maxwell Perkins—the legendary editor of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe—they stand as the alpha and omega of Kang’s fiction career: an explosion of talent, followed by thirty-five years of silence. His sensual, impudent voice and bold escape from his homeland (“I had seen the disintegration of one of the first nations of Earth”) provoked Rebecca West to exclaim, in a review of The Grass Roof, “What a man! What a writer!” Yet by the time of his death in 1972, Kang had faded from public recognition.
The fictional Chungpa Han’s itinerary and timeline generally tracks Kang’s. Born around 1903, he grew up in rural North Korea, stuffing himself with Korean and Chinese poetry. At age eleven, he trekked alone to Seoul, a journey of sixteen days, to further his education, then went to Japan the next year. Back in Korea by 1919, he participated in the March 1 Movement, a nationwide uprising against Japanese rule, for which he and thousands of others were jailed. (Among The Grass Roof’s virtues is a ground-level account of the event and its aftermath.) Following a thwarted attempt to leave Japanese-occupied Korea via Siberia, and a second spell in jail, he finally made it to the US three years before the Immigration Act of 1924 effectively outlawed most immigration from Korea and other East Asian countries until it was replaced in 1965.
His audience in the 1930s, then, was not the Korean diaspora, for the simple reason that there hardly was any. (Between 1903 and 1924, fewer than 10,000 Koreans had come to the US, most of them as laborers in Hawaii and California.) He wrote instead as the last of his breed,…
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