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Reviewed by:
  • A History of Korean Literature
  • Michael J. Pettid (bio)
A History of Korean Literature, edited by Peter H. Lee. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. lxxvi, 580 pp. $95.00 cloth.

Although there is an ever-growing body of English translations of Korean literature, English-language scholarship on Korean literature is quantitatively and qualitatively deficient when compared to studies on Chinese and Japanese literature, and critical analyses in English of specific works, genres, and periods remains scant. The volume under review here is an ambitious effort to create a general outline of the history of Korean literature for English-speaking readers. Contributors to this volume include some of the major scholars in the field: Peter H. Lee (part of chapters 1 and 14, chapters 2-11, 17-18, and 21), Kim Hŭng-gyu (chapters 12-13, 15-16, part of chapter 14), Ch'oe Yun (chapter 24), Kim Chŏngnan (chapter 22), Kwŏn Yŏngmin (chapters 19, 23, and 25), Carolyn So (chapter 20), and Ho-min Sohn (part of chapter 1). The work is said to reflect "the latest scholarship on all genres and periods and traces the development of Korean literature" (p. xiii).

Upon opening this book, I tried to imagine its target audience and primary aims in regard to content. In the opening pages, Lee emphasizes that this volume is for the English-speaking reader, for whom "accurate data" is not always available (p. xiii). Given the ambitious scope of the volume—covering "all genres and periods" of Korean literature—one would expect the information presented to be necessarily basic. Moreover, Lee writes that proportionally, twentieth-century literature is given a far greater share of the volume than earlier literature. Lee offers two reasons: first, the amount of modern literary works far exceeds premodern vernacular literature, and second, the interest of students is largely in the sphere of modern literature (p. xiv). While I acknowledge Lee's observations, I do believe that one reason for a lack of interest in premodern works is a lack of high-quality English-language works introducing and explaining classical literature. Thus, rather than simply avoiding this important aspect of Korean literature or relegating it to a dusty corner of the bookshelf, we should strive to produce higher quality works that will pique the interest of new students.

Despite the designed bias toward modern works, seventeen of the twenty-five chapters cover premodern topics. Arranged chronologically for the most [End Page 150] part, these sections do provide a mostly solid introduction to premodern literature, especially in terms of verse, thus reflecting Lee's own expertise. The eight chapters on twentieth-century literature are divided by gender, genre, and period with a single chapter on North Korean works. In all, the volume provides a large sample of works, genres, and, periodic forms.

It is an unavoidable fact that upper-class males wrote most extant pre-modern works and that written literature was a decidedly elitist pursuit. Yet, by digging deeply the researcher can unearth the voices of those who were anything but elites of society. Oral traditions such as legends and shaman songs are a great source of such materials. This work, however, mostly ignores such oral traditions, thus taking a more-or-less elitist stand on what should be included as "Korean literature." While the "Introduction" to the volume mentions the subversive nature of such oral traditions, the chapters on premodern literature do not hold any discussion of oral narratives beyond p'ansori. Moreover, I was disappointed to find only a brief discussion of yadam, or unofficial histories. Prose works in general are neglected in comparison to verse, and this seems to reflect the premodern elite bias against prose narratives as well as oral traditions, both of which offer the modern researcher valuable insights into the history of Korean literature. As the modern researcher needs to be provided the full scope of Korean literary history, continuing the premodern bias against certain genres, social classes, and even genders does not provide a complete accounting of Korean literature.

Given the very important alternative view of society that these oral traditions, miscellany, and prose works offer the modern researcher, these should have...


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