Centennial Celebration of Three Korean Literary Greats

Editor's Note

As major literary stars poets Pak Mogwol and Seo Jeong-ju and novelist Hwang Sun-Won have reached their centennial, we have turned the spotlight on them for this issue of _list magazine. We explore their literature through articles written by their students or the scholars that they influenced and examine the impact they have had on succeeding generations of writers, as well as the memorial projects that are being carried out after their deaths. This is meaningful work on many levels because by investigating their lives, literature, and the posthumous impact of their work, we are, in effect, identifying the major trends in Korean literary history.

 

Art Extending Beyond the Finitude of Life

 

This year we are observing the centennial anniversary of an unusually large number of writers in the field of modern Korean literature: poets Pak Mogwol and Seo Jeong-ju; novelists Hwang Sun- Won, Lim Ok-in, and Lim Sun-deuk; playwright Ham Se-deok; children’s writer Kang So-cheon; and critic Kwak Jong-won. A hundred years ago, it was 1915, a time of unrelenting cruelty, five years into the annexation of Korea by Japan. These writers celebrated national liberation when they turned thirty, after passing their childhood and youth under Japanese occupation. They went on to endure the Korean War and the following times of great privation, and had to find a place for themselves and settle down within a new social system. Perhaps they were shackled to their fate—writing literature while surviving the course of such a hard life.

     At the same time, however, their writing is the reason their names are remembered today. Because the contemporary historical background formed the basis of their lives and literature, the national character and the events of modern history could not but appear naturally in their work. As “the people’s teachers,” they wrote literature that commanded respect in a way that is difficult to imagine under today’s conditions. If literature could have been made to appear especially bright and luminous when reality meant crossing over a steep and ragged hill, then the line from an old poem has not led us wrong: “A country’s misfortune is a fortune for poets.”

     The three representative figures from the group being honored are Pak Mogwol, Seo Jeong-ju, and Hwang Sun-Won. Pak Mogwol was a poet who never lost his abiding love and affection for humanity. He and his fellow poets from the “Green Deer Group” (Cheongnokpa) attended to the purity and beauty of their mother tongue when it was threatened by erasure. The emotional core of the people was given expression through Pak’s concise combinations of words. Meanwhile, Seo Jeong-ju was a poet who sublimated human lack within his literary aesthetic, and it was through his efforts that traditional emotions could be expressed in modern form. Among the writers discussed here, he is the shining star and eternal legend. Finally, there is Hwang Sun-Won, who was respected for his upstanding character to the same degree as he achieved fame as a writer. Following in the space created by the synergy of his character with the literary value of his fiction there have been many students and successors. Even as he wrote for sixty years and embraced the twists and turns of modern Korean history in his fictional world, his aesthetic was one of literary moderation and plenitude.

     These three writers enjoyed the honor of being respected artists during their lifetime. While it is true that their lives were filled with long periods of suffering and want, the garden at the end of the road of thorns was relatively bountiful. After the fighting ended, as the majority of well-known writers either defected or were kidnapped to the North, these three took on the roles of being authorities and senior figures when they were in their late thirties. Not to be complacent, they kept developing and maturing in their literary achievements. In recognition of their efforts, today we are shining a light on these giants of Korean literary history.

     Emily Brontëe (Wuthering Heights) and Herman Melville (Moby Dick) have established their places in the canon of modern English literature, but as authors, they were not rewarded in their lifetime. Brontëe suffered from negative reviews and Melville died without receiving compensation for his works. For Moby Dick, a work that is now considered timeless, Melville received payment of only $556.37. Scholars say that it was initially placed in the fishing section of bookstores. Similarly, Vincent van Gogh did not receive any financial remuneration for his masterpieces while he was still living. Compared to these examples, the Korean writers enjoyed a much kinder fate.

     A century is not simple from any angle. It is difficult to extend our lives beyond a century, however hard we might try. Flowers may bloom perennially, but once a person is gone, he does not return. In the field of literature, the strongest link between the past hundred years and the next hundred years is not the writers themselves, but the works they leave behind. Writers transcend death through their works. Looking at these writers a century after their birth and the works they produced, we see the train of art extending beyond the finitude of life.

We evaluate writers’ lives according to the times in which they live and the works they leave behind, and stop there for ordinary writers. But if texts that transcend their times and take on the force of life are called “classics,” then obviously the writers responsible for the classics transcend their times as well, exerting literary influence. Their work is linked to the next generation, but not only that, they maintain a literary lineage or a circle of literary relations. In view of the special character of Korean society, in most cases, the next gene...