Magazines and Literary Writers in Korea, 1919-1927

A review of Magazines and the Collective Rise of Literary Writers in Korea, 1919-1927, by Jae-Yon Lee. 

Jae-Yon Lee’s dissertation, Magazines and the Collective Rise of Literary Writers in Korea, 1919-1927, examines the central role that magazines played in the formation of modern Korean literature in the late 1910s and 1920s. Lee focuses his attention on three particularly influential magazines – Ch’angjo (Creation, 1919-1921), Kaebyŏk (The opening of the world, 1920-1926), and Chosŏn mundan (The literary sphere of Korea, 1924-1927) – in order to trace how the concept of the creative author, the literary theoretician, and the reviewer of literature were collaboratively crafted and disseminated during this time. As such, his work is a welcome addition to the growing body of literary scholarship centered on the material medium of the magazine, which (along with the newspaper) was one of the most important vehicles for literary publication in twentieth-century Korea. Balancing wide historical perspective with close readings, Lee explores the always-contested process of literary production in ways that will no doubt prove useful to scholars in many different fields.

The introduction, which also serves as Chapter 1 of the dissertation, lays out Lee’s reasons for spotlighting Ch’angjo, Kaebyŏk, and Chosŏn mundan. 1920s Korea, Lee points out, witnessed a concomitant rise in literary writers and publishing outlets, exemplifying “the process in which the periphery of the global world of letters accepted and responded to the imperative of belated modernity” (p. 7). More self-reflexive than the enlightenment magazines of the 1910s and less market-oriented than those of the 1930s, 1920s magazines provided participants with a collaborative space for indigenizing Western literary thought and conceptualizing the role of literature in society. The three aforementioned magazines also helped produce different types of writers: the creative author, through the coterie format of Ch’angjo; the literary theoretician, through the general interest format of Kaebyŏk; and the reviewer of literature, through the literature-based format of Chosŏn mundan. Put together, these three roles formed a “minimum structure of literary production” (p. 4) during a formative period in modern Korean literary history. While Lee acknowledges his debt to such thinkers as Foucault and Bourdieu, his dissertation is less a study of the “author function” than an exploration of the very process of its formation.

Each subsequent chapter is primarily devoted to one particular magazine. Chapter 2, which centers around Ch’angjo, kicks off with two ambitious questions: How did magazine writers define art and literature in terms of creation? How did they produce their original works while utilizing their appropriated ideas of art and identify themselves with ‘divine’ artists?” (p. 42). Lee locates the answers to both of these questions in Korean writers’ appropriation of Romanticism. Authors such as Kim Hwan (? – ?) and Kim Tongin (1900-1951) drew upon such charged words as “nature,” “self, “spirit,” and “youth” to support the concept of the artist as aesthetically autonomous and liberated from dogmatic Confucian tradition. Despite this emphasis on individual expression, however, the identity of the writer was in fact collaboratively created. Through a concise summary of Ch’angjo’s contents (along with several useful charts), Lee shows that opinions on literature were by no means uniform or uncontested – and that, moreover, it was this very process of contestation that legitimized and stabilized the concept of literature itself. He ends the chapter with a close reading of Chŏn Yŏngt’aek’s novella Saengmyŏng ŭi pom (Spring of life, 1920) in order to demonstrate how an author could successfully negotiate the semantic and conceptual patterns created through the collaborative format of the coterie magazine.

Chapter 3 moves to a consideration of Kaebyŏk, an intellectual general interest magazine. Unlike Ch’angjo, which took an art-for-art’s-sake approach to literature, Kaebyŏk necessarily presented its literature within a larger consideration of contemporary politics and society. Here, Lee focuses on the prominence given to literary criticism (a category that is then further subdivided into social expositions, literary expositions, and literary reviews), which tended to be future-oriented and prescriptive. He argues that a vague, generalized commitment to social reformism in Kaebyŏk’s pages had given way to an explicitly Marxist framework by 1923. Critical attention to the relationship between ideology and literature in turn paved the way for the emergence of so-called “New Tendency Literature” (sin kyŏnghyangp’a munhak, abbreviated as NTL by Lee), characterized as a transitional form between belles-lettres and proletarian literature. Critics including Pak Yŏnghŭi (1901- ?) and Kim Kijin (1903-1985) called for literature that was grounded in class consciousness and collective identity; in doing so, they presented themselves as a “prophetic” voice that would guide NTL to its proper ideological function. Lee concludes that Kaebyŏk identified “ideology as the common denominator of literature, religion, and society and valorized ideological critics through the convergence of and permeation between discrete social and literary worldviews” (p. 125).

Chapter 4 continues to explore the link between magazine formats and literary production, in this case with the semi-coterie literary magazine Chosŏn mundan. Chosŏn mundan differed from C’hangjo in that it welcomed a broad range of writers, particularly newly established ones, regardless of political affiliation. This stance can be witnessed in the monthly “Joint Review of Chosŏn mundan” (Chosŏn mundan happyŏnghoe), in which established writers gathered together to discuss recent publications, with an eye towards improving composition skills and literary standards. While many scholars have discussed Chosŏn mundan in relation to the construction of “national literature” (minjok munhak), Lee insightfully observes that Joint Review participants tended to bring up national literature in conjunction with advice or arguments on narrative skills. Reviewers were less concerned with conceptualizing national literature than with helping writers produce works that could qualify for that distinction. Lee expands on this point through an analysis of the textual interactions that occurred between the emerging writer Ch’oe Sŏhae (1900-1932) and various participants of the Joint Review, concluding that “the significance of Chosŏn mundan in the history of modern Korean literature lies less in its discussion of a national literature and literary history than in the function of its collaborative review process, which not only helped discover new writers, but also advanced these writers’ skills of expression” (p. 174).

Lee’s dissertation is a valuable resource for anyone wishing to know more about 1920s literary production in Korea. It provides a wealth of information not only on the individual magazines themselves but also on the complex interactions that occurred among and because of them. The dissertation clearly shows, for example, how critics who published in Kaebyŏk consciously crafted their ideological stance in response to (and reaction against) the joint review format found in Chosŏn mundan. At the same time, Lee employs a flexible methodology that will no doubt prove useful to those also interested in periodical studies. His attention to the formal differences between creative works and critical writings is noteworthy in this regard, as well as his analysis of the reading and writing practices enabled by the magazine format. This dissertation joins a growing body of work that brings literary studies and print culture together, giving us fresh new insights into both.

Christina Yi
Department of Asian Studies
University of British Columbia
christina.yi@ubc.ca

Primary Sources

Ch’angjo (Creation, 1919-1921)
Kaebyŏk (The opening of the world, 1920-1926)
Chosŏn mundan (The literary sphere of Korea, 1924-1927)

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago. 2012. 203 pp. Primary Advisor: Kyeong-Hee Choi.

Image: Cover Page of Kaebyok (June 1920).

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