Friday, June 19, 2009

What ever happened to Peter H. Lee?

Peter H. Lee was my Korean Literature professor at the University of Hawaii in 1981-2. I think I had two classes with him. Including me, there were only about four students in each of the classes. We just sat around a small table and talked about the Korean short stories we had read.

[A portrait of the scholar as a young man-the year Peter H. Lee completed his M.A. at Yale University. (Summer 1953 in New Haven, CT)]

The class was very informal and not very instructive. Professor Lee just seemed to be there to listen to us talk without offering much of his own insight. Quite honestly I was disappointed with the classes because I had expected more insight and instruction from the professor, who was supposedly a leading scholar in his field. However, maybe his style was to wait for us to ask the questions. The problem with that style, however, was that we did not know enough to ask questions.
Maybe he just sat there listening because he did not see much reason explaining Korean literature to students who needed, at least, a full afternoon to read one Korean short story. Anyway, besides reading a few Korean short stories, the only thing I really learned in those classes was how to quickly flip back and forth through a Korean-English dictionary.

Even though I do not remember learning much in his classes, I still liked Professor Lee. He was a quiet, dignified man who seemed old and grandfather-like even back in 1981. I remember his speech being slow and deliberate and his voice being kind of squeaky and high pitched, but there was usually a smile in front of it. I also remember his telling us that he learned English by memorizing a dictionary. He said that after he had memorized a page in the dictionary, he tore it out. I do not remember if he said he threw it away of if he said he put it on the wall and ceiling over his bed, but he did say that he tore the pages out.

So, why am I writing about Peter H. Lee? Because I suddenly started thinking about him this morning and wondering what happened to him. I went to Wikipedia expecting to find an article on him, but there was nothing there, which bothered me since I feel he deserves to be recognized and remembered. Then, I did a Google search and found an article in the 2007 edition (Vol. 1) of the journal, "Azalea: Journal of Korean Literature." I was happy to read that he is alive and well.
Even though you can read the article in the link I provided, I am going to post the entire article here as a tribute to Professor Lee, in case the journal decides to remove the article for some reason. I will keep it posted until I get an email from the journal or the author telling me to take it down, but I hope they do not mind. In my opinion, the more places and opportunities there are for people to read Peter H. Lee's story, the better.

[End Page 370]

This interview was conducted on March 6, 2007, and took several hours from late morning to mid-afternoon at the Faculty Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. Prof. Peter H. Lee has been a faculty member at the university since 1987. Academics in Korean studies outside Korea know Peter H. Lee as the resilient, meticulous scholar who is mostly responsible for establishing the field of Korean literature in the English-speaking world. However, in this interview he reveals a glimpse of his personal life, rich with encounters and experiences.

Mickey Hong: What were your memories of childhood? What colors, smells, and sounds do you remember? What did people wear? What did you wear? What kinds of food and drink were popular?

Peter H. Lee: I don't really remember colors, except those of girls' dresses. Smells and sounds, I think, are quite important because smells can be good or bad, and some are exotic. When I was about five, my grandfather took me to Mitsukoshi department store to buy me a school uniform. Back then you had two uniforms: one for winter and spring, and another for summer and maybe early [End Page 371] autumn. So that was the first time I set foot in Mitsukoshi, which was across the street from the Bank of Korea, Chōsen Ginkō. When I entered the building, I smelled a strange but pleasant odor, unlike any I was used to. It was a combination of perfume, naphthalene, and other scents. From then on I always associated that odor with Japanese stores. It struck me as strange because I had never smelled anything like it. But when I went to Hwasin later on, there was a similar smell, though not as strong.

When my father took me to a Japanese restaurant, again I encountered an odor different from what I was used to at home-maybe a combination of Kikkoman shōyu and other Japanese condiments. We never used shōyu. We used homemade Korean-style soy sauce. Also you could tell the difference because if you add Japanese shōyu, the soup becomes dark. I didn't like that. In the restaurant I encountered a second unusual odor, very different from the Korean odors at home. Although I wasn't allowed into the kitchen, the aromas wafted out and I could tell what they were cooking-beef soup, roast fish. But the smells from Mitsukoshi and the Japanese restaurant were different.

Our family occasionally went to a restaurant on the third or fourth floor of Hwashin department store where I experienced other smells-of curry rice, omelet rice, and some Western dishes. I think I first ate a Western-style sandwich in August 1945 in a Chongno restaurant. Other sounds and smells struck me as a child at the Chongno night market (yasi before 1945) with its many brightly lit stalls and ocean of people. Some fruit stalls sold exotic items like bananas and pineapples!

In Honmachi (Ponjŏng, what is now Myŏngdong), the Japanese area, there was a small store owned by a White Russian that sold butter, cheese, and bread. I was ten or eleven when I was sent there by my father or aunt to buy some bread and butter. When I walked into that store I encountered an entirely different odor. A very different odor. And I met the White Russian, who had a lot of hair.

Out in the street, different smells mingled, of food, people [End Page 372] passing by, tram cars, buses. Tram cars had a distinctive smell, as did buses. When I rode in a taxi (an old Volvo, as I recall), there was yet another smell.

On the top floor, the fourth or fifth, of Hwasin department store, there was a small cinema that showed films primary and secondary school students could watch. I went there occasionally to see Japanese films, which always began with newsreels. Some of these films were quite good. Inside the movie house there was another odor, one that I cannot begin to describe.

Back then, educated persons, the intelligentsia, all wore Western suits. Old people still wore kat and Korean costume. Even up to the mid-1930s, I rarely saw mature women wearing Western-style skirts and shoes. That was rare, but in the late 30s you did see some women with short hair or permanents wearing Western dresses and carrying handbags. The men, the intelligentsia, however young-if they were at least thirty and if they could afford it-normally carried a cane for style. My father, who always carried a cane, had many of them for different occasions, like accessories. My grandfather also had a cane, but he wore Korean-style clothes.

A sound I remember at home was when my grandfather would ring a bell in the evening to signal that we had a "guest," which meant that Japanese police were raiding homes to make sure we weren't eating white rice. We had to eat mixed-grain rice instead. Many things were rationed once the war started. Sugar, I remember, was scarce.

MH: What were your impressions of your first time in Europe? What things were fashionable in Europe at the time? What were you carried away by?

PHL: Fribourg, Switzerland, was the first place I went to in Europe from the States. I arrived there in 1954, mainly to improve my French, so I took some courses in French literature. I also took a series of courses in Indian philosophy. The town was small, [End Page 373] and there was no concert hall or anything like that except for the university auditorium. Occasionally, someone would come and give a concert.

After that I went to Milan in the fall of 1955. And to La Scala. At the time, they sold student tickets. I would go there early in the morning, 7:30 or 8:00, and stand on line so I could buy tickets for the opera. It couldn't have been expensive if I could afford it. So I went there regularly while I was in Milan studying, and I heard Maria Callas performing the role of Violetta in La Traviata, and she did very well. On that day every box, the ceiling, and the walls of La Scala were decorated with real roses. It was just absolutely breathtaking. The fragrance and the color-red! I thought, "Oh my goodness!" Only Italians could think of doing that. Callas was slightly taller and bigger than ideal for portraying Violetta, who is petite and has TB. Anyway, she sang well and I vigorously applauded her. I forgot what other operas I saw there, but I went to La Scala quite often, like twice a month. I saw several operas, but that's what stays most in my mind because of the magnificent setting. Particularly on that evening, women came in their best gowns-so beautifully dressed. It was quite an experience.

Of course Milan has a famous cathedral but it also has a modern shopping arcade that's completely enclosed by glass-with a high ceiling. I used to go there with my friends and take a walk and have coffee, known in Italian as quattro passi in galleria, which means you are making four steps, or going there and taking a walk.

And then I went to Florence, which was my ideal city, and still is today. I was completely captivated by the cultural heritage they have. I would take a walk every day through a certain section. Maybe two blocks every day. I would look at the buildings, and sometimes touch the walls because almost every building in Florence has some historical significance. I ate well in Florence. I found a small restaurant, a trattoria, run by an Italian couple. As I began to have every lunch and dinner there, they somehow took a liking to me, and the owner's wife would take me into the kitchen [End Page 374] and show me everything, asking, "You like this? You like that?" I paid weekly or fortnightly. They kept track of what I ate. They would tell me, "You ate this much," and I would pay. It was a nice arrangement.

But in Florence there are many good restaurants. It's out of this world the way they eat-the setting, the way they serve the food, the food itself. René Wellek came to stay in Florence for a month or two while he was writing his book. He took me once to a nice restaurant for lunch, so I took him out to dinner. One of the well-known dishes in Florence is called Fiorentina ai ferri, which is actually a cut of Florentine beef barbecued on top of the grill. There is one place that is well known for this dish, so if you go there, you have to have it. It's the only thing they serve. We went there and they served us a flattened beef steak on a huge plate. It was very tender and thin. And that's it. So we had a good meal, maybe with some salad.

It wasn't expensive as I recall, about three dollars because the exchange rate was so favorable in 1956, six hundred Italian lire to the U.S. dollar. I think I paid two thousand lire for the meal. So it cost a little over three dollars. We had that magnificent meal for three dollars! So I enjoyed Florence every day. I would meet with my friends who were mostly painters from Israel, Spain, Sweden, and Germany. Finally, toward the end of my stay in Florence, one Japanese painter showed up, and he didn't speak a single word of Italian. Somehow he came to the table next to where our gang was sitting. I was the only Asian there, until that other guy. So I went over and talked to him and learned that he was from Japan, and I helped him find an atelier in Florence. We looked around, and he finally chose one, a nice place.

After Florence I went to Perugia. There's a university for foreign students where they gave you intensive training in Italian grammar, composition, conversation, and culture. Five to six hours every day. You met at nine, and there was a class on grammar, then on reading. Every weekend they organized a tour. You paid little and they took you to all the cultural places near Perugia. Of course, Perugia is in [End Page 375] Umbria, so there were many small, well-known places. My time there passed quickly. After that I went to Munich, Germany. I was studying German poetry, particularly Rilke, but I also did East Asian studies, Sinology, and Japanology. Again, I had a group of close friends with whom I would meet once a week. We would take walks, go out to eat, and discuss books.

During my sojourn in Munich I also went to concerts, operas, and plays on a regular basis. One thing I recall is attending a performance of Wagner's Parsifal, a long piece lasting four to five hours. When I entered the hall, I noticed formally dressed nurses lined up with stretchers on both sides. I was told that they were ready if someone fainted during the performance-and sure enough, one lady behind me fainted, and had to be removed by the nurses. And the audience was not supposed to clap at the end of the performance-it was supposed to be akin to a religious experience (at least for the Germans).

It was pleasant in Munich because at that time it was the most international city in Germany-open-minded and liberal. For example, in the English Garden-a main feature of the city, a huge park of I don't know how many acres, with streams, lakes, pavilions, and lots of trees and greenery-from April to September you saw completely naked sunbathers, and they didn't care! They were all lying down and completely naked! They didn't care about passersby.

And then I went to Oxford to speak with Sir (Cecil) Maurice Bowra, who was the Warden of Wadham College. I went to see him, and it was like an advanced conversation on the books I read. We met once a week and he entertained me with a huge afternoon tea with a lot of biscuits and sandwiches. We'd eat and talk; sometimes he asked me questions and I answered, and then I asked him questions and so forth. It was a civilized way of spending time.

MH: How did you feel as one of the very few Asians studying abroad? Did you encounter any difficulties? [End Page 376]

PHL: No, actually by the time I was in Munich in 1956, there were about five or six Koreans, most of them studying music-piano, violin, or cello. They were girl students from Seoul National University. Also there was one student studying law. We seldom got together because we didn't have time. I was there to learn German culture, so I would speak to my German friends.

In 1955, I spent one summer in Paris on my own, trying to listen to the Parisian accent and the way they talk. The language spoken in Fribourg is French, so I was in a French-speaking part of Switzerland. However, there's a difference between Swiss and Parisian French. So going to Paris was quite useful.

Another summer I went to Spain on my own and looked around. That's how I spent my European sojourn of seven years. Then toward the end of my seventh year, I was communicating with Donald Keene, whom I had known earlier. He knew that I had gotten my Ph.D. in the meantime and was looking for a job, and he told me there was a possibility that Columbia University would hire someone in my field. I waited and finally a letter came from him [End Page 377]


The lonely woman who weeps while picking up moonlight
When the stars flow and the owl hoots

Choking from memory that decends like fog
She wanders the long deep night in a secluded alley

The heart that is as cool as the crooked gravestone
The beads that flow down on two pale cheeks

Oh, foresaken woman . . .
A shattered vase!

As what race were you born
That you must possess such sorrow?

To revive you, many have
Spilled their blood upon your chest

Can't even rose-color twilight or blue moon
Break the heavy iron chain?

Heartless woman!

If I could dye your heart in red
I will stick into your chest a vein from my heart

In the night when even crickets have gone in hiding and clocks are asleep
She embraces the sad bust and rubs her cheek against it.

Translated by Mickey Hong [End Page 378]

asking me to send him my CV. I did and then maybe after about a month I received an official letter that I had been appointed an assistant professor of Korean literature with an annual salary of $6,500. That wasn't much. I was single, but my monthly check was about $300 after they deducted taxes and everything. But it was okay because I had to study and prepare my lectures and write my books. $300 was enough. At that time no matter how many years they had been teaching, every assistant professor in the humanities received the same salary of $6,500-that was it. Because they seemed to say, "You should be thankful that you are at Columbia. Don't even think about money!"

MH: Which films did you enjoy? Who were your favorite film stars?

PHL: Europeans have this terrible habit of dubbing. Humphrey Bogart would speak in French or Italian, which is horrible. I saw several Japanese films while I was in Italy, including Seven Samurai, and all seven samurai spoke Italian. So it was kind of funny. I don't really recall the actors and actresses. The Italian neorealist films directed by Vittorio De Sica-The Bicycle Thief and Open City -some actors in those movies. At the time, Silvana Mangano acted in a movie called Bitter Rice, Riso Amaro. Also Gina Lollobrigida. In French movies at the time, the well-known male actors included Jean Gabin and Charles Boyer. A woman actress who was still beautiful and popular was Danielle Darrieux. I don't know exactly when but Catherine Deneuve began acting at the time.

MH: What was your relationship like with your parents and grandparents?

PHL: When I did my homework well, such as memorizing a chapter from a Confucian canonical text, my grandfather would take me out and buy me candies, nicely wrapped hard candies. The interesting [End Page 379] thing is that neither my grandfather nor my parents ever asked me to study. They completely left me alone. I was absolutely free to do whatever I wanted with my time. But because I was a studious type, I studied hard even in grammar school, middle school, and senior year. I did so well in all my courses, including math, which was my worst subject, that I didn't have to pay tuition, even if it wasn't much, because I was an exceptional student.

I was always studying in my room. They might say, "Why don't you go out and take a walk or something?" but they never told me to study. I suppose they knew I was studying. Grammar school sent your grades home anyway, so they would look at them. My parents and grandfather never interfered with how I used my free time. If I had any, I would go out and take a walk and so on, but there was homework in middle and high school, even back then. There were two exams-midterms and finals-that I had to prepare for. In middle and high school, there were even biology and agriculture, all kinds of strange subjects. And Chinese-we had to learn to speak with the correct tones. I was not good at memorizing tones at the time, but I had to memorize everything. Somehow I passed. I was so glad that I no longer had to take exams. However, when I came to this country, I did have to take exams again. At university, I had to write papers, but exams I disliked intensely.

HM: What were some of your favorite concerts, lectures, travels, and notable encounters and meetings?

PHL: One memorable event took place in the winter of 1956 when Martin Heidegger came to the University of Munich and gave a lecture one evening in a big hall. I sat in the front row because I didn't want to miss anything he said. We were all eagerly waiting. Townspeople came, too, so there were people standing everywhere, and some sitting in the aisles. We kept waiting and waiting, and finally somebody appeared and I thought, "Who is that?" He was a ruddy-faced and stout man, not exactly what you would think [End Page 380] of as a typical German philosopher. Heidegger looked like a stout peasant, with his rugged face and broad shoulders. But the moment he opened his mouth, we were completely intoxicated because he knew how to manipulate the language just as he did in writing. Heidegger wrote famous essays on Hölderlin, the German poet. His lecture was about language and he said that to speak about language as language by means of language is beyond language. He repeated the same key words in their different functions. Sprach is a noun, and sprechen is a verb, and he used those words five or six times in different syntactical locations. That's why you really had to pay attention, because if you missed something, you would be completely confused. Heidegger gave a good talk and that was a memorable event during my stay in Munich.

MH: Passing on wisdom for future Koreanists, how should one study, manage interpersonal relations, and keep motivated, etc.?

PHL: When beginning in literary studies at age seventeen, I communicated with my seniors whose books I had read and whom I respected by writing letters to them. I'm so-and-so and I would like to meet you, so may I visit you at your home. Then invariably, they answered. By that time we already had phones, so if I could find out their phone numbers, I could call them. But most writers active at the time didn't have phones at home, because they were living far away in small houses. So I had to go out to meet these people. When they answered my letters, I would ask them to send me a map of how to get to their place. They usually wanted me to come to their homes early in the morning, because around nine or nine thirty, they would leave. If some didn't want me to come to their home, they would say come to such-and-such a tearoom or bookstore. I would go there and see them. And that's how I began to meet most writers.

I met Chŏng Chiyong, Im Haksu, Kim Tongsŏk, Kim Tongni, Cho Yŏnhyŏn, and Sŏ Chŏngju. I met a number of active poets and [End Page 381] fiction writers, as well as critics. In addition to meeting creative writers, I was also contacting those who studied English literature and were teaching the subject. By 1945, I had read most basic English textbooks on my own so I was able to read a novel in English, but I didn't have any books because my father's field was law. So I contacted these people and asked if I could borrow their books. They told me to go ahead and look around their studies and take whatever I wanted. Some had beautifully bound leather books with cases that they had never opened, and which were there only as decoration. So they would let me borrow them. I was a junior scholar of English literature and a junior writer, but they said it's OK. They had complete trust in me. That's how I met important scholars of English literature. Some of them even showed me their dissertations they had submitted at Keijo Imperial University (which existed in Seoul, Korea, from 1924 to the end of World War II), or Tokyo [Imperial University], or wherever. If I went to their house early in the morning, inevitably they would ask me to eat breakfast with them but I never did because I always ate before I went.

Sometimes, we would leave their home together and go to a well-known coffee shop. We would sit down and other writers would join us and that's how I met A, B, C, D, and so on, and new writers, and they were all very kind to me. I felt good that they were not condescending. They listened and responded to me. We discussed books that were popular at the time. Actually I bought all the books published from 1945 to 1948, so I had a first-rate library of first editions illustrated by well-known painters, but during the [Korean] War, part of our house was burned down and they were all destroyed. Gone. Books were not expensive at the time, so whenever a new book appeared, I bought it.

From 1945 to 1948, the political Left and Right co-existed. So one evening you attended a lecture by a right-wing author and the following evening, you went to a lecture or poetry reading by a left-wing author. It was a exciting period. I could go to all these meetings. There were also concerts and recitals. I met leftist [End Page 382] composers and singers who were educated in Japan. There was one composer named Kim Sunnam who set to music mainly poems by Korean poets like Kim Sowŏl and others. When he had composed enough pieces, his practice was to choose a singer, a tenor or a baritone, and have him try them out for the first time. I went to a public performance of Kim Sunnam's work, and I met the composer as well as the singer. I don't know what happened to the singer. He was a nice man. His name was Pak Ŭnyong. I also borrowed a lot of books from him. He had a good collection of Japanese authors as well as Korean authors in Japan writing in Japanese, such as Kim Saryang. I borrowed those works and read them.

It was an exciting period, very dynamic. Of course there were many demonstrations and assassinations, but we had nothing to do with those kinds of things. For a while, from 1945 to 1946, North Korea stopped supplying electricity to the South as a kind of retaliation. So we had to use candles. The city of Seoul allocated electricity in such a way that it came on only during supper time, from five to seven, and it was off. So you had to eat your supper quickly. But we still went out in the darkness. Tea rooms were still open. On every table there was a candle and we talked with our friends, friends of both sexes. Women were also students of literature and writing their own poems. It was interesting to talk to them and discuss what they had read. We sometimes exchanged books. The zeal for reading was really strong at the time, particularly among the young intelligentsia. If you were on a tram or bus, you would seldom see a young man of my age group or students who were not reading. They all carried a pocket edition. These days I don't see that in Seoul. They read the newspapers and popular genres, but not Goethe, Andre Gide, or Thomas Mann, which we used to read on trams or buses. It was really amazing. The moment you got onto the tram, you saw that everyone was reading, except for commoners. It was a good phenomenon at the time.

I followed the same practice of contacting scholars in Europe when I went there, in Switzerland, France, Italy, or Germany, [End Page 383] and meeting them. I met a number of German poets, very good ones, that way. I went to see Arthur Waley in London. That's how I spent my free time: contacting these people and meeting them, sizing them up, seeing what they were up to. In 1951 I sent a group of poems in English to Wallace Stevens. I used to go see him in Hartford, and I met W.H. Auden in New York. I met well-known critics who came to Yale to give talks. In this way I came in contact with well-known writers and critics. I enjoyed that. I wanted to know what kind of person writes a certain kind of poem. And usually the person is completely different than you imagined.

For example, you would think Wallace Stevens was very fine and frail. He was well-dressed, but he was a big man. A big man. After reading Sŏ Chŏngju's poems, you would envision somebody entirely different from the real So Chŏngju. When you met him, you . . . [sigh]. Chŏng Chiyong, the same thing. You would think . . . but he was a short man, very short. He came up to around here [points to chin]. Bespectacled, but sharp-tongued. That's how I met a number of active writers on both the right and left, especially from 1945 to 1948. I saw Yi T'aejun, Im Hwa, Yi Yong'ak, Kim Namch'ŏn, and Sŏl Chŏngsik. At the time they were much above me, because I was only in my late teens and they were in their early forties, established. But they were generous with their time. I'm grateful that they gave me that kind of time.

The important lesson is this. In order for Koreans to make Korean literature known, first of all we have to make connections. That means we have to be able to point to some Western works or Chinese and Japanese works as parallels or contrasts, so the reader will say, "Ah hah!" this work belongs to the genre of Montaigne's Essays. For example, P'aegwan chapki (Ŏ Sukkwŏn's The Storyteller's Miscellany)-to which genre of prose do you compare it? Because that kind of literary miscellany is a unique form, containing biographical, autobiographical, and critical writing-narratives. So you have to think how we can tell readers about the corresponding Western prose form. In order to do so, you have to read a certain number of books. [End Page 384]

I read quite widely from Greek and Latin literature to modern literature, so I was able to find comparable writers from ancient times through the sixteenth century (when Ŏ Sukkwŏn was active) and the seventeenth. So that's how it should be done. Particularly when one is writing on twentieth-century Korean writers, you have to bring in other twentieth-century writers-Western, Chinese, and Japanese. That way the reader is better able to situate a given work: "Ah hah, this work belongs to this, it's like this," which makes the reader better prepared. I would strongly recommend this because our approach, when we wish to introduce and propagate Korean literary works, has to be comparative. If a Korean work just stands by itself, it's hard to attract the attention of Western readers because they won't have time to pick up that book unless it's distinguished in some way, by unique features or those it shares with well-known Western works. That's the reason why we have to do it.

I suppose twentieth-century works are easier to treat in this comparative way because modernism is an international movement. To do it with pre-modern texts, traditional Korean literary works, takes time, but still we must do so. To me, that really is the first step, and the reason why few classical Korean works are being translated and introduced, and few secondary studies on classical Korean literary texts are readable is because those who teach classical Korean literature in Korea do not read even one Western language. So they don't have a comparative perspective. They're only introducing these works to a Korean audience, and a limited one at that. So that's why when I pick up a secondary source on classical Korean literary work, I learn little. So we have to somehow try to change the way Korean scholars approach classical Korean literary works. They have to open up, they have to read what's out there, but very few of them make that conscious effort. Many of them might think they are too old to pick up one new Western language. To make Korean literature better known, the work has to begin with Korean scholars in Korea. Isn't that so? [End Page 385]

MH: Yes, they have to expose themselves to what's out there so they have a context for comparison.

PHL: Yeah, that kind of work is rare in Korea. It will take considerable reading of Western literary works, but if scholars are not trained in literary theory and criticism, then it's difficult for them to understand such works. I think that's the main reason why Korean literary studies are not as advanced as Chinese or Japanese literary studies. At the graduate workshop on Korean humanities at UCLA, for example, Carter (J. Eckert) said that the younger generation will surely be larger than our generation, and they should be able to share their reading and contacts among themselves, but we have to see if they can do that. The simple fact that there are more students studying Korean literature now doesn't necessarily mean they will produce a better result. I think that's important to acknowledge.

Always seek out those from whom you would like to learn. With colleagues, too, take the initiative. Until the late 1980s, because there was really no one with whom I could talk about Korean literature, my main interactions were with scholars of English, comparative, Chinese, and Japanese literature. This is the way you learn, and in turn you impart something to others to make them aware of the existence of Korean literature. So you have to talk to everybody, not just those in your field. You always have to go out of your way, you have to reach out. That's important. Reach out. Reach out. Always. I think that's very important. Reaching out.

MH: How do you keep notes, organize your files? What are your personal habits and rituals?

PHL: Whenever I read a book, I take notes, even today. I keep these notes, which have all the page numbers, so that means I don't have to go back to the book again. I can simply refer to my notes. I have card files like these [pointing to 5 x 9 index cards] in five boxes. But [End Page 386] because those cards are too small, I began to type my notes on 8 x 11 paper. I have maybe eight or nine folders of those. I file them alphabetically, by subject or by author's name, so then I can go back and take a look. That saves a little time. Of course taking notes takes time, but you don't have to look for the books in the library and check them out again. Many times the books are not there anyway. That's my practice. My personal habit.

MH: You have been so prolific, are there things you'd still like to do? Personally, academically? What's next?

PHL: There are many books I haven't been able to read because I didn't have the time. When I was teaching, the books I had to read were mostly critical studies and theoretical works. I would like to spend more time reading actual literary works that I didn't find time to read in the past. Not only in Korean but also in Japanese and Western languages. That will take time. Then I will think of some project and go back to certain classical works that strike me, works I haven't had time to look at carefully. Ch'unhyang ka (The Song of Ch'unhyang) is one good example. I will continue to do something-reading, thinking, and writing.

MH: How would you describe your lifelong relationship with literature?

PHL: I think this is a good question because my attitude has always been grave and solemn. Because when you pick up a volume of verse or work of fiction, you immediately grasp that a tremendous amount of suffering, hard work, and imagination went into making that book. You are even more aware of this when you yourself are a creative writer and you know how much time you spend writing a single poem. You have to go though ten or twenty revisions. You mumble a poem to yourself, even when you're walking or on the bus, because you're thinking of how to improve a particular line. That's how I feel [End Page 387] whenever I pick up a book-I have respect for that author, I identify with him or her. My attitude is grave and solemn. I don't treat books lightly, but solemnly. It's something precious. That single book is imbued with an author's soul and blood. We cannot treat such a thing shabbily. That's the key attitude when dealing with a literary work; we respect the author who spent time, who suffered, who imagined, who wrote, and who wants us to take part in that experience.

There are some books for which one reading is not enough, so you have to go back. That's the attitude with which you have to treat books. Then some day, as a reader, you will begin to see a new world and acquire a new sensibility. Our literary sensibility has to be refined and polished continuously. We cannot just ignore it, or let it stagnate, because then it begins to rust. We must keep on refining and polishing that sensibility. If you keep on training yourself this way-I use the word hullyŏn-it's a kind of education, and even without knowing it, you begin to acquire certain criteria which are almost faultless. Then whenever you pick up a book and read, you can say, "Ah hah!" You begin to see the whole dimension. Not just layer by layer, but you begin to see the whole thing. It's a concrete object right there. It consists of a sound system, a meaning system, and a metaphysical system. It's all there. You are able to perceive that multi-dimensional work at first glance. And that should be the goal for all students of literature. One day, you will reach that level from which you can deal with a literary text meaningfully and fruitfully without missing much. A full engagement with the text. At all levels. If you want to do that, then you need hullyŏn. Those who have never produced any creative writing do not understand it very well. Those who have had the experience understand it better. Even if it's not much, it's good to do some creative writing. Not because you want to be a Shakespeare, Goethe, Valéry, or Rilke, but to experience the creative process.

Peter H. Lee retired as an active professor at the end of the spring semester in 2007 and the conference "Celebration of Continuity," a [End Page 388] commemoration of his career, was held on June 1, 2007, at UCLA. He is now professor emeritus and continues to do what he does best: read, write, and think, and make others do the same.

Of all the lessons from Prof. Lee, the harshest is also the most valuable and proves to be truer with passing time-that being a lover of literature is entirely demanding. Prof. Lee warned that literature is a jealous lover, and I must give it all of my attention. My attitude toward literature changed, not because he admonished me, but because of his infectious passion for literature-how he gives himself wholly to his work. [End Page 389]

Mickey Hong

Mickey Hong is a Ph.D. candidate in Korean literature at UCLA. Her dissertation topic is 1930s Korean modernist poetry.


  1. I stumbled upon your blog while looking up a short story for my Korean Literature in Translation class for Professor Lee. I think it's admirable that you still think of him after all those years. I'm currently an undergraduate student at UCLA and would like you to know that Professor Lee is currently teaching my class. And, yes, he is still grandfatherly. Hope that puts you at ease.


  2. Thank you, Doogen. It is nice to hear that Professor Lee is still teaching.

    I remember his being grandfatherly back in 1983, so he must be great grandfatherly by now.

    Actually, it is possible that my frustration with Professor Lee's class had more to do with my language skills than with Professor Lee's teaching skills. I was eager to learn the Korean language at the time, but was also frustrated with my language skills. Maybe, I had hoped that Professor Lee's Korean "Literature" class was going to focus more on the language than on the literature, which was an unrealistic expectation on my part.

    I wish I could attend his class again. I would probably appreciate it much more now.