Monday, July 12, 2010

Book Review: Korea in war, revolution and peace: The recollections of Horace G. Underwood

Title: Korea in war, revolution and peace: The recollections of Horace G. Underwood
Editor: Michael J. Devine
Hardcover: 370 pages
Publisher: Yonsei University Press (2001)
ISBN-10: 8971415622
ISBN-13: 978-8971415627

The personal recollection of the grandson of easily one of the most famous foreigners in Korea, this memoir contains his own personal accounts of all the major events surrounding his equally famous life. Absorbing and easy to read, Underwood's family history hardly needs any introduction outside of Korea. Originally published in 2001, just three years before the author's passing, H.G. Underwood and Michael Devine sat down to finalize a collection of audio interviews, email correspondence, and privately published childhood recollections that have coalesced to the publication that can be found today. The third of out four generations of Underwoods to be named Horace, H.G. Underwood lived a most fascinating and fulfilling life fit for any Hollywood movie script. From his precociously innocent upbringing as a mischievous child in Seoul to his teenage life on furlough in the States for high school and college, his astoundingly well-rounded career in the Navy and subsequent vital contribution to translations and peace negotiations during the Korean War, to heading one of Korea's most prestigious private universities, H.G. Underwood did us all a favor by writing his memoirs. Devine surely should be applauded for spearheading the editing process.

As discussed in the introduction, the Underwood family isn't exactly the most creative or original in terms of naming of children. First up on the table is the author's place in the hard to follow Underwood family tree. Horace Grant Underwood (1859-1916), grandfather to the author, was among one of the first Protestant missionaries to come to Korea in 1855. His only son Horace Horton Underwood (1890–1951) was also involved in missionary and educational work, especially with Yonhi University, predecessor to Yonsei. The oldest of five children, Horace Grant Underwood III (1917–2004) shares his legacy as in countless ways including translator, negotiator and educator and was an avid boat and ship enthusiast. Frustratingly enough, the oldest of the author's own three children, is also, yes, no joke, named Horace Horton Underwood (1943- ) and was also a Yonsei English professor as well as a successful business consultant. It should be said that of course there are members of the Underwood family that don't fit the predictably cookie cutter naming convention but the ones that are named Horace are the most difficult to trace in common conversation. Not to mention that the eldest Horace also interacted with former missionary turned businessman and politician Horace Newton Allen (1858 - 1932). It's easy to get your Horaces mixed up.

Without delving too much into detail, H.G. Underwood's story is mildly uninteresting in the beginning and end and is delightfully detailed and fascinating in the middle. His life was full distinct prestige but he wrote quite humbly which as a reader, I appreciate. Sprinkled throughout are thoughtfully placed photos enhancing the fireside chat style of his tales. Oratorically moving, his prose is concisely to the point and leaves little room for bird walking. His attention to fine detail combats the curiously high number of minor spacing and marking errors present.

I encourage those who have heard of the Underwood family but are a bit confused as to who did exactly what in Korea when and where to pick up this book. Through this memoir, a good footing can be grasped to better understand this immensely influential family and their achievements. If for nothing else, it follows a unique perspective trace of Korean history from the end of Japanese colonization to modernization and everything in between. It's well worth your time.

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Ever since reading his awe inspiring contribution in the final chapter of Richard Harris' Faces of Korea, I have been interested in the Underwood family and H.G. Underwood in particular. His memoir was refreshing to discover and I can't help but hope that other pillars of the foreign community follow suit and publish their own memoirs. Those needing another reason to pick up this book can read a light but glowing review by longtime Duke physics professor M.Y. Han.

H.G. Underwood's funeral was one to notice for Koreans let alone the foreign community. After reading, I can't help but be even more curious as to why the Underwood family left Korea. Anyone caring to fill me in out of my own personal curiosity is encouraged. It didn't have anything to do with 양화진 by any chance, did it? Was it a decision made without hard feelings?


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