“Business so far this year has astonished even the most perennial optimists,” wrote finance reporters E.K. Burger and A.M. Leinbach in June 1929. It wasn’t true. That March had seen days of unsettling free-fall in the stock exchange: Burger and Leinbach were writing fiction in the pages of The Magazine of Wall Street, serving a narrative that refused to anticipate the nasty shocks that came four months later, when the stock market collapsed under its own lies and the Great Depression officially began.
Radical artists and writers, many of whom had been roused to politics by the Russian Revolution a decade prior, spent the years after the crash trying to create models of art that could reflect the economic circumstances of people around them. The plight of the suffering became a reliable theme in mainstream art and literature. Three and a half years into the Depression, the critic and fiction writer Michael Gold reviewed Union Square, a novel by the then-popular author Albert Halper. “They say it is a ‘proletarian’ novel, or better the proletarian novel,” Gold wrote, but “ladies and gentlemen, too bad.” Union Square, which follows destitute itinerants living in and around the eponymous square, was just the “stale Bohemianism” already picked over by liberal novelists of the past. Gold saw the book as lacking “social passion,” merely “synthetic, like a Hollywood movie.” He understood that the novel was propped up by a system of inequality and exploitation. Gold excoriated those who claimed belief in freedom and fairness but shied away from saying as much in their books.
Two years after that novel was published, another book began to appear in the cheap cafeterias around 14th Street. As scholar Floyd Cheung notes, H.T. Tsiang’s 1935 novel The Hanging on Union Square bore striking similarities to Halper’s. (Each protagonist wanders around the same few blocks of Manhattan, encountering similar character archetypes along the way.) But Tsiang, unlike Halper, didn’t shy from the label of proletarian literature. Tsiang pursued it past subtlety, literary realism, and marketability. “No one’s a hero, I think,” one of his characters says. “We’re just workers!” Gold sneered at the lack of politics in Halper’s book, writing, “Not a worker in the novel. Not a person who suffers as the masses suffer today. Not one bitter cry of rage against capitalism!” Tsiang was ready to answer his challenge.
The Hanging on Union Square follows Mr. Nut, an aspiring businessman with just a nickel and a 10-cent check in his pocket. He spends his days ambling around Union Square, getting lightly swindled by his friend Mr. Wiseguy and pestered by communists pushing various party publications, like The Daily Worker. (Another pesterer is selling copies of his novel China Red—a book Tsiang wrote and sold in the same cafés.) Though desperate for food and shelter, Mr. Nut furiously distances himself from the activists who offer him help and fraternity, insisting that he is a “Capitalist,” until he finds himself mixed up with the police. A black communist rushes to his defense, and the cops beat them both. “The blood of the colored race and the blood of the white race that fell on the cement pavement were of one color,” Tsiang writes. Bloodied and chastened, “Nut realized also that Communists were not necessarily bad people.” In effect, Hanging is a Künstlerroman for communism.
Tsiang’s book is as densely populated as the neighborhood where it takes place, but characters with real names are few and far between, and the handful of names we’re given are more like labels: “Miss Stubborn,” an organizer for the Communist Party; “Mr. System,” her predatory former boss; “Miss Digger,” who likes getting men to spend their money; “Mr. Wiseguy” and “Mr. Ratsky,” two more bad guys. Mr. Nut, the wacky naïf, is caught between all these figures as the conflict between workers and bosses escalates. Though his natural instinct is to hedge, he’s forced to make decisions and take sides as the stakes of his choices become increasingly clear. Tsiang isn’t shy about articulating these consequences, with scenes of elite debauchery (financial, sexual, moral) set in sharp contrast to the miseries of Depression-era New York, in an order that makes it obvious that one follows from the other.
Hanging takes place over a few days. Most of it follows Nut dipping in and out of cafés and potential places to spend a night. Tsiang keeps us updated on his location at all times, and Mr. Nut never strays far from the square where he begins and ends his adventure. We see New York’s speakeasies, its movie theaters, its private clubs where the entertainment supposedly rivals that of Paris’. Nut spends time in the apartments of a lonely poet, a sex-crazed book critic, a desperate mother, and a sadistic magnate. He joins political marches to the square and stumbles past assemblies to aid the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers in Alabama falsely accused of raping two white women. We see the frustrations of Communist Party bureaucracy, staffed by “college-graduate sympathizers,” the “millionaire’s son[s] and well-known writers” who see in their party membership an opportunity for publicity. Hanging offers a portrait of a New York City for the rich and the poor, the immigrant and the native-born, the newly homeless and the seasoned itinerant.
Tsiang’s oddball style and plainspoken politics make his purpose clear: to live up to the calling of revolutionary literature and strip away the artifice of the bourgeois novel, which naturalizes the unnatural human relations and inhuman conditions of life under the free market. In a few decades, the CIA and instiutions like the Rockefeller Foundation would invest heavily in artists, magazines, and MFA programs to steer American art away from politics, social issues, and Soviet realism. But before American schoolchildren learned to ‘show, not tell,’ Tsiang, Gold, and their cohort of proletarian writers—including Langston Hughes, Agnes Smedley, and Richard Wright—tried to tell America what it really looked like.
Born in 1899 in China, Tsiang grew up in an era of revolution. In 1911, Sun Yat-Sen helped topple the 300-year-old Qing dynasty. As a young man, Tsiang joined Sun’s party, the Kuomintang, which soon split into conservative and communist-leaning factions. A member of the party’s left wing, he hurried into exile after Chiang Kai-Shek took power, ducking into the United States through a loophole for students in the Chinese Exclusion Act. Tsiang attended Stanford, Columbia, and the New School without ever completing a degree. Instead, he spent his time agitating, editing a Chinese newspaper in the Bay Area and following the political struggles of workers in New York’s Chinatown. Eventually, the combination of his political activity and disregard for the terms of his visa caught the attention of immigration authorities, and he was interned on Ellis Island for several months. He was spared from deportation after a letter-writing campaign by his friends and spent the rest of his life in America, under FBI surveillance. Until a few years ago, his most faithful readers were the federal agents on his case.
To the extent that Tsiang is remembered, it’s as a Chinese writer, not a proletarian one. As The New Yorker’s Hua Hsu writes in his biography of Tsiang, A Floating Chinaman, Tsiang’s career-long struggle was to get Americans to take the complexities of Chinese society seriously, in contrast to the sympathetic but sentimental depictions from Western writers like Pearl Buck. Hsu says Buck and her work haunted Tsiang throughout his life in America, especially her best-selling novel The Good Earth, which won her a Pulitzer and the Nobel. The veneer of naive good intentions that covered the book’s lazy stereotyping and colonial airs infuriated Tsiang, compounded by its rabid reception in America. Her novels’ immensely popular, flattened vision of China inspired many of his books’ most vicious passages. (In one particularly odd moment in Hanging, Miss Digger declares her intention to go to “the Orient” and conduct research, improving upon the work of an unnamed journalist—clearly Buck.) Hanging was reissued this year as part of Penguin’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month series, though apart from Miss Digger’s speech there’s very little mention of China or even Chinese Americans in it. Mr. Nut describes himself, defensively, as “very Anglo-Saxon, Teutonic and Yankee.” Hanging holds race, like everything else, at enough of a distance to make it unfamiliar. Though racism in the book is as real as capitalism, racial identity seems flexible with the right mind-set. (Mr. Wiseguy does facial exercises to make himself look more Aryan.)
Tsiang’s relentless criticism often turned inward. Anonymous versions of the author make frequent appearances in his work as single-minded madmen hovering around society’s margins. In a later novel, And China Has Hands, Tsiang’s stand-in—a fervent, irritating poet—is tossed out of a public debating hall, where the topic of the night is “What Is Proletarian Literature and Who Pays the Printing Bills?” The poet is lonely, furious, and always marginal, vaguely aware that onlookers think he’s embarrassing his Chinese peers. It’s unmistakably Tsiang. Over the course of his life, he floated in and out of school, employment, social circles, political commitments, and his own novels. Both a desperate hanger-on and a bitter drifter, Tsiang had too much personality.
His books are filled with broad archetypes: Tsiang’s characters are single-minded, personifying cardinal virtues and sins. They are greedy or slothful or brave or righteous. One may be a stand-in for the fight against racism, another for feminist struggle, a third for Chinese American labor rights. This substitution of type for character was in keeping with much leftist art in the first half of the century. Proletarian literature was stripped of the bourgeois ideologies scaffolding most cultural products, ideologies that only aestheticized unjust relations within the art and legitimized an unequal society in real life. This honesty took different forms, depending on the artists and their mediums. For novelists, it often meant sacrificing many of the qualities that defined the novel itself. As Raymond Williams argued, the concept of the proletarian novel took a while to find footing, as the central tensions of novels had been inheritance and propertied marriage. Working-class writers, even into the 20th century, were more likely to write memoirs or popular poetry, according to Williams.
And although it’s written as a novel, The Hanging on Union Square hews more closely to the conventions of drama. (In fact, Tsiang found more success when he staged it several years later.) It moves from spectacle to spectacle without dwelling too much on the interior. Poetic interludes conclude its first three “acts,” and each act has a refrain, repeated at the beginning of each scene. The poems are repetitive ditties; they seem meant to be put to music or read in a call-and-response with the reader. The climax of the novel is a literal drama—the titular hanging in Union Square—staged by Mr. Wiseguy and Mr. System to solve the three problems they see facing Depression-era America: unemployment, sky-high suicide rates, and the escalating mania of the rich for entertainment.
The same problems preoccupied Tsiang’s social-realist contemporaries—the Steinbecks and the dos Passoses—but unlike them, Tsiang had little interest in steely, self-serious misery. In the book, as in his life, he is constantly cheeky and self-deprecating. Not only did Tsiang refer to himself as an annoying peddler of his own books, but the original cover of Hanging “resembled a madman’s conversation with himself,” Hsu writes. It’s all text, no images: three words (“YES,” “NO,” and “ SO”) printed large across the cover, with smaller italics legible on closer inspection, so that the cover reads “YES the cover of a book is more of a book than the book is a book,” “I say—NO,” and “SO—” with no title or author name. The book’s first pages are full of “tepid, bemused half-praise” and rejection notices from publishers. Tsiang had trouble publishing his works and resorted, for the most part, to publishing them himself.
Editors, publishers, and even sympathetic friends were bewildered by Tsiang’s eccentricities, his brashness in demanding recognition, his internationalist politics, and his relentless drive to joke, even at his own expense. Mr. System, Hanging’s central villain, bemoans how “nowadays a poet writes as if he were doing bookkeeping.” This, in fact, is exactly how Tsiang writes. His sentences account for their subject and verb without ambiguity, and he repeats himself when he wants to be clear. At one false plot peak, Mr. Nut “ended the story literarily, non-propagandizingly and publishably”—but of course, the book goes on, and the publishability of the book is lost.
Tsiang’s politics suggest that the book’s focal points would be plot and character—yet, despite himself, Tsiang’s manic spirit animates his voice. A potential romance between Mr. Nut and Miss Stubborn is perhaps the book’s most naturalistic plot point, sending Mr. Nut into a state of love-addled confusion. “Untying tied the tie tighter,” he muses. But like everything else, it ends with politics, reflected in Miss Stubborn. “As a revolutionist, and as a communist, Stubborn was of the opinion that there was love for the biological reason, for the artistic reason, and for the political (revolutionary) reason.” She has little interest in bourgeois gender conventions, which reduce women to objects. “As an ‘It,’ a girl had to be passive. As a revolutionist and as a communist, Stubborn felt she must overthrow this tradition and stand up and become ‘She.’”
The idea is one to chew on, but it’s almost outcharmed by its delivery—love “for the artistic reason”! The parenthetical (revolutionary)! Stubborn’s determined description of herself “as a revolutionist and as a Communist”! Every aspect of the book, from the structure of its sentences to its narrative arc, is in service to its politics—which are really in service to Tsiang’s personality.
The assertiveness of the book cows its readers into believing that it doesn’t vacillate wildly between poles. But the narrative coheres around its internal tensions, as when Tsiang’s apparent allergy to sentiment runs up against his desire to depict the dire straits of poor families or when his mechanically plotted sentences and distaste for “poetizing” give way to startling lyric detail—a “stockingless girl,” an undercover cop given away by his “policeman’s neck,” a “husky” cafeteria patron who “sat at a corner table, enthroned.”
After his radicalization at the hands of the police, Nut is more attentive to the suffering of the poor. Whereas he once preferred to think of himself as an out-of-work businessman who scorned those who, like him, could not make ends meet, he becomes a witness to inequality, a flâneur of the proletariat who watches as people fail to connect with one another and families starve through a bitter winter.
“Ordinary people have written, almost with religious awe, of the wondrous despair through which they lived in the 1930s,” Vivian Gornick writes in The Romance of American Communism. “Other, not so ordinary people have written of the equally wondrous spiritual exhilaration they experienced during the Thirties.” In Hanging, Tsiang manages to convey the sense, echoed by party members at the time, that communism was a system that could orient its believers like none other. Tsiang scrupulously tracks Mr. Nut’s location for us, but Nut knows where he is (and where he’s going) because of the constant flow of people—workers, radicals, and the police chasing them—to Union Square. The reader understands that this is what Tsiang believes communism can do for people: help locate themselves in society and imagine and act upon a path to a freer world.
Though the book’s formal aspects range from jarring to quaint to delightful, they all reflect the infectious freedom with which Tsiang wrote. His flinging disregard for the fashionable and the novelistic are thrilling, but so are the serious, deep convictions underlying them. For anyone with revolutionary sympathies, it’s an emotionally stirring book, proving that representation and interiority aren’t all that moves us; so can the eviction of a family named Stubborn, or an unnamed poet pleading for intimacy. That’s what Tsiang wanted, after all.
But there’s also a despair in reading the book that Tsiang didn’t anticipate: the feeling of a lost New York, a Union Square where thousands regularly gathered, lined with union buildings, the offices of The Daily Worker, and the dingy cafeterias where the Nuts and Stubborns of the world gathered. After the rallies and riots of the 1860s, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the architects of many of New York’s great public spaces, redesigned the square to “meet the public requirement of mass-meetings.” Though they really intended it for military assemblies, New Yorkers took them at their word. Ten thousand workers gathered in the square to celebrate the first Labor Day in 1882.
Halper, the Union Square novelist whom Gold excoriated, remembered that in the early 1930s (when Tsiang was writing) “there were weekly leftwing parades which frequently ended with clubbings by the police. On Saturday mornings I could see the mounted cops in the side streets, bunched together, resting, healthy-faced, chatting cheerfully before the afternoon’s action.” The Daily Worker building was at that time covered in signs calling for class struggle and for people to “Fight Police Terror, Unemployment, and War Preparations,” and for the “Defense of the Soviet Union.” When you gathered for a demonstration at one end of the park, you could see those signs from any angle, along with the heads of the thousands of people alongside you.
Now, as Whole Foods and Barnes & Noble face off across the park, it’s impossible for protesters, when they gather, to see from one end of the plaza to the other. A thicket of cars surrounds the square. At the entrances to its interior stand barricades erected by the business-improvement district. They’re covered in blue cloth, printed, like a bitter punchline in Hanging, with the words “Welcome to Union Square.” Tsiang would know better than to believe that fiction.