Thanks but No Thanks but Thanks

H.T. Tsiang’s self-published “American epic” The Hanging on Union Square is back and just as wonderfully bizarre as ever.

H.T. Tsiang.
H.T. Tsiang.

Courtesy of Acme Photo Service/Kaya Press

This essay is the introduction to a new edition of H.T. Tsiang’s The Hanging on Union Square, edited by Floyd Cheung, which is coming out this month from Kaya Press.

Writers deal with rejection in different ways. Some shred or delete their rejection letters instantly, lest material evidence of one-time failure remains; others bury them deep in drawers or file them away in obscure corners of their hard drive, revisiting them only in the light of later glory. It might be an occasion for fellowship on one of those websites devoted to sharing and laughing at the way work has been declined through the ages. The wild few fire back angry ripostes or desperate clarifications. You would be surprised by all the folders full of such postcards and notes that remain in the university archives of writers that history records as world conquerors.

The point is that few people enjoy being told that what they’ve written is too strange or unsuitable for publication or, worse yet, beyond salvage, thanks for the inquiry and kindly lose this address. And nobody excerpts these rejection letters on the back covers and inner pages of their books, where blurbs customarily go.

I became fascinated with the Chinese-American writer H.T. Tsiang when I found a first edition of The Hanging on Union Square, which he self-published in 1935. It felt like slipping into another person’s hallucination. The front cover was mysteriously confrontational and free of any useful information such as a title or author’s name. Instead, three blocks of text that resembled a madman’s conversation with himself—“YES the cover of a book is more of a book than the book is a book,” “I say ——- NO,” “SO.” This last word then stretched itself out and colonized the entire back cover. Opening the book and browsing its first few pages, I was ambushed by more signs of Tsiang’s unusual, stubborn mind: a page of tepid, bemused half-praise from the likes of Granville Hicks, Carl van Doren, and Louis Adamic, followed by another page excerpting rejection notices he had received from various publishers. I sought out other Tsiang novels. There was China Red, self-published in 1931, with its crude, hand-drawn art and back-cover blurbs doubting its “popular appeal.” He finally found a proper publisher for 1937’s And China Has Hands, but the dust jacket reprints a letter from Tsiang in which he offers some input on the dust jacket’s layout. These works didn’t fit into any available categories of immigrant writing or proletarian art. But then his biography didn’t follow the paths taken by most 20th-century Chinese Americans either.

Tsiang was born “in a small hut” near Shanghai in 1899 and died decades later in Hollywood, a local oddball and occasional movie actor known around town for the R-rated, one-man, one-hour adaptation of Hamlet he performed every Friday night for a dozen years. He worked for a brief spell as Sun Yat-sen’s secretary before fractures within the Kuomintang—as well as his own outspokenness about the party’s shifting ideologies—forced him to emigrate to the United States in 1926. He spent time in California’s Bay Area and then New York City, living the itinerant life of a graduate student. Encouraged by some of his professors at Columbia and the New School to channel his left-leaning politics into creative forms, he began writing and publishing poetry in the late 1920s. He eventually moved to fiction.

Collectively, Tsiang’s works do not seem to comprise a coherent oeuvre. They suggest a promiscuous attitude toward standards of form and genre. No existing literary approaches suited Tsiang’s spectacularly expansive vision of how the world should be, and this might explain why he ranged so freely from sentimental, epistolary novels to militantly leftist poetry, plays, and music to bitterly ironic, experimental novels. He enjoyed very little success, even within the hospitable climate of New York’s interwar proletarian arts scene.

Not that Tsiang felt chastened. Anyone who picks up a pen possesses a healthier than average ego, and despite a steady stream of baffled rejection letters, he continued to believe that he had something important to share. These frustrations only refined his critical instincts. His works came to express a frustration with New York’s proletarian dogma, which, despite an inherent hope for global solidarity, privileged the American urban experience. Tsiang’s other natural audience—those interested in China—ignored him as well, opting instead for the more palatable visions of Pearl Buck (whom he would frequently mock in his novels) and the professionalized establishment of China-watchers.

If anything, these frustrations animated Tsiang and pushed him toward increasingly experimental ends. His characters descended into ever more desperate, absurd situations that seemed to reflect his own sense of alienation. In particular, he became obsessed with what a book was, not simply as pages housing content—ideas, characters, plot, etc.—but as an object entering into a marketplace as well. By the time Tsiang published Hanging on Union Square in 1935, he seemed resigned to the reality that no publisher, regardless of political orientation, would accept his work, which could go from whimsical and trippy to vengeful and brutish in a matter of paragraphs. It seemed that publishers and editors couldn’t tell whether his style was banal or experimental—the word that keeps showing up in their letters is “interesting.”

From the first page, Hanging is desperate to flaunt its convictions. That’s not quite right. It’s more of a performance of desperation, a need to be recognized for having convictions, no matter how basic (in this case, money = evil) they may be. It’s a challenge to the reader: Do you care as much as I do?

Hanging chronicles a day in the life of the lonely, unemployed Mr. Nut. We find him in a workers’ cafeteria, listening to the sad fates of those around him, wondering to himself how he will get by without a steady job. Unlike everyone else, however, Nut has yet to surrender his by-the-bootstraps idealism. He insists that his poverty is only temporary and that he will one day leave this all behind. Aspiration becomes an affliction. His mind swirls with dreams of striking it rich, the mantra overtaking all reason or logic, like Ragged Dick rewritten by Gertrude Stein.

Perhaps this is what has driven him mad. Over a chilling, misadventure-filled night adrift in the city, he encounters the winners and the losers, the weird and the depraved: screwball book critics, dirty old men, a self-obsessed poet yearning for a connection (“I wish your taste would be like mine—/ We could just be sixty-nine”), disgraced millionaires, comically selfless Communists, the shadow government playing the rest of us like puppets. Nut even encounters Tsiang himself. The depiction is far from flattering: Tsiang floats through his own novel as an irritating and obnoxious crank trying to convince someone to buy a weathered copy of his previous self-published opus, China Red.

Suffice it to say that Nut eventually sheds the cynicism he initially feels toward the cause of the “masses.” Yet joining the party rank-and-file doesn’t suit him. His growing sense of abjection seems to have a euphoric, liberating effect on him. Freed from his desire to change his own situation, he aspires instead to change the world. The last few chapters of Hanging, as Nut comes to accept his fate, are hysterical and absurd, yet strangely moving.

Anyone who self-publishes an “American Epic” is worth investigating, especially when they seem to luxuriate in their own marginality. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate time for a Hanging reprint. The recent “Occupy” movement suggests a return of the populist rage that spurred Tsiang’s times, reminding us of the need for new ways to communicate with the masses. Tsiang’s desire to appoint himself Everyman—to yell and argue and rage on behalf of all downtrodden brothers and sisters—might as well be happening in 2012 today; the same applies to his ultimate failure. Perhaps Nut’s increasing darkness doesn’t suggest a way forward. But the quality of his desperation—a proxy for Tsiang’s, perhaps—still hold. We live in a time when self-publishing is no longer a last resort, and a contemporary reader will probably be more hospitable to Hanging’s stubborn weirdness than the readers and publishers of Tsiang’s time. This isn’t to say that we’ve caught up to Tsiang—this would imply that he possessed some coherent vision of the world—just that his manic collision of ideas and feelings seems deeply familiar, as does his dense mix of irony and earnestness, his experimental playfulness and all-at-once frustration that nobody is listening.

Following the pages of rejections that open Hanging’s first edition, Tsiang offered a brief note addressed directly to the reader. “The writer takes this opportunity of conveying his deep appreciation of the kindness of the various critics and publishers who had read his manuscript,” he writes with a seeming sincerity. But maybe they can just agree to disagree—this is the book he wants to write, even if nobody wants to publish it. “Stubbornly or nuttily,” he explains, he is compelled to advance his vision in its purest, uncut form, outside of the publishing industry that enforces our sense of the mainstream. Failure may be inevitable; perhaps he even courts it. But he is unafraid. After all, “the reaction of the masses can’t be wrong.”

The Hanging on Union Square by H.T. Tsiang, edited by Floyd Cheung. Kaya Press.

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