This irrefutable statement is the title of chapter thirty-five in H.T. Tsiang’s delightful satire The Hanging on Union Square.
“‘Masses! Masses! New Masses; Old Masses!
“Nothing can be said that is new. Nothing can be said that is old. Masses are Asses in all ages.
“Stupid! Selfish! Contented! Short-sighted!…” (p 149)
It goes on for a couple of pages, this diatribe, coming towards the end of the novel’s 24 hour span in which our protagonist, Mr. Nut, traverses lower Manhattan in the 1930’s, transforming from anti-hero into hero. The humor and insight of this passage, among others, is what makes it such a fun read—laughing, but then also sighing. heavily. 1930’s America was a desperate age, but then so is this one, and so, and so….we laugh and sigh.
I came across this book while working my day job. The book was edited by Floyd Cheung, a professor at Smith College, our paths have minimally crossed but I know him to be a lovely man, so when I was looking into adding some his scholarly work to our library’s institutional repository, I was introduced to the nutty world of Mr. Nut and friends. Cheung also wrote the afterword and notes, beautifully contextualizing the man, H.T. Tsiang: in Tsiang’s time as well through our own. The introduction to the novel is written by Hua Hsu who hilariously describes Tsiang as a man, like many self-publishers of an “American Epic,” as someone worthy of interest, but “especially when they seem to luxuriate in their own marginality” (p x). Now, I’ve never self-published an American Epic or any other kind of epic for that matter, but I think I know a thing or two about luxuriating in my own marginality. So of course I was already deeply sympathetic to Tsiang’s sensibilities from the start.
While the book sets up an individual revolt against capitalism and highlights American communism of the day, the pulse of the story is felt through the likability and humanity of Mr. Nut. Ostensibly the characters are reduced to types—their names all clearly delineate the types: Miss Digger, Mr. Wiseguy, Mr. System, Miss Stubborn as well as the political systems they fall, or think they fall, in to. There are moments in the story that clearly evince a sort of commonality of human-ness, but that those moments happen within the stark coldness of the structures and typecasting we are all perpetually stuck in is the brilliant maneuver of this novel. Tsiang has a light, decentralized, and eccentric touch, but the style and substance of the writing are all of a piece, which is what makes the story much more than the sum of its parts.
Naturally the love story is where the distant types become familiar humans—at least for me—as I am a sucker for any and all who love. I should note that the love story part of this novel is used in a fascinating way to sum up the thesis, but I am compelled to point out the sweetness of a passage below, when Nut realizes “what all these mysterious feelings were about” and rushes towards that ‘what’ before contemplating retreat instead :
“He had his four reasons as to why he should not retreat
These four reasons Nut first evolved in his brain; then he wrote them down, in outline, on a bit of paper.
The points he made were logical, reasonable and scientific, he had courage.
Because he had courage, he went back towards Third Avenue.
He walked through the hallway.
He went from one step of the stairs to another.
He reached the door of Stubborn’s apartment.
All those four reasons that he had found, gave Nut the courage to come there.
Suddenly, he discovered that he had no reason at all.” (p 101)
This bit is soon followed by Miss Stubborn’s own frantic exchange between her heart and mind. It’s all very endearing. There is a sort of frenetic Dostoevsky-esque energy to all—as well— Tsiang’s intimate treatment of New York City reminded me of Dostoevsky’s handling of St. Petersburg. Don’t misunderstand me however, this is not a love story, it is more a political manifest of a novel, but within Tsiang’s satirization of the struggle of ‘man’ (read, people), he humanizes those who have been dehumanized, and that, I think, is rather the point of literature, if alas, not our political systems.
— The Hanging on Union Square, by H.T. Tsiang. Penguin Classic, 2019. Copyright, 2013 Kaya Press. First published in the United States of America by H.T. Tsiang, 1935