Chester Himes Long Fiction Analysis
In his review of Lonely Crusade, James Baldwin hit on the central theme of Chester Himes’s work: creating individual black characters who were many faceted and reflected the ambivalence of living in an American society full of contradictions and insecurities. Unfortunately, Baldwin’s grasp of the essence of Himes’s fiction was not shared by all. Many of the reviewers of Himes’s early “protest” fiction either criticized the violence of the books, apologized for it, or merely complained about what they saw as his awkwardness of style. Most reviews simply dismissed the books. Some acknowledged that Himes’s portrait of American racism was accurate but deplored his lack of any constructive suggestions for its amelioration. Even when Himes received a certain measure of fame through the republication of his detective novels in the United States, the critical notices, with few exceptions, remained slight. After Himes’s death, however, this changed. Himes’s literary reputation in France undoubtedly affected his reception in the United States.
Himes once believed that in American letters there was room at the top for only one African American writer at a time, and therefore black writers were always competing against one another for that coveted spot. He felt that he always came in second, initially behind Richard Wright and then behind James Baldwin. Certainly this is no longer true (if it ever was). The proliferation of novels, drama, and poetry by such authors as Toni Morrison, Ernest J. Gaines, Gloria Naylor, Derek Walcott, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, and other black writers suggests that whatever constraints Himes felt as an exiled black writer seem to be loosening. Himes is now being accorded a place beside Wright, Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison, the novelists of his generation who opened the doors for African American writers to be accepted as full-fledged American writers, a part of the native grain.
If He Hollers Let Him Go
In If He Hollers Let Him Go the central character, Bob Jones, is a black Everyman—as his name would suggest—who comes to represent the experience of all black males who find themselves thwarted while trying to live out their dreams. Jones is an African American who has moved to California to work in the defense plants during World War II. Here he experiences American racism in all its ugly insidiousness and spends the five days covered by the novel’snarrative trying to escape the oppressions and humiliations society tries to impose on him.
As an articulate man, with a few years of college, Jones is both better educated and more perceptive than the working-class whites he works with in the aircraft plants. When he is elevated to the position of supervisor at work, he brings out the racism of his coworkers, who are jealous of his success. An altercation on the job, tensions with his white girlfriend, and finally the accusation of rape by a woman at work whose overtures he has rejected, convince Jones...
(The entire section is 1230 words.)