Chester Himes Essay - Himes, Chester (Vol. 7)

Himes, Chester (Vol. 7)

Himes, Chester 1909–

Himes, a Black American author of successfully violent, humorous short stories and novels, lives in Spain. (See also, Chester Himes Criticism and CLC volumes 2, 4, 18 and 108.)

Although [Chester Himes has published over a dozen books]—a number of these have been popular thrillers—it is still the first, If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), that warrants attention. It is set in a southern California shipyard in wartime (war projects, because of the need for workers, were one of the first large-scale instances in America of unsegregated hiring); the hero is race-mad almost to the point of hysteria, packed with dry high explosive, waiting for the match. (p. 142)

Himes' subsequent novels play cruder variations on the race-war theme. In Lonely Crusade (1947) he mixed in heavy doses of a communism that made the novel more attractive to European than American tastes. The Third Generation (1954) is the sordid, late-naturalist chronicle of the utter decay of an entire Negro family, under the pressure of a light-colored, cannibalistic mother who despises her black husband and his race. The book's harrowing frenzy suggests that Himes may have been settling some long-rankling childhood scores…. [In] Pinktoes (1965), Himes … turned to the newly profitable genre of Olympia/Grove Press comic pornography, asserting his status as a highly commercial writer. The book is an interracial sex fantasy that reviewers will call "wildly funny." It is the kind of thing, in Dr. Johnson's phrase, that anyone could go on writing indefinitely, "if he would but abandon his mind to it." (pp. 142-43)

David Littlejohn, in his Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing by American Negroes (copyright © 1966 by David Littlejohn; reprinted by permission of Grossman Publishers), Viking, 1966.

Cotton Comes to Harlem, a highly successful comic detective novel of the Sixties, reflects [the ambience of] a genre that resists serious contemplation of human nature. The title suggests Himes's irreverent approach to his material. His black detective heroes descend from the tough and able detectives created by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Iris resembles the woman-as-temptress figure in a novel like The Maltese Falcon, but she manages to survive without being defeated by male authority figures…. Despite the comic mode with all its exaggeration, Cotton Comes to Harlem contains its own reading of a black woman who refuses to accept defeat and transcends the potentially crippling identity her situation invites. (p. 103)

Patricia Kane and Doris Y. Wilkinson, in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1974), Vol. XVI, No. 1, 1974.

For some reason I found it rather difficult to be moved by [The Quality of Hurt and Black on Black], and I suspect the reason is that the material in both cases is old hat. The one is the first part of an autobiography, and the other is a collection of short stories, essays, and one screenplay, all written between 1937 and 1969. Given the span of years covered by the latter, it is natural that it should be concerned mainly with the oppression of the black man in America. (There is something distressing in that assumption, but it seems to be the rule that black writers in America express themselves almost exclusively and predictably in a racial context.) But Himes has not managed any really original or really useful statement, and one can be excused for feeling some ennui in reading the same old racial banalities. This is not to say that there are not some flashes of humor in some of the stories. I think, for example, that "Cotton Gonna Kill Me Yet" is full of humor, but Himes too often tries to get serious. (p. 365)

More distressing is the visionary quality of Himes's political (or social) instincts as revealed in some of the pieces. "In the Night" is embarrassingly self-pitying in trying to make professional white radicals suffer for the "hurt" the white race has inflicted on the black man. "Now Is the Time" naively asks the question, "Can a person own slaves and believe in freedom?" The answer, of course, is YES! And "Prediction" shows a black brother single-handedly wipe out a whole company of white cops in an urban guerrilla action. That kind of wishful writing (coming in 1969) is both dangerous and irresponsible. The Watts riots came in 1965 and the blacks learned then, or should have learned, that whenever they resorted to violent confrontation with "the man" he usually killed them off with far more determination and efficiency than they could muster. The Black Panthers had to take in the lesson the hard way.

As for The Quality of Hurt, the partial autobiography, what stands out is not so much the "hurt" that the author suffered as his almost pathological hankering for hurts. (pp. 365-66)

For the rest, and true to Himes's form, the book takes on the character of a catalog of the author's sexual activities and one wonders why he wants so badly to tell his readers [whom] he sleeps with, when, how, and how often. We seem to be hovering precariously just this side of pornography. If a second promised volume does appear, one hopes it will be less gossipy, concentrate less on sexual goings-on, unless, of course, these were the most essential aspects of the author's existence. And wouldn't that be a bore! (p. 366)

Oyekan Owomoyela, "Himes on Hurt," in Prairie Schooner (© 1975 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Winter, 1974/75, pp. 365-66.

Chester Himes's Black on Black is very aggressive. 'These writings are admittedly chauvinistic,' he writes in the prologue. 'You will conclude if you read them that black protest and black heterosexuality are my two chief obsessions.' Himes is convinced that violence is the only way American Negroes will attain justice and equality. The final story, 'Prediction', shows how this might come about. He can write with great elegance, and with enormous crudity. Paradoxically, his most moving story is about an Uncle Tom head waiter in a restaurant for whites. His talent is vital, violent, and very black. (p. 489)

Victoria Glendinning, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), April 11, 1975.

Himes's short fiction, almost without exception, can scarcely be classified as such: his "stories" are powerful and disturbing and hate-filled polemical essays or tracts involving fictional techniques. The ultimate is "Prediction," a devastating allegory written after he had "become firmly convinced" that "the only chance Black Americans had of obtaining justice and equality in the United States was by violence." (p. 234)

If there is less gore in other Himes stories, there is no less hatred and indignation; his villains are not only the White Establishment of Police and Sheriff who kick and beat to death the decorated black soldier returning home for Christmas of "Christmas Gift" or fill full of bullets the narrator of "One More Way to Die" but White Society itself epitomized by the "respectable" white man of "All He Needs Is Feet" who deliberately bumps into the black man who has stepped off the sidewalk to let him and his companions pass, and in one way or other in one story after another precipitates the chain of events leading to the destruction or humiliation of their victims.

Too over-simplified to be successful as fiction, the work of Chester Himes, like that of his superior Richard Wright, is a shocking mirror of our times; it makes us reflect, in the words of one of the author's few compassionate whites: "What have we done to him?" (pp. 234-35)

William Peden, in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1975 by Newberry College), Summer, 1975.