Chester Himes Essay - Himes, Chester (Vol. 2)

Himes, Chester (Vol. 2)

Himes, Chester 1909–

Himes, a Black American novelist and detective story writer, now lives in Spain. Many of his works were published originally in French. His best-known book is Cotton Comes to Harlem. (See also, Chester Himes Criticism and CLC volumes 4, 7, 18 and 108.)

"Blind Man With a Pistol" is less a novel than a series of dramatic incidents juxtaposed to illustrate its thesis and, incidentally, to demonstrate the most sordid realities of life in Harlem. Mr. Hime's familiars, Gravedigger and Coffin Ed, two black detectives who view life with a phlegmatic mixture of tolerance and disgust, reappear to serve as Virgilian guides….

No one can fault Mr. Himes's skill. He knows the motives for murder, the smells of sex and hatred, the accommodations desperate men must make to survive. Except for the trigger-happy camaraderie of his two detectives, his Harlem is unrelieved by any kindness between black and black or black and white. Reading "Blind Man With a Pistol" is like reading Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," without the spiritual progress that alleviates the horrors of that novel.

But it is exactly here that Mr. Himes fails us, and fails Harlem. His soul brothers are only "vulnerable," as if he stood above them and found nothing to admire. Violence and hatred in the novel progress inexorably to the parable of the blind man near the end; after that incident, Coffin Ed and Gravedigger knock off rats fleeing a condemned tenement with their nickle-plated .38's and another riot begins. He may be right.

That may be the way things are these days. But school takeovers and black capitalism and Harlem's surprising steadiness while other ghettos burn argue otherwise….

[Blindness] to alternatives produces a story that demonstrates but does not qualify. It is a truism that an author must in some complex fashion love his characters; the trouble with his latest novel is that Mr. Himes loves his blacks only as a daddy loves difficult children. At the risk of seeming captious, I must assert, from the evidence of "Blind Man With a Pistol," that Chester Himes is prejudiced.

Richard Rhodes, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 23, 1969, p. 32.

[One] of the remarkable things about The Quality of Hurt, Vol. I [is] the absence of rancor and self-pity. After being hurt by relatives, friends, institutions, cities, even world events, Himes never fails to mention how he hurt his wife, his relatives, and others….

The Quality of Hurt, Vol. I is retrospective Himesiana. It is a love story, sometimes amusing, sometimes sorrowful; it's a cops and robbers story as gory as Peckinpah; it's a story about the tragedies that shatter a proud, noble and gifted family….

Volume I of the Himes Lonely Crusade is told coolly and objectively, Himes utilizing his considerable novelistic gifts, one of the major qualities of which is a fantastic memory…. He seems to recall everything he and others ever ate, wore, every landscape he ever saw, everything anybody ever said and how they said it….

Himes' powers of imagination have been underrated. Reading The Quality of Hurt, Vol. I one gets the feeling that incidents in the detective novels didn't take place in Harlem exclusively, but are assemblages of experiences Himes had in Cleveland, Oakland and Los Angeles, as well as in New York, and some of the situations in those novels might be based upon stories Himes heard while in the Ohio State Penitentiary. This makes Himes' Harlem a kind of every ghetto, as the professors might say….

I believe that it will be left to a young generation of Black and white critics to assess the importance of Chester Himes as a major twentieth century writer. "Serious" works, Lonely Crusade, If He Hollers Let Him Go, Cast The First Stone, The Third Generation, The Primitive, Pinktoes, etc., are of such high quality that their worth is only resisted by critics who have little interest in writing, a near pathological contempt for writers, and only care about evangelizing for some particular ideology….

The Quality of Hurt, Vol. I,… is a big book; big as the career and as the man. It's a good sign that Black writers are beginning to write their autobiographies. The Black autobiography received a bad name during the Black gold rush days of the Sixties. People seemed more interested in testifying than writing….

Chester Himes is a great writer and a brave man. His life has shown that Black writers are as heroic as the athletes, entertainers, scientists, cowboys, pimps, gangsters, and politicians they might write about. Many Blacks have given Himes a bad time but his belief in the excellence and uniqueness of American Blacks continued unmitigated….

The achievement of volume I is even more staggering when you realize that another volume is on the way. Surely, that will be an additional monster destined to mind slam the reader.

Ishmael Reed, "The Author and His Works: Chester Himes, Writer," in Black World (© March, 1972, by Black World; reprinted by permission of Black World and Ishmael Reed), March, 1972, pp. 23-38, 83-6.

[A Case of Rape] is strikingly different from the rest of Himes's fiction. His first two novels [If He Hollers, Let Him Go and Lonely Crusade] … explored the American race and labor scene in the semi-naturalistic tradition of the Forties. Cast the First Stone …, coming next, was one of the best prison novels ever written but it did not transcend the limits of that genre; and The Third Generation and The Primitive were highly autobiographical, the latter blending surrealistic and obsessive patterns quite successfully into what may well be the author's most profound novel. The Harlem thrillers developed along a humorous line, at times becoming truly Rabelaisian, as if the only possible response to an absurd situation was a self-protective burst of laughter. When Himes somewhat modified the genre with Blind Man With a Pistol …, it was by injecting into it more political and social comment.

A Case of Rape reminds one at times of all these works, yet it is patently something else: it could have been a thriller since it revolves around a criminal plot, but the suspense and the drama characteristic of detective fiction are left out; it could have been an outspoken criticism of the judiciary, like Cast the First Stone, but Himes devotes only one short chapter to that matter. It is close to The Primitive in its treatment of the Black man/white woman relationship, but it does not really develop into a psychological study; it is as strongly personal as The Third Generation, yet Himes stops short of any overtly autobiographical treatment. And above all, A Case of Rape is thematically and stylistically baffling because, while it remains close to a case study, when one tries to construe it as a roman à cléf one is immediately shunted back from actual events into the world of fiction. This explains much of the fascination of the work: not only does this novel shed light on racism in France and on the lives of Black expatriates in Paris in the Fifties, but it also allows us to grasp some essential motifs in Himes's work and to better understand how he manages to transform historical events into imaginary episodes…. [An] often scathing evocation of the prejudices encountered by Black exiles in Paris, the moving evocation of an impossible love, it constitutes a meditation that leads Himes-the-humanist to another level of awareness in his lifelong fight against man's inhumanity to man.

Michel Fabre, "Dissecting Western Pathology: A Critique [of] A Case of Rape," in Black World (© March, 1972, by Black World; reprinted by permission of Black World and Michel Fabre), March, 1972, pp. 39-48.

[The Quality of Hurt, Volume I of Chester Himes' autobiography,] reads much more like a novel—a tale of adventure, intrigue, and suspense—than is normally expected of "literary" memoirs, and the quality of his hurt is established, quite simply, by letting you see the scars, of which he has acquired a Sebastian-like number. But he neither complains nor explains, he only tells you how it felt and in the process lets you see for yourself why everything he did seemed like a good idea at the time, under the press of what were obviously, almost always, extremely pressing circumstances. Unafraid of the risk of portraying himself as "a disagreeable and unpleasant person," he nevertheless manages to engage and maintain your empathy to such a degree that you feel like cheering every time he succeeds in extricating himself, no matter how devious the means, from each succeeding clutch of circumstance with head unbowed however bloody.

Arnold Gingrich, "'A Writer Writes'," in Book World (© The Washington Post), March 26, 1972, p. 12.

In 1957, four years after he had left the United States to settle in France, Chester Himes began writing a remarkable series of novels about the adventures of Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, a pair of tough Harlem police detectives. With characteristic irony Himes called this loosely sequential string of bloody narratives his "Harlem Domestic" series. Himes's interest in crime and violence was not new when these detective stories were first brought out for French audiences; he had long been regarded as one of the angriest black writers of the "school" of Richard Wright, and he had behind him several excellent naturalistic novels which must be counted among the most ragingly violent American fictions of our century.

What was new about the Harlem Domestic series was its variety of character-types, its grotesque comedy of violence, and its sparse, descriptive style. Because of these characteristics, and because of Himes's unabashed use of popular-crime formulae, his detective novels were indiscriminately labeled "potboilers," and in an amusingly unconscious confession of their own provincialism several American reviewers speculated that Himes was pandering to some depraved French taste for violence and flocculent sex in a sublimative Afro-America…. [But] his stories of criminal Harlem are more than commercial ventures. In them Himes moves beyond his earlier naturalism and embraces the rich folk-traditions of Black American culture. Judging from the responses of younger black writers, this shift of emphasis makes the Harlem Domestic series a seminal contribution to contemporary literature….

Himes had been strongly influenced by the naturalism of the 1930's and 1940's. His earlier work was concerned largely with analyzing social and natural forces which his characters could neither understand fully nor control, but which imprisoned them in their own poverty, futility, and smoldering rage. Himes, however, is just old enough to remember also the 1920's and to have shared in the twilight days of that reinterpretation of Black culture and flowering of Black art known as the Harlem (or Negro) Renaissance…. It would be surprising if a sensitive young writer had not been deeply impressed by their delighted urbanization of Black folk-culture, their hedonistic celebrations of Negro life in the streets and cafés, their loving attention to the intimate details of day-to-day life among black people….

Whatever we are to say, however, about their origins or the responsibility of their creator for their form, the five novels Himes wrote between 1958 and 1961 are classic detective stories. Each poses a problem, or a series of problems, usually expressed in hideous physical violence, which extends its corruption into personal and communal life, and threatens the always precarious balance by which individuals survive in Harlem. Each network of dangerous mysteries is explained by a single discovery of guilt, which restores that balance and redefines the worth of those characters with whom we sympathize….

Himes never becomes sentimental about Harlem; he permits himself no unrelieved nostalgia. The most prominent characteristics of the community that he chronicles are fear and brutality. His Harlem is an isolated world motivated and ordered by violence. The novels themselves are in a sense his violent assaults upon his reader. Himes is a fighter, a sort of literary Muhammad Ali (or, perhaps more accurately, Jack Johnson), and he writes with the same intense ferocity with which he might knock a man down.

Raymond Nelson, "Domestic Harlem: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes," in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Spring, 1972), pp. 260-76.

The sweet serenity of books, as Longfellow put it (how long ago!), is out the window when it comes to modern authors—especially blacks such as Chester Himes. He's a scourge.

Decent folk, black or white, may not like or deserve his lash, or enjoy the sluttishness and the real or exaggerated satyriasis present in this first volume of Himes's autobiography [The Quality of Hurt]—as in most of his fiction—but one factor overrides every demur. When you read Himes you know you are in the hands of a literary master….

Spain, the land of Lazarillo and Quixote, where he now resides, is a fitting domicile for Himes, for his autobiography reads like a picaresque novel—a brilliant one that, in this case, happens to be true. A gifted storyteller, Himes is a master at describing people and places.

Unfortunately, he has a tendency to brag about his virility à la Hemingway. And the racial tribalism implied in his use of "soul brother" also put me off, believing as I do that no race has a monopoly on soul and that all men are brothers. These, however, are minor cavils. The book is fascinating, and beneath its realistic surface runs an undercurrent of Faustian tragedy. For not only does one discern in these pages the spirit of vengeful evil that seems to assist Himes in achieving his goals, whether carnal or artistic, but the presence of innate good. He is at once menacing and admirable, darkly tragic and luminously human.

Richard H. Gaines, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, April 15, 1972; used with permission), April 15, 1972, pp. 69-70.