Chester Himes Essay - Himes, Chester (Vol. 4)

Himes, Chester (Vol. 4)

Himes, Chester 1909–

Himes is a Black American novelist and detective story writer now living in Spain. He is best known for the nine Harlem crime novels in which the so-called "tough-guy" detective novel was adapted to explore Black experience in America. (See also, Chester Himes Criticism and CLC volumes 2, 7, 18 and 108).

Chester Himes, in his two psychological novels, Lonely Crusade and If He Hollers Let Him Go, bears the imprint of Richard Wright's psychological probing. But Himes lacks Wright's intensity….

[He also] shows the influence of … James Cain … who … wrote Past All Dishonor and The Postman Always Rings Twice…. [Like Cain in Butterfly, Himes] describes industrial conditions. There is a similarity as to style and the psychological presentation of characters….

Lonely Crusade … [develops] … a thesis similar to that of If He Hollers Let Him Go. Himes exhibits, nevertheless, a more advanced conception of his medium. He uses the steel cage technique, that is to say, the Negro is in a steel cage on the economic level with whites in control of the wealth. Himes is consistent, and his themes deal with materialism and communism….

Himes' forte is the psychological novel, and his projected narrative and characterizations are convincingly done….

The protest novels by Negro authors, such as Lonely Crusade by Himes, say that the Negro is proud of his American heritage for the most part. He continues to point out in effect that by choice and birth he will remain a part of the American scene. He seeks an improvement of his condition nonetheless. Rejection of a contrary system and faith in the efficacy of the American experiment from the basis of his protest….

Lonely Crusade is a novel in which Himes paints a distasteful picture of the Communist party activities in America according to Lee Gordon's experiences. His book is tantamount to a Negro writer's complete estrangement from such a conflicting ideology.

Carl Milton Hughes, in his The Negro Novelist 1940–1950, Citadel Press, 1953, pp. 68-76, 256-60 (in the paperbound edition, 1970).

Should the books of Chester Himes … be classed as police novels? It is certainly hard to know what else to call them, and his black detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, make an exhilarating black comic comment on the activities of all other policemen. From Cotton Comes to Harlem (1964) onward, Himes has recorded the activities of these fierce thugs in a world more thuggish still, in rattlingly vigorous prose, and with equal feeling for violence and for comedy. Coffin Ed has been quick on the trigger ever since a glass of acid was thrown into his face by a hoodlum, and when we first meet Grave Digger he has been off duty for six months after being shot up, although, "other than for the bullet scars hidden beneath his clothes and the fingersize scar obliterating the hairline at the base of his skull where the first bullet had burned off the hair, he looked much the same." The humans among whom the detectives move are credulous, lecherous, treacherous, greedy, and savage.

Julian Symons, in his Mortal Consequences: A History—From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (copyright © 1972 by Julian Symons; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1972, pp. 207-08.

Himes, himself, as explorer of black experience represents a considerably alienated sensibility, a fact which is only partly obscured for [Black on Black: Baby Sister & Selected Writings] by the sheer quantity of alienated black writing produced in the 1960's and 1970's. In addition, Himes is extremely individual, a writer of many parts although frequently all parts do not come together in a single piece. Yet his examination of black experience in America has created a place of its own. Lately, he also stuck to his own path in the first volume of his autobiography, The Quality of Hurt (… 1972), and there is little doubt that his detective stories, notably Cotton Comes to Harlem which was made into a film, provided some inspiration for the current spate of hardboiled black movies.

In his confrontation with the black experience, it is tempting to see his hardboiled approach (touched often with sentiment underneath) as his strongest strain. He seems to incorporate both the James M. Cain type fiction with the rebellious hero, made famous by Richard Wright in the novel Native Son (1940). In If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), his first novel, Himes pitted a tough but frustrated hero of black middle class status against relentless racism of a war-time shipyard. In Lonely Crusade (1947), he involves the same general type of hero in a struggle with Communist ideology, interracial sex, and racial discrimination. In Cast the First Stone (1952), he took advantage of a knowledge of prison gained from serving 7 1/2 years of a 25 year sentence for armed robbery; however, the book is about white characters. In Third Generation (1954), he gave an often tender and searching exploration of his own pathos filled family background, and in The Primitive (1955) he explores again the high tensioned and frustrated black hero of middle class status, in relationship to general suffering, violence, sex. Afterward come a long spate of detective stories in the hard-boiled vein.

The contents of Black on Black thus represent the shorter pieces which Himes was also doing. His stand-out pieces often reveal a gutted black life, although he ranges into lugubrious humor, the whimsical, the satirical, and the character study. There is no illusion about a black life wired in as moral beneficiary of the larger society….

Himes reports that the French critics who read Baby Sister called it a Greek tragedy. The scenario has no gods, no suggestion of the viability of transcendent values. What it has is inevitability and fate….

To make his point, Himes has stripped the resources from the black experience—perhaps a bit further than warranted….

Perhaps in an acted version, the scenario would reveal moments of poetry. Read, it confines itself to naturalistic shocks which further violate the humanity of the black experience. Although one can see the advantage of keeping Baby Sister relatively inarticulate regarding her yearnings, it would seem that the author could give her more mental suggestiveness than the statement in which she wishes people would stop looking at her as if she had no clothes on….

All in all, [the stories] show considerable range and skill on Himes' part, but do not give the definitive evidence of the range of emotion, feeling, and search which the novels afford. The novels remain indispensable for a full understanding of Himes' talent.

George E. Kent, "Rhythms of Black Experience" (reprinted by permission) of Chicago Review; copyright © 1973 by Chicago Review), in Chicago Review, Vol. 25, No. 3, 1973, pp. 76-8.