Chester Himes Essay - Himes, Chester (Vol. 108)

Himes, Chester (Vol. 108)


Chester Himes 1909–1984

(Born Chester Bonar Himes) American novelist, short story writer, autobiographer, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Himes's career. See also, Chester Himes Criticism and CLC volumes 2, 4, 7 and 18.

Himes was misunderstood or ignored by American reviewers during the time he wrote, and he consequently fled to Europe to seek the acceptance he failed to receive in his own country. Critics are only recently discovering the value of Himes's work and the significance of his contribution to American literature. Originally tagged as a protest writer, Himes overcame the label by tackling an unexpected genre, the detective novel. Although some considered writing in such a popular medium to be selling out, Himes overcame the criticism by infusing his crime novels with the same powerful themes and insights as his more politically oriented work. At the end of his prolific career, Himes turned to the autobiography to put his political and social observations about the absurdity of racism and race relations in a personal context.

Biographical Information

Himes was born on July 29, 1909, in Jefferson City, Missouri. His mother came from a middle-class background and had only one black grandparent. Her ancestors were house slaves and white slave owners. His father, on the other hand, was a very dark man whose ancestors had been field slaves. His father worked as a professor of mechanical arts at several black colleges in the Midwest and the South. The intraracial differences caused tension in his parents' marriage and became the basis of his semiautobiographical novel The Third Generation (1954). Himes had a middle-class upbringing marred by tragedy: his older brother was blinded in an accident at school, and the emotional and financial costs put a strain on the family. He himself was hurt in an elevator accident while working in a Cleveland hotel. The injury caused him back trouble for the rest of his life. Himes attended Ohio State University, but was expelled after bringing a group of students to a party at a whorehouse. He returned to his family's home in Cleveland, where he became involved in a criminal lifestyle. He was arrested three times, once for his involvement in a robbery of guns and once for passing bad checks. Both of those convictions resulted in suspended sentences. His third arrest in 1929, for robbing a rich, white couple in their home, resulted in jail time. He was sentenced to twenty to twenty-five years in the Ohio State Penitentiary, and served seven and a half years. Himes first began writing during his time in prison. He published his first stories in African-American periodicals like Crisis and Abbott's Monthly, but his breakthrough came when Esquire published his "Crazy in the Stir" and "To What Red Hell." After getting out of prison, Himes married his first wife, Jean Johnson, an African-American woman whom he had known in Cleveland. After his parole was terminated in the late-1930s, Himes and his wife moved to California where he worked a series of jobs as an unskilled laborer. His first two novels are set in Los Angeles during this time period. From 1947 to 1953 Himes lived in New York City working another series of low-paying jobs. He became disillusioned at the racism and lack of opportunities in America, and at the cold reception he was receiving from American critics. His marriage dissolved and he decided to settle in Paris in 1953, with other African-American expatriates including Richard Wright. He became involved in a series of affairs with white women, finally marrying Lesley Packard, an Anglo-Irish woman. Himes then wrote two more novels focusing on his experiences in America, The Third Generation and The Primitive (1955). In 1956, Marcel Duhamel, the creator of the popular Serie Noire series of crime novels, approached Himes about writing a detective novel set in Harlem. The result was For Love of Imabelle (1957). Himes's crime novels became best sellers in France, and in 1958 he was awarded the Grand Prix de la littérature policière for For Love of Imabelle. Himes suffered strokes in 1963 and 1964, which spurred him on to record the events of his life. He moved to Spain in 1969 and began to work on his autobiography. The result was a two volume work: The Quality of Hurt (1972) and My Life of Absurdity (1977). Himes left an unfinished manuscript which was published posthumously as Plan B (1983).

Major Works

Himes's career had three phases: his earlier short stories and what has been termed his protest novels; his detective fiction; and his autobiography. Himes's If He Hollers, Let Him Go (1945) tells the story of Bob Jones, a foreman in a shipyard in Los Angeles. Jones is the victim of racism. He is demoted from a position for which he is overqualified to make room for a white man, and he barely escapes lynching when a white woman lures him into a room and accuses him of rape. Himes's Lonely Crusade (1947) is set in 1943 and follows the efforts of Lee Gordon to organize local workers into a union. His efforts are thwarted by the corporation and by Communist forces which have infiltrated the union for their own purposes. Cast the First Stone (1952) is another of Himes's semi-autobiographical novels. The main character, Jim Monroe, is a white man, but seems to represent Himes as is evidenced by their similarities: both attended college, suffered a serious back injury, and were sentenced to 25 years for armed robbery. The novel focuses on the growth that Monroe experiences while in prison, and is notable for its direct treatment of homosexual relationships in prison. The Third Generation is about Charles Taylor, the third son of a third generation African-American family. The novel focuses on intraracial conflict resulting from color differences rather than interracial relations. Professor Taylor, Charles's father, comes from a fieldhand ancestry, and Lillian, his mother, has descended from servants. There is some white ancestry in Lillian's family, but she exaggerates her white heritage and looks down on her husband for his blackness. The novel traces the effects that the Taylors' marital troubles and Lillian's unusual obsession with her son have on Charles. The Primitive was Himes's last semi-autobiographical novel. It tells the story of Jesse Robinson, a struggling African-American novelist who becomes involved in an interracial relationship with a white socialite. The novel traces the stereotypes and tensions which drive such relationships to failure. For Love of Imabelle was the first in his detective series set in a fictional Harlem that was based on the Cleveland of Himes's youth. All of Himes's detective fiction had similar elements, including the recurring characters Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. Unlike their white prototypes, Himes's detectives get hurt for real and the violence portrayed is vivid. Their role in the novels is to mediate between the white world of law enforcement and the African-American community of Harlem. As a result, they are left alienated from both worlds. The detectives' position slowly degenerates throughout the novels until they are prohibited from doing their jobs by the white detectives and their authority is threatened by a Harlem mob in the last book of the series, Blind Man with a Pistol (1969). Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson meet their demise in the novel Plan B, which Himes left incomplete and was published after his death. In his two-volume autobiography, Himes returned to his examination of American racism on his life. Only instead of filtering his observations through the medium of fiction, Himes wrote about the actual events of his life. He traces the effects of Jim Crowe laws and racism on his life, and the absurdity of his situation. The first volume, The Quality of Hurt, covers his life from birth to his departure for Europe. My Life of Absurdity details his experiences in Europe.

Critical Reception

Critics have only recently begun to give serious attention to Himes's work. His first novel If He Hollers Let Him Go received positive critical response, but Lonely Crusade was vilified in America. Common complaints with Lonely Crusade included that it was filled with hate, anti-Semitism, and smut. In France, however, Lonely Crusade was extremely popular, as was his detective series. Most critics see a distinct difference in what they term Himes's "serious" writing (his early novels and his autobiography) and his "popular" novels (his detective fiction), but Nora M. Alter disagrees. She asserts that, "despite the superficial genre change … a clear continuity can be seen in all of Himes's writing. His detective fiction does not break with his earlier politically committed works; rather, it channels the same protest in another form." As critics are beginning to re-evaluate the value of Himes's work, several positive assessments have emerged, including Himes's use of dialect and his ability to display complex interior emotions. James A. Miller says that "Himes's rendition of black vernacular is one of the best in the business." One of the most interesting comments about Himes's talent, given the sometimes dark and violent subject matter of his fiction, is his use of humor and satire. Himes's Plan B is generally considered inferior to his other work, and most reviewers posit that the novel is too incomplete to have been published.

Principal Works

If He Hollers, Let Him Go (novel) 1945
Lonely Crusade (novel) 1947
Cast the First Stone (novel) 1952
The Third Generation (novel) 1954
The Primitive (novel) 1955
For Love of Imabelle [translated by Minnie Danzas] (novel) 1957; expanded as La Reine des pommes, 1958; revised English edition published as A Rage in Harlem, 1965
Il pleut des coup durs (novel) 1958; published as The Real Cool Killers, 1959
Couche dans le pain [translated by J. Herisson and H. Robillot] (novel) 1959; published as The Crazy Kill, 1959
Dare-dare [translated by Pierre Verrier] (novel) 1959; published as Run...

(The entire section is 219 words.)


Ralph Reckley (essay date June 1977)

SOURCE: "The Use of the Doppelganger or Double in Chester Himes' Lonely Crusade," in CLA Journal, Vol. XX, No. 4, June, 1977, pp. 448-58.

[In the following essay, Reckley analyzes Himes's use of doubles in his Lonely Crusade by looking at three of his black male characters, Lee Gordon, Lester McKinley, and Luther McGregor.]

Chester Himes' second novel Lonely Crusade has not received the critical attention it merits. Critics have praised it for its protest and its naturalistic tendencies, or damned it for its Communistic implications, but so far no one has bothered to study the novel to ascertain how skillfully Himes uses doubles throughout the...

(The entire section is 3766 words.)

Ralph Reckley (essay date December 1977)

SOURCE: "The Oedipal Complex and Intraracial Conflict in Chester Himes' The Third Generation," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXI, No. 2, December, 1977, pp. 275-81.

[In the following essay, Reckley discusses the role of the Oedipal Complex and intraracial conflict in the family relationships of Himes's The Third Generation.]

Chester Himes' novel The Third Generation delineates the detrimental effects of dissension on the third son of a third generation Black family. The family is that of the Taylors. Professor Taylor, a Black man whose ancestors come from the fieldhand tradition marries Lillian Manning Taylor who is descended from the body-servant tradition. The...

(The entire section is 2342 words.)

James A. Miller (review date June 1991)

SOURCE: A review of The Collected Stories of Chester Himes, in The Village Voice Literary Supplement, June, 1991, pp. 8-9.

[In the following review, Miller favorably reviews The Collected Stories of Chester Himes.]

Seven years after his death in Spain, Chester Himes remains as remote from American readers as he was during his lifetime. Celebrated in Europe, particularly in France, where he settled in 1953, Himes has never really been embraced by the U.S. academy, despite the efforts of Hoyt Fuller, John A. Williams, Ishmael Reed, and others. Even with the canon debates and the present ferment in African-American literary studies, Himes continues to be relegated...

(The entire section is 878 words.)

Gwendoline L. Roget (review date 1992)

SOURCE: "The Chester Himes Mystique," in African American Review, Vol. 26, No. 3, 1992, pp. 521-23.

[In the following review, Roget asserts that "Chester Himes's autobiography offers invaluable literary witness to the multifaceted black experience in America and abroad."]

Chester Himes's decision to write his autobiography was prompted by a number of exigencies, among them the need for self-validation, the need for self-knowledge and the need for self-liberation. The untimely death of his lifelong friend Richard Wright in 1960 caused Himes to become preoccupied with his own mortality. After suffering strokes in 1963 and 1964, he felt impelled to get his life on record,...

(The entire section is 1292 words.)

Luc Sante (essay date 16 January 1992)

SOURCE: "An American Abroad," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXIX, No. 1 and 2, January 16, 1992, pp. 8-12.

[In the following essay, Sante discuses the effects of exile, translation, and genre on Himes's work.]

There is a peculiar purgatory of esteem reserved for those American artists who have been lionized in Europe while enduring neglect at home. The obligatory jokes about Jerry Lewis aside, the history of this ambiguity stretches back to Poe and forward to such disparate figures as Nicholas Ray, David Goodis, Sidney Bechet, Samuel Fuller, Memphis Slim, Jim Thompson, Joseph Losey, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. These writers, musicians, and film makers...

(The entire section is 5253 words.)

James Robert Payne (review date Autumn 1992)

SOURCE: A review of The Collected Stories, in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 4, Autumn, 1992, pp. 722-23.

[In the following review, Payne asserts that "The generously conceived and readable Collected Stories will facilitate fuller critical response to Himes, and it should enhance his appeal to general readers."]

After attending Ohio State University, Chester Himes involved himself with gang activity until his eight-year imprisonment. His first publication, a piece about a prison fire, appeared in Esquire in 1932, when the gifted African-American prose stylist and poet was in his early twenties. Like many creators of American culture, Himes...

(The entire section is 573 words.)

Nora M. Alter (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Chester Himes: Black Guns and Words," in Alteratives, edited by Warren Motte and Gerald Prince, French Forum Publishers, 1993, pp. 11-24.

[In the following essay, Alter analyzes the role of Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed as mediators between the white world of the law and the black world of the streets in Himes's detective fiction.]

Chester Himes's literary career has traditionally been divided into three distinct parts, corresponding to, and partly influenced by, the three different countries of his residence. His first writings date from between 1933 and 1953, while he was living in the United States. They include short stories, written while in prison,...

(The entire section is 4891 words.)

James Campbell (review date 24 December 1993)

SOURCE: "Himes and self-hatred," in TLS, No. 4734, December 24, 1993, p. 17.

[In the following review, Campbell discusses Himes's The Collected Stories and Plan B.]

Chester Himes lived a life of almost constant agitation—Harlem, Paris, Spain—settling only once: to serve seven years of a twenty to twenty-five-year sentence in the Ohio State Penitentiary, the outcome of an armed robbery staged single-handed in a prosperous white neighbourhood in Cleveland. Nineteen when he entered prison in 1929, Himes had already been a thief, a pimp, a bootlegger, and a student at the [Ohio State University]. In prison, he switched to writing fiction, publishing his first...

(The entire section is 1103 words.)

Wendy W. Walters (essay date Winter 1994)

SOURCE: "Limited Options: Strategic Maneuverings in Himes's Harlem," African American Review, Vol. 28, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 615-31.

[In the following essay, Walters traces Himes's representation of "the absurdity of U.S. race relations" in his fiction.]

Chester Himes, an American author who in his lifetime never found a "place" in the American literary scene, set his novels written during French expatriation in the nostalgic milieu of a Harlem he half-created in his imagination. In fiction he was able to exercise a control over U.S. racial politics which he (like most people) could never exercise in life. Himes explained the pleasure of his nostalgic literary act...

(The entire section is 9700 words.)

Steven J. Rosen (essay date Summer 1995)

SOURCE: "African American Anti-Semitism and Himes's Lonely Crusade, in Melus, Vol. 20, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 47-68.

[In the following essay, Rosen discusses the presence of anti-Semitism in Himes's Lonely Crusade and its sources and implications.]

Most critics have considered Chester Himes's second novel about racial conflict at a Los Angeles war industry plant, Lonely Crusade, to be his most ambitious and substantial work. However, the novel has attracted little notice since its reissue (1986), having long been unavailable after its initial publication. Were it known as it deserves, Lonely Crusade would still stir controversy.


(The entire section is 7023 words.)

Robert Crooks (essay date October 1995)

SOURCE: "From the Far Side of the Urban Frontier: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes and Walter Mosley," in College Literature, October, 1995, pp. 68-90.

[In the following essay, Crooks analyzes the frontier mentality in the detective fiction of Chester Himes and Walter Mosley.]

Frederick Jackson Turner's 1893 essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" marked a watershed for the European-American version of the history of North America. By 1890 the western frontier as a geographical space had disappeared, and "the frontier" as signifier was now cut adrift, its attachment to past, present, and future conceptual spaces a matter of debate. Indeed,...

(The entire section is 9261 words.)

David Cochran (essay date Autumn 1996)

SOURCE: "So Much Nonsense Must Make Sense: The Black Vision of Chester Himes," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 1, Autumn, 1996, pp. 11-30.

[In the following essay, Cochran discusses the portrayal of racial tensions in Himes's fiction and states that "Himes viewed race as a dialectical relationship which progressed toward increasing absurdity."]

In the penultimate chapter of Chester Himes's 1969 crime novel Blind Man With A Pistol—the last in his series of stories set in Harlem—the eponymous character makes his first appearance, shooting craps in a small gambling house on a hot summer afternoon. After losing all his money, he walks to the subway...

(The entire section is 6525 words.)

Further Reading


Austin, Jacqueline. "Harlem on His Mind." The Village Voice Literary Supplement 31, No. 19 (May 1986): 26-7.

Austin discusses Himes' Harlem Thrillers.

Brunet, Elena. Review of Cotton Comes to Harlem, by Chester Himes. Los Angeles Times Book Review (11 December 1988): 14.

Praises Himes's Cotton Comes to Harlem for "vividly bring[ing] to life the streets of Harlem and delv[ing] into the minds of criminal and policemen with equal expertise."

Diawara, Manthia. "Noir by Noirs: Towards a New Realism in Black...

(The entire section is 237 words.)