“I grew to manhood in the Ohio State Penitentiary,” writes Chester Himes in The Quality of Hurt, a book that is less an organized autobiography than a series of poignant sketches, in which he writes about the many hurts that poisoned his life in the United States. Himes is one of the least known, most prolific African American writers of the twentieth century. Over a fifty-year career, Himes wrote scores of novels, short stories, articles, and poems, all marked by a naked sincerity and raging anger at racism.
Himes began writing, drawing on his experiences as a young man in prison. He gained critical attention first with a short story, “To What Red Hell,” a fictionalized account of the 1930 fire that killed more than three hundred inmates at the Ohio State Penitentiary.
Released during the Depression, Himes became involved with the Federal Writers’ Project, the labor movement, and the Communist Party. He also worked as a journalist in Cleveland. In 1941, Himes moved to California, where he began writing novels of rage and frustration, including If He Hollers, Let Him Go (1945), Lonely Crusade (1947), and Cast the First Stone (1952). By 1953, disgusted with the racism he encountered and the lukewarm, when not hostile, reception his work received, Himes left for Europe.
My Life of Absurdity is not a deep examination of his life so much as a commentary on the meaning of being a black expatriate writer. “No American,” he writes, “has lived a life more absurd than mine.” In Europe, Himes published the series of detective stories that brought him fame in later years. Among them are The Crazy Kill (1959), The Heat’s On (1966), and Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965). Himes also wrote stories that are sometimes painfully funny and often bitterly desolate. In them, cops, robbers, and all-around losers—the people Himes knew well in his youth— trade in the debased currency of lies and secrets.
Himes’s work resounds with wit and indignation but is too often incorrectly identified simply as social protest. His novels made the best-seller lists in foreign countries as well as in the United States.