Chester Himes Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111207087-Himes.jpg Chester Himes. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Chester Bomar Himes was born in Jefferson City, Missouri, on July 29, 1909, to an industrial arts professor and a music teacher who disagreed on social strategy. His dark-skinned father strove for acceptance in a black subculture; his almost-white mother rejected secondary status and made repeated efforts to “pass” as white. Continued confrontations forced his father into increasingly demeaning jobs, ending as a laborer in segregated Cleveland when Himes was ten. Himes felt responsible for family failure, especially when his older brother was blinded in an accident.

After beginning premedical training at Ohio State University, Himes found he could not make the transition to a college environment, largely because he felt obsessed with social success while at the same time isolated between two hostile cultures, neither of which accepted him. He began frequenting the underworld of speakeasies and bordellos, taking on the image of the undergraduate “bad boy” and provoking a number of confrontations with faculty, administrators, and other students. Eventually he led his fraternity into a red-light district brawl that had to be broken up by police. This brought expulsion. To support himself, Himes took to petty crime. He was soon arrested for armed robbery and sentenced to twenty years in the penitentiary, by then almost a case study of the chronic malcontent.

In prison, he witnessed beatings, murder, and riots. A fire during an uprising...

(The entire section is 503 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

It is a true cliché to say that Himes has not gained the recognition he deserves. It is a compound truth, for even when he has been successful—as he certainly was with his detective novels—he practically gave his rights away, and he profited little from the film versions of his work that made others rich. At the time of his death, he remained largely unknown, and most of his books had dropped out of print.

Himes may not ever have written a book worthy of his talent. His most enduring legacy is probably his Harlem series, which deserves recognition but which will probably continue in neglect, because his fine critical intelligence can be misconstrued as uncomplimentary to the African American culture he truly loved.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Born on July 29, 1909, in Jefferson City, Missouri, to middle-class black parents, Chester Himes had an emotionally traumatic home life. Estelle Boman, his light-skinned mother, and Joseph Sandy Himes, his much darker-skinned father, lived perpetually at war with each other. The racial tension within the family affected the three brown-skinned sons and led to the decline of the family’s lifestyle. His father, a professor of metal trades and African American history at southern black colleges, had to keep taking more and more menial jobs because his wife’s contempt for his colleagues forced the family to keep moving.

After living in several places in the South, the Himeses finally settled in Ohio. Himes entered Ohio State University at seventeen. Crippled by a fall into an open elevator shaft and then angered by the racial segregation on campus, Himes did not adapt well to the academic life. He failed all his courses the first semester and had to withdraw the next. His subsequent life as a juvenile delinquent came to an abrupt end when, in 1928, he was arrested, badly beaten at the police station, tried and convicted of armed robbery, and sentenced to twenty years.

Oddly enough, the incarceration may have given Himes the time and the calm away from his tense family life to discover his talent. His first stories were published by the vitally important black magazine The Crisis. By the time he was released in 1936, he was twenty-six...

(The entire section is 507 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Chester Bomar Himes was the youngest of three sons of Joseph Sandy Himes and Estelle Bomar Himes. His father was a teacher of industrial arts and spent the years of Himes’s youth as a faculty member at several black institutions predominantly in the South. By the time Himes was in his teens the family had settled in Cleveland, and after his graduation from Glenville High School he entered Ohio State University in the fall of 1926. However, his university career was short-lived, and at the end of the spring quarter, 1927, he was asked to leave because of poor grades and his participation in a speakeasy fight.

Back in Cleveland, Himes slipped into a life on the edges of the city’s crime world. After several run-ins with the law he was caught for robbery, convicted, and sentenced to a lengthy term in the Ohio State Penitentiary. For the next seven-and-a-half years Himes served time, and in the enforced discipline of prison life he began to write fiction. His first publication, “His Last Day,” appeared in Abbott’s Monthly in November, 1932. Himes was paroled on April 1, 1936, and the next year he married Jean Johnson. After his prison experience Himes worked at a number of menial jobs while continuing to write.

On April 3, 1953, Himes embarked for Europe, and, except for several brief trips to the United States, he remained an exile for the rest of his life. During these years Himes’s writing was devoted mainly to his Harlem detective series featuring Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. Throughout his years in Europe, Himes traveled extensively, finally settling in Alicante, Spain, with his second wife, Leslie Packard. In 1963, Himes suffered a stroke and in his later years experienced various health problems. He died on November 12, 1984, in Moraira, Spain.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Chester Himes wrote nearly twenty novels, two volumes of autobiography, and a series of popular crime thrillers. Whatever form his writing took, the dominant theme was usually racism: the pain it causes and the hateful legacy it creates. In If He Hollers, Let Him Go, Himes uses a wartime West Coast shipyard to set the central confrontation between an educated Northern black man and his poor Southern white coworkers. The results are violent. In spare, functional prose that highlights the psychological paths the novel charts, Himes describes what has been called the American dilemma, or the contrast between a black man believing in democracy and the realities that bruise his dreams. Critics, while not always enamored with the novel, praised Himes for his relentless honesty.

Lonely Crusade, Himes’s second novel, treats the betrayal, dislocation, and terror at the nexus of race and sex in United States society. The book makes a laudable effort to understand the relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor.

Third Generation, thought by many critics to be thinly veiled autobiography, dramatizes three generations in a family, from slavery to the middle of the twentieth century. It tellingly captures the fear and hatred that can fester in a troubled family, making it perhaps Himes’s most ambitious and moving novel.

Himes left the United States in 1954 for Europe, where he received greater literary recognition than he had ever achieved at home. In France, Himes published ten sophisticated, fast-paced crime novels. The protagonists, a pair of cynical street-smart black detectives, were hailed by French critics. When, years later, the novels were finally printed in the United States, the series achieved wide success. Himes’s two-volume autobiography, The Quality of Hurt and My Life of Absurdity, was written in Spain.