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 took more than three hundred lives. He turned to writing as a refuge, before long placing his stories in major publications, especially Esquire. Upon parole in 1935, Himes emerged into the Great Depression, where jobs were practically nonexistent for former convicts, especially if they were black. In 1938, the Federal Writers’ Project appointed him to write a history of Cleveland, which, though completed in 1941, was not published. With the outbreak of World War II, he went to California, which promised but failed to provide discrimination-free war-industry jobs. There he finished and published his first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), the first of five novels tracing the effects of Jim Crow culture on nominally free blacks. In these books, he drew freely on his own experiences, reaching a high point with The Primitive (1955). He also wrote for the labor movement, for the Cleveland Daily News, and for the Communist Party.
In 1955, Himes fled to France, a haven for black artists. Even there, however, he found small welcome until he began producing his “Harlem Domestic” thrillers for a French publisher. For Love of Imabelle (1957) was a smash in France and led to the publication of the series in the United States. The series eventually ran to ten titles, including also The Real Cool Killers (1959), The Crazy Kill (1959), and Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965). Himes continued to live and write in Paris for several years, although a stroke disabled him in 1965. He spent the final fifteen years of his life in Spain, where he completed the two volumes of The Autobiography of Chester Himes (1972-1976). In his later years, he was severely afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, from which he died in 1984.
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...
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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.
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 and a writer. A year later, he married Jean Johnson, a woman he had known before his imprisonment.
Himes continued to write as he explored the United States for work. During World War II, he was a shipfitter and riveter in California. The bitter racial experiences in Los Angeles led to the novel If He Hollers Let Him Go. In 1954, as so many American writers, including frustrated black writers, have done before him, Himes left the United States and traveled through Europe. The French admired his life, particularly appreciating the satire of Pinktoes (1961), a ribald novel proposing the solution to racial tensions through indiscriminate sexual relationships. It was his French editor who encouraged Himes to write the detective novels set in Harlem, featuring Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. Himes wrote these in a hurry, desperate for the money, but they turned out to be the perfect match of form and content. Increasingly pessimistic about the violence of his native country, Himes wrote more and more about the radical solution to the racial problem—violence. The Harlem of his detectives, the detectives the detectives themselves, the people among whom they move are all caught up, trapped in a cycle of violent behavior from which they cannot escape.
With so much pain, personal and cultural, from the beginning of his life, Himes did what talented artists do: He confronted it, fashioned it into a personal vision, and, living fully, even found the love and humor in it. He died in Spain, in 1984, of Parkinson’s disease, without returning to the homeland that he had described so vividly.
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.