Chester Himes

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Chester Himes is usually known, if he is known at all, as the author of a series of Harlem-based crime novels featuring Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, African American cops who have one foot on each side of the imaginary “thin blue line” that is supposed to separate order from anarchy and, as an ineradicably racist society sees it, justice from jungle. In his thoroughly researched and deeply felt biographical and critical study—one senses throughout that the author and his subject are kindred spirits—James Sallis establishes the substantial artistic and cultural value of these novels, which not only earn Himes a place in the company of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain as a master of the hard- boiled style and existential fable but add a literal and vital African American blackness to a noir tradition that has been for the most part short-sightedly color-blind.

This renewed appreciation of his late works is set in the context of a rediscovery of earlier works that confirm Himes’s lifelong serious literary claims and ambitions. Sallis meticulously traces Himes’s artistic versatility and development—his characteristic blend of violence and comedy, for example, and his move from realism to an exaggerated stylization necessary to capture his vision of an irrational and unjust world—even as he outlines a basic unity in Himes’s work, seen in a recurrent focus on explosive violence, alienation, self-hatred, and...

(The entire section is 409 words.)

Chester Himes

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 33)

Chester Himes was clearly a writer of talent who did not get the recognition he deserved from his native country in his lifetime. He was a novelist who had several distinct literary careers: He early produced several interesting novels of interracial life in America, such as If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945) and Pinktoes (1961), and had a second career with a series of sophisticated detective novels set in Harlem, of which Cotton Comes to Harlem (1964) is probably the best known. Yet he had difficult relationships with agents, editors, and publishers throughout his writing life, and never knew at home the kind of fame he would gain in exile in Europe. Some of the problems may have been Himes’s, for he clearly vented anger and bitterness from an early age, but James Sallis shows, in this first full-length biography of the novelist, that most of Himes’s troubles came from the racial prejudice that lay behind so much of American life in the twentieth century. Himes’s history may well become one of the standards by which critics and historians come to judge the depth of that racism in the future. If Himes was “our single greatest naturalist writer,” as the critic John Williams has written, his treatment at the hands of the literary establishment was the worst accorded a writer of such talent.

Himes was born into a middle-class family on July 29, 1909, in Jefferson City, Missouri, where his father was a professor at a small African American college and his mother was ambitious and color-conscious. By the time he reached the age of nineteen, Chester had experienced more misfortune than most people suffer in a lifetime, as the writer Ishmael Reed has commented, including a lifetime of inescapable racial prejudice. His family moved from city to city (primarily St. Louis and Cleveland) as his father moved downward from job to job, and rootlessness became the pattern for Himes’s adult life. He began a career of gambling and drinking as a teenager, and on December 27, 1928, after several years in trouble, he was sent to the Ohio State penitentiary to serve time for armed robbery. It was in prison that Himes began to write seriously (several of his stories were published in Esquire magazine before he was released in 1936), and one of his early novels, Cast the First Stone (1952) would be set there.

Himes continued to write after prison, but it was not until 1945 that his first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, was published. Lonely Crusade followed two years later. Meanwhile, Himes held a series of jobs (twenty-three in the three years before that first novel, he claimed) and he and his first wife, Jean, moved constantly in order to survive. In spite of good critical reviews of his first novels, Himes was unable to gain the recognition or financial support that any serious writer needs. He worked briefly for the Federal Writers’ Project at the end of the 1930’s, won a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1944, and spent two months at the Yaddoo artists’ colony in 1948, but for much of his early writing life he and Jean were forced to work as caretakers on the estates of the wealthy. The four years he and Jean spent in California during World War II were one of the worst periods in his life; as he later wrote in his 1972 autobiography, “under the mental corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles I had become bitter and saturated with hate. . . . I was thirty-one and whole when I went to Los Angeles and thirty-five and shattered when I left to go to New York.”

By 1953, as his brother Joe later remembered, Himes “had come to the conclusion that it was impossible for a black person to succeed as a writer in this country, and he needed to leave this country.” He was forty-three, and he would spend most of the next thirty years in Europe, living mainly in France and Spain. Separated from Jean, he went through a series of affairs with women (and a lot of alcohol) before he met Lesley Packard, a British photo librarian. His career in Europe did not take off at once, but he continued to produce his protest novels, such as The Primitive (1955) and Pinktoes (1961). In 1957, however, at the invitation of the French publisher Marcel Duhamel, Himes began to write a series of fast-paced detective novels, and he gained more fame with his black characters Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones (especially after the 1968 film of...

(The entire section is 1809 words.)