Chester Himes American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3331

The literary accomplishment of Himes falls into three categories, each of which is distinct. The work of each phase often seems incompatible with the work of others, almost as if he were three different writers at different stages of his career. A close look, however, suggests that these differences reflect...

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The literary accomplishment of Himes falls into three categories, each of which is distinct. The work of each phase often seems incompatible with the work of others, almost as if he were three different writers at different stages of his career. A close look, however, suggests that these differences reflect profound changes in his life; that understanding leads, in turn, to the recognition that Himes’s writing was always and in every way deeply rooted in his life. His work profoundly reveals his growth and change as an artist.

The first phase includes his short fiction (gathered in The Collected Stories of Chester Himes, 1990) and the five semiautobiographical novels written after his release from prison and before his expatriation in 1955. Taken together, these constitute his contribution to the fiction of black protest, except that this was hardly a well-defined category at the time. Further, both short and long fiction were published by mainstream publishers, as his early acceptance by Esquire shows. From 1935 to 1946, the magazine published a story by him practically every year, at the very time that it was establishing its reputation for printing the absolute best in American writing, regardless of category. However, as the author was identified not only by name but also conspicuously by prison number, his status and subject matter clearly had much to do with his success. He continued to be identified in this way long after his release.

Sensationalism, then, may have had something to do with Himes’s acceptance, at least at first. Most fiction of the 1930’s was sensationalistic, as a look at the works of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner shows. Moreover, Himes’s stories retain much of their interest today, plainly disclosing the qualities that attracted editors then as well as now. The first published of them, “To What Red Hell” (1934), shows a command of narrative pacing, apt selection of detail, taut dialogue, and compressed phrasing that Hemingway might well have envied—and which Himes should have remembered in the toils of some of his longer fiction. At any rate, this graphic account of a prison fire contains memorable character sketches and dialogue on almost every page.

“To What Red Hell” is remarkable in another way. Most of Himes’s writing grows completely out of racial consciousness, indeed out of an awareness of the profound reaches of racism. Yet although this story registers racial identity more completely than some fiction, the race of the central character is never absolutely established, and the story ends with the suggestion that racial differences have somehow been transcended in responding to emergency. In this respect, Himes accomplishes the kind of interracial tolerance projected by Faulkner’s fiction. A number of other Esquire stories focus on this sense of transcendent unity.

Other stories of the same period, however, focus more directly on registering the pains of discrimination, and in this they foreshadow the major characteristic of the five early novels. These books—If He Hollers Let Him Go, Lonely Crusade (1947), Cast the First Stone (1952), The Third Generation (1954), and The Primitive (1955)—all single out ways in which segregation constrains and restricts black people, even when overt discrimination is absent. The first two novels examine limitations in employment and education; they conclude that black people routinely are forced to compete against unfavorable odds. Cast the First Stone has been called a classic prison novel, and some of the scenes catch exactly the way in which discrimination persists even in a supposedly classless society.

The last two, more explicitly autobiographical, deal with the coming-of-age of a young black man and with a mature interracial affair, respectively. Although each contains some of Himes’s best material—The Primitive, especially, features a timeless vividness of language and some of the most acute sexual psychologizing in fiction—both are inconsistent in character development and flat and stagy in presentation. Most of these books have attracted enough readers to have been twice reprinted; in general, though, they lack the finish and integration of the short stories.

Himes’s second phase is made up of the single novel Pinktoes (1961) and the set of nine novels he composed for the French publisher Marcel Duhamel between 1957 and 1970. These novels, which have an extremely confusing publication record, were commissioned by Duhamel when he discovered Himes barely surviving in France. Once Cast the First Stone had been suspended in publication even after extremely promising advance sales—some critics objected to the overt racist confrontations in the book—Himes had abandoned the United States, feeling rejected both as a writer and as a man. Yet the Paris that had proved hospitable to earlier African American exiles such as Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison turned its back on Himes. Duhamel rescued Himes by asking for a thriller set in black America. Locking himself in his hotel room for three weeks on a diet of three bottles of wine daily, Himes produced For Love of Imabelle, which Duhamel published in French as La Reine des pommes. The two had found the recipe for Himes’s greatest success.

The series was a success, both in France and in the English markets. In the beginning, Himes attempted to follow the hardboiled pattern established by Raymond Chandler, the American mystery novelist whose books included The Big Sleep (1939) and Farewell, My Lovely (1940). Himes, however, set his work in Harlem rather than Los Angeles. He created dual heroes in the black detectives Coffin Ed Jones and Grave Digger Johnson, and he reproduced the life of the ghetto in language uniquely his own—fresh, vivid, direct, accurate, spiced with street metaphors that reflected black consciousness. Once he liberated his imagination from the need to establish a theme and purpose, he set it free to reproduce the life of the streets. In this respect, he more than rivaled Hemingway and Chandler.

Two of the novels, Cotton Comes to Harlem and The Heat’s On (1966), were made into Hollywood films, the first in 1970, the second (as Come Back, Charleston Blue) in 1972. The most striking feature of these books, partly reflected in their idiosyncratic language, is the abounding humor, the energy of their creativity. As much as any of Himes’s books, they display the grim and sordid reality of ghetto life, but they also show the spirit of people who refuse to allow their physical and psychological surroundings to defeat them.

The third phase of Himes’s literary career produced his autobiographical writings, the two-volume The Autobiography of Chester Himes. Freed again from the need to draw specific conclusions, he tells his story honestly and directly. Perhaps because by this time he had come to terms with his life, he comes across in these pages as a man for whom humor was always—or at least ultimately—more important than outrage.

The Collected Stories of Chester Himes

First published: 1990

Type of work: Short stories

This assembles the stories Himes wrote between 1933 and 1978, including a number of unpublished and undated titles.

Until The Collected Stories of Chester Himes was published, Himes’s writings in this genre were largely unknown and difficult to find. Thus, his achievements in this field suffered the kind of neglect that plagued Himes throughout most of his life. It is difficult to account for this neglect. The market for the short story peaked in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and as his stories were picked up by leading magazines, he would seem a prime candidate for anthologizing and collecting. Yet he gained less exposure than most writers of the period, many of whom are still celebrated for limited production. Himes published thirty-four major stories between 1934 and 1948, but he was ignored. In comparison, J. D. Salinger had gained a national reputation by 1953 on the basis of nine stories.

The easy explanation for this disregard would be to conclude that it was racially motivated. Yet many other black writers found print during this time, and some, such as Countée Cullen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Gwendolyn Brooks, had national followings. Himes, of course, was sometimes strident, but he was certainly not alone in this. Still, the short story has been a form for which black writers in general have achieved little recognition, even during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s and the Black Power movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Even after Himes’s detective novels gained wide circulation, his stories remained unappreciated.

His distinctive qualities, however, appear from the beginning. “To What Red Hell” re-creates the scene of a prison fire so vividly that the reader almost feels the heat and certainly feels the panic of the trapped convicts and the desperation of those trying to rescue them. Himes reproduces the situation so apparently effortlessly that it is easy to overlook the degree of skill involved. Himes also refuses to flinch in the face of unsettling details. No one who reads this story will be able to forget the revulsion of the central character for the dead and dying, his inability to control his fear-ridden reactions to the unforeseen, or his instinctive release of petty prejudices even while reacting to emergency.

Other vivid prison and crime stories appeared in Esquire, including “The Visiting Hour” (1936), “Every Opportunity” (1937), “The Night’s for Crying” (1937), and “The Something in a Colored Man” (1943). “Headwaiter” (1937), first published in Opportunity, explores the necessarily repressed feelings of a black headwaiter who is forced to defer to an exclusively white clientele while overseeing an equally exclusively black waiting staff. In “Face in the Moonlight” (published in Coronet in 1941), Himes reproduces the awake-at-night reflections of an inmate, carrying off the neat trick of not revealing his race while including racist aspects of his thought patterns.

With the outbreak of World War II, Himes turned occasionally to depicting the democratizing effects of combat even while acknowledging the ineradicability of inbred racism, as in “Two Soldiers” (1943). The bulk of his sixty stories, however, deal with black sensibility in a segregated and prejudiced society, revealed directly through taut dialogue, riveting detail, and finely honed language.

The Crazy Kill

First published: 1959

Type of work: Novel

Coffin Ed Jones and Grave Digger Johnson unravel a mystery in Harlem involving a body found in a shopping cart filled with bread.

The Crazy Kill was the third novel in the Harlem Domestic (Serie Noir) series. It is typical of the series in beginning with an apparently inexplicable act of violence that triggers a network of reactions in the intricately interrelated underworld of Harlem. Superficially, the incident seems baffling, an act of random violence generated by the sodden meanness and madness of the streets. Yet the linked reactions suggests it results from the interconnections that bind all these passionate lives together. The outcome reveals that these events are more than the random trails of individual lives; they are part of a system with its own internal code of justice and order. In the end, order is reestablished, and justice prevails—but emphatically not the order imposed from without by the official society and its black agents. Beyond that, the novel draws the reader into a world dense with dramatic personalities and alive in the bright edges of concrete details.

The opening of the novel juxtaposes two scenes in Harlem late on a Saturday night: A thief steals a moneybag from the car of a supermarket manager; a preacher at a wake in a neighboring apartment oversees the theft, leans out the window to see better, and falls out, landing in a shopping cart filled with bread. He recovers, returns to the party—where tempers are already flaring because of various sexual tensions—and accuses a guest who has left of having pushed him out of the window. As he gestures from the window toward the cart, others notice another body lying in it. The body turns out to be that of the brother-in-law of the man who has just succeeded the object of the wake as the local racketeering boss.

Overtly, the novel is concerned with determining who did the murder, how, and why. The writer’s focus, though, is not on the mechanics of the plot but on the world in which it takes place. Obviously, it is a world in which the bizarre is commonplace, the outrageous everyday. People fall out of windows in stop-action sequence; as in a cartoon strip, they perform perfect half-gainers into a providential shopping cart; later, that saved body is replaced with a murdered one. Further, everyone—except for the white supermarket manager and the white police sergeant—fails to note any irony in the passage. It is almost as if surrealism has come to life; or, better, as if these lives have been invested with a special reality. Characters, settings, and atmosphere are all sketched in with the bold outlines of caricature. This oversimplifies Harlem and the quality of life there, to be sure, but it also endows it with life, humor, and love. The language may reduce Harlem to the level of a circus, but the circus is bold, loved, and zestful.

It would be hard to maintain such a precedent-defying opening, and Himes, in fact, does not quite carry it off. The plot takes unusual, baroque turns, and the contorted character relationships twist deviously. Typically, detectives Jones and Johnson do not really solve the mystery. Rather, it solves itself, or the characters who generated it resolve it—which is exactly as it should be in a novel primarily directed toward demonstrating the self-consistency and death-defeating vitality of the black spirit in Harlem.

Cotton Comes to Harlem

First published: 1965

Type of work: Novel

In mid-1960’s Harlem, detectives Johnson and Jones deal with the robbery of a back-to-Africa financing scam, the loot from which disappears in a bale of cotton.

The seventh novel in Himes’s detective series, Cotton Comes to Harlem, is generally considered the best of the set, ranking with the works of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Like the others in the series—and like the stories of Chandler—this follows a standard pattern. A public scene in Harlem is visited by an act of overt violence, which catalyzes the major characters to restore the status quo and reassert their control. Meanwhile, the official representatives of the law that supposedly governs the streets, black detectives Coffin Ed Jones and Grave Digger Johnson, carry on a formal investigation, which eventually explains the mystery—but only after the principal actors have already worked it out in their own way. Ultimately, Harlem proves to possess its own self-generating and self-protective powers of restoration, which reside in the spirits of the black people who live there.

The opening scene of this novel is explosive. Deke O’Hara, a politician and recent convict, is working the streets with an updated, glitzy version of Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa program. He is supposedly selling shares in a colony to be established in Africa for African Americans discontented with America. Because discontent is endemic in Harlem, he has a ready market—but the profits from his scheme, theoretically invested in the company, are intended for his own pockets. Before he can capitalize on his plan, however, his movement is hijacked by a white gang in broad daylight. A frantic chase ensues, scattering innocent bodies in its wake, but the getaway truck escapes, having dropped a bale of cotton that contains the money.

Multiple lines of inquiry spread out: the police want O’Hara, O’Hara wants the hijackers, the hijackers want to recover the lost bale, the common people want to recover the money they have invested. In their quests, the various characters make contact with others, who set off on quests of their own. In the middle of everything else, another organization sets up shop in Harlem, this one fronted by whites: the Back to the Southland (BTS) movement, supposedly dedicated to establishing protected enclaves in the South for blacks who long to return to the security of plantation life. It is, of course, only a front for the hijackers, who are attempting to recover the bale of cotton.

Himes’s real emphasis is on the endlessly resourceful people of Harlem, from scheming reverends to amoral prostitutes to manipulative grandmothers. A wonderful exuberance pervades this novel, perhaps best represented by Uncle Bud, an itinerant bagman who acquires the bale of cotton without knowing what he has. When asked jokingly what he would do with the missing eighty-seven thousand dollars, he answers that he would probably go to Africa. That is exactly what he does at the end of the novel. By playing dumb when everyone around him is on the make in one form or another, by using exactly what is meant by native wits, he does more than survive; he triumphs.

The novel triumphs equally. It reveals all Himes’s narrative strengths and achieves a surpassing excellence in use of language to create a society. Himes does more than merely catch the unique cadences of the street talk of 1950’s Harlem; he preserves that Harlem by catching its language.

If He Hollers Let Him Go

First published: 1945

Type of work: Novel

Bob Jones, working in a World War II defense plant, tries to achieve economic and social success, only to be thwarted by a vindictive coworker.

If He Hollers Let Him Go is a line from a nursery rhyme that illuminates the dilemma of Bob Jones, an African American worker in a Los Angeles defense plant. An intelligent but conflicted man, he relocated from Ohio to California in search of a chance to find a good job and a better life. Along with the financial benefits, he anticipates the promise of upward social mobility when he courts Alice, the fair-skinned daughter of a well-to-do doctor. In spite of the racial climate in California at the time—Japanese Americans are being uprooted and sent to relocation camps, Mexican Americans are routinely harassed—he and Alice make plans to marry.

He is both pleased with and ashamed of his pride in Alice’s looks. That she can and does pass for white when with her white associates is a source of ambivalence for him. Yet when he shows her off to his male friends, he enjoys the envy he sees in them. The differences in their backgrounds and attitudes about race are often the cause of their occasional arguments. In spite of himself, Jones finds race controlling much of what he thinks and how he feels. He has unsettling dreams about occurrences that can only be interpreted as the consequence of his ongoing apprehension about white people and the dangers that they represent.

A major complication in his life is a coworker, Madge, a white woman from Texas. Though she is “white trash,” he is attracted to her, and she flirts with him when she thinks no one else is watching. He realizes that there is a danger even in “liberal” California of a black man associating with a white woman in any way remotely sexual, but he is also resigned to the fact that a black man can just as easily be lynched for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time as for having committed a crime. He would prefer to be lynched for the actual crime and decides to give in to the compulsion to take their flirtation to another level, but nothing comes of it.

A final encounter between Jones and Madge sets the stage for Madge to entice the finally reluctant Jones. He makes the fatal mistake of telling her that he wants nothing to do with her. Angry at such an audacious rebuff from a “colored boy,” Madge cries rape. Nearby white workmen come to her rescue and give Jones a severe beating. He is arrested, escapes, and is recaptured. The absurdity of the rape charge is soon clear to the authorities, but they refuse to admit Jones’s innocence and compel him to either enlist in the armed service or face a long prison sentence. He chooses the army: He does not “holler,” so they do not “let him go.”

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