Chester Himes American Literature Analysis
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...
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