Chester Himes Short Fiction Analysis
Chester Himes’s short stories, he believed, served as his apprenticeship as a writer. They were the first of his writings to be published, and he continued in the genre intermittently for more than forty years. When an anthology of his short fiction was proposed in 1954, he revealed in his autobiography that he could not feel proud of it. The anthology finally published in 1973, Black on Black: Baby Sister and Selected Writings, was highly selective, concentrating on the stories of the first two decades of his career. A 1990 edition, The Collected Stories of Chester Himes, contains sixty-one pieces, ranging from 1933 to 1978, with nine updated. Many are prison stories, and not all are of even quality, but as a whole, they demonstrate Himes’s remarkably versatile range of techniques and the ongoing themes and preoccupations of his longer pieces.
“His Last Day”
Prison life, horrible as it was, gave Himes the subject of several short stories. “His Last Day,” about a condemned man’s last few hours before the electric chair, already shows some of Himes’s trademarks. Spats, a hardened, ruthless criminal who is condemned to death for killing a police officer, reflects wryly that he would not have been identified if the one person left alive during his robbery of a club had not recognized his fawn-colored spats. Even when he manages to hide out for a few days, he is finally trapped—by his past and by a woman. An old sweet heart whom he had abandoned in her pregnancy shoots the man who had provided Spats with refuge, thus attracting the police. Rivetingly grim, this early effort is marred by the dated slang, but even so, Himes’s characteristic grisly humor comes through.
“Her Whole Existence”
James Baldwin wrote of Himes that he was the only black writer to describe male-female relationships in terms other than violence. One of Himes’s earliest love stories, “Her Whole Existence: A Story of True Love,” verges on parody in its clichéd language but also shows Himes’s imaginative skill. Written from the point of view of Mabel Miles, the beautiful daughter of a successful African American politician, the story leaps suddenly from the romanticism of Mabel’s attraction for Richard Riley, an ambitious, successful, and handsome criminal, to an analysis of class conflict. Trapped between the respect for law instilled by her family and her own passion, Mabel first betrays Richard and then helps him to escape. It is the first of Himes’s portrayals of unpredictable but strong women.
“A Nigger” suggests, with its shockingly simple denouement, Himes’s bitter observations about the sexual relationship between blacks and whites. Mr. Shelton, a rich old white man, drops in unexpectedly on Fay, a black prostitute who lives with a light-skinned common-law husband and who is currently involved with another black man, Joe Wolf. Taken by surprise, Fay shoves Joe into the closet to receive her white lover. Joe hears her cajole and flatter Mr. Shelton out of two hundred dollars and, crouched in the dark, recalls other tired, unattractive white men he has known who have turned to black women not in appreciation but in exhaustion. Such men have convinced themselves, he thinks, that it is only black flesh they touch, animal flesh that has no mind or power to judge. When he is ready to leave, Mr. Shelton opens the door of the closet by mistake, looks in, turns away, and leaves. While Fay is jubilant that Joe was not detected, Joe is so furious that he tries to strangle her. He knows that the white man saw him and simply refused to recognize his existence. Back in his own tiny room, he reflects bitterly that he must count himself a “nigger” for allowing his poverty and dependence on a prostitute to rob him of his manhood.
Though many of Himes’s stories—and novels—ram home the pain of being black in the United States, there are other works that portray individuals who can carve a dignified niche in the limited ways available to them. “Headwaiter” presents Dick Small, an African American man in charge of an old-fashioned dining room patronized by a regular white clientele. Imperturbable in this familiar atmosphere, Dick watches over everyone in his care, remembering the personal details of individual customers, waiters, busboys. In his small way, he does what he can for the less fortunate. When the diners are horrified to learn that one of the best...
(The entire section is 1851 words.)