Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1230
In his review of Lonely Crusade, James Baldwin hit on the central theme of Chester Himes’s work: creating individual black characters who were many faceted and reflected the ambivalence of living in an American society full of contradictions and insecurities. Unfortunately, Baldwin’s grasp of the essence of Himes’s fiction was not shared by all. Many of the reviewers of Himes’s early “protest” fiction either criticized the violence of the books, apologized for it, or merely complained about what they saw as his awkwardness of style. Most reviews simply dismissed the books. Some acknowledged that Himes’s portrait of American racism was accurate but deplored his lack of any constructive suggestions for its amelioration. Even when Himes received a certain measure of fame through the republication of his detective novels in the United States, the critical notices, with few exceptions, remained slight. After Himes’s death, however, this changed. Himes’s literary reputation in France undoubtedly affected his reception in the United States.
Himes once believed that in American letters there was room at the top for only one African American writer at a time, and therefore black writers were always competing against one another for that coveted spot. He felt that he always came in second, initially behind Richard Wright and then behind James Baldwin. Certainly this is no longer true (if it ever was). The proliferation of novels, drama, and poetry by such authors as Toni Morrison, Ernest J. Gaines, Gloria Naylor, Derek Walcott, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, and other black writers suggests that whatever constraints Himes felt as an exiled black writer seem to be loosening. Himes is now being accorded a place beside Wright, Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison, the novelists of his generation who opened the doors for African American writers to be accepted as full-fledged American writers, a part of the native grain.
If He Hollers Let Him Go
In If He Hollers Let Him Go the central character, Bob Jones, is a black Everyman—as his name would suggest—who comes to represent the experience of all black males who find themselves thwarted while trying to live out their dreams. Jones is an African American who has moved to California to work in the defense plants during World War II. Here he experiences American racism in all its ugly insidiousness and spends the five days covered by the novel’snarrative trying to escape the oppressions and humiliations society tries to impose on him.
As an articulate man, with a few years of college, Jones is both better educated and more perceptive than the working-class whites he works with in the aircraft plants. When he is elevated to the position of supervisor at work, he brings out the racism of his coworkers, who are jealous of his success. An altercation on the job, tensions with his white girlfriend, and finally the accusation of rape by a woman at work whose overtures he has rejected, convince Jones that his hopes and dreams will not come true even in Los Angeles, where he thought he would be rid of the racist attitudes of his native South. After his arrest a judge strips him of his military deferment, and as the novel ends he is being sent off to join the U.S. Army.
Himes’s first published novel provides the basic themes he would pursue not only in his protest books but also in his crime fiction. In the course of the novel Himes explores the issues of race, class, and sexual positioning and demonstrates how Jones, despite his best efforts, remains trapped within a historically determined social role as a black man trying simply to earn a living, gain some personal respect, and find love. At every turn he finds himself prevented from fulfilling the most basic of American rights and aspirations.
The narrative of The Primitive focuses on writer Jesse Robinson and his relationship with his white girlfriend, Kriss Cummings. Again in this novel Himes uses a contained time scheme, covering only a few days in the lives of his central characters. After a chance meeting with an old acquaintance, Kriss, Jesse experiences a rapidly accelerating series of seriocomic episodes, which propel him to the novel’s conclusion: In an alcoholic fog he stabs Kriss to death in her Gramercy Park apartment. The novel alternates between following Kriss’s life and Jesse’s thoughts as he tries, in vain, to examine his feelings about his relationship with a white woman and what she stands for in his world, as well as his growing sense of himself as a writer trying to come to grips with his experience as an African American living in a racist culture that will give him recognition as neither an artist nor a man.
The Primitive is often described as one of Himes’s “confessional” novels, fiction in which he examines themes that had plagued him since the publication of If He Hollers Let Him Go: the rejection he felt as a writer and the obsession with white women often experienced by black men. As critics have pointed out, obsession with white women is a constant theme in Himes’s writing and represents attraction, repulsion, and, because of the taboo of miscegenation, long a central anxiety of white Americans, the fear of death and social rejection. Rather than merely striking out against white society, Jesse murders Kriss out of self-hatred for his own desires to join that society, moving the murder beyond the blind killing of Bigger Thomas in Wright’s Native Son (1940). In the end, Jesse, although still a rejected author, discovers that he has the skills of a fine writer who can put into words his feelings about the conditions of his life.
Cotton Comes to Harlem
Cotton Comes to Harlem begins in Harlem at a “back to Africa” rally sponsored by the Reverend Deke O’Malley, who is fraudulently bilking his gullible followers. The rally is interrupted by a gang of thieves who steal the raised money and hide it in a bale of cotton, which they lose on their escape. Into this plot come two African American detectives, Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, two of the toughest police officers in New York. The rest of the novel involves their attempts to recover the loot, expose the fraud, and make amends to the local residents. The ending of the novel provides an ironic twist, as a poor, old man who found the bale does go to Africa to live out the dream promised by the Reverend O’Malley at the novel’s opening.
Cotton Comes to Harlem is one a series of crime novels set in New York’s Harlem and featuring two African American detectives, a series Himes called his Harlem domestic books. The series began when his French publisher Marcel Duhamel contracted him to write a novel for Gallimard’s La Série Noire, a notable series of crime fiction published in France. In these novels, Himes concentrates as much on the social, political, and economic conditions of the people of Harlem as he does on the solving of crimes. As Himes carefully explores the racism inherent in American culture, he chronicles the world of his characters sympathetically, and without becoming didactic he demonstrates the harmful effects of almost four hundred years of oppression and exploitation of African Americans.