Chester Himes 1909-1984
(Full name Chester Bomar Himes) American novelist, short story writer, and autobiographer.
The following entry provides criticism on Himes's works from 1983 through 2001. See also, Chester Himes Criticism and CLC, Volumes 4, 7, 18, and 108.
Himes began his literary career as a protest writer but later found his niche as a creator of detective stories. At the height of his career as a master of the black detective genre, he lived in Europe, which he found a more suitable milieu for his work than the United States.
Himes was born on July 29, 1909, in Jefferson City, Missouri, to a mixed-race, middle-class family. His parents' troubled marriage and some unfortunate injuries suffered by Himes and his brother marred his youth. After being expelled from Ohio State University for unruly behavior, he returned home to Cleveland, where he became involved in criminal activities. After a third arrest in 1929, he was sent to the Ohio State Penitentiary, where he served seven and a half years of a twenty-five-year sentence. He began writing while in prison, publishing at first in African American periodicals and later achieving more recognition for stories published in Esquire magazine. After serving his sentence, he married Jean Johnson, with whom he moved to California in the late 1930s. There, and later in New York City, he worked as a common laborer, becoming disillusioned with the racism which plagued American life. His marriage ended in the early 1950s, and he then joined other African American expatriates, including Richard Wright, in Paris. Himes married an Englishwoman, Lesley Packard, in 1965. After writing novels based on his experiences in the United States, he began to produce the crime novels that define his career. A series of strokes in the early 1960s spurred him to begin an autobiography, written after he moved to Spain in 1969. Himes died on November 12, 1984, in Moraira, Spain.
Himes began as a short story writer but soon found that novels were his calling. His first five novels were in the “protest” genre: If He Hollers, Let Him Go (1945), Lonely Crusade (1947), Cast the First Stone (1952), The Third Generation (1954), and The Primitive (1956). Most of these are based on Himes's own experiences with racism in America. In self-exile in France and discouraged by the failure of these novels and by the lack of critical response, Himes began writing in the detective genre with For Love of Imabelle (1957). Like his other detective novels, it was set in Harlem but was really based on the Cleveland of his youth. The sequels to this book all had the recurring characters of Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, African American detectives who encounter many sordid and dangerous situations. Most of these so-called “Harlem Domestic” novels were first published in French translation, then later in their original English versions—Il pleut des coups durs (1958; The Real Cool Killers), Couché dans le pain (1959; The Crazy Kill), Dare-dare (1959; Run Man, Run), Tout pour plaire (1959; The Big Gold Dream), Imbroglio négro (1960; All Shot Up), Ne nous énervons pas (1961; The Heat's On), Pinktoes (1961), Un affaire de viol (1963; A Case of Rape), Retour en Afrique (1964; Cotton Comes to Harlem), and Blind Man with a Pistol (1969). In Plan B (1983), left unfinished and published posthumously, Grave Digger and Coffin Ed are killed. Himes's greatest literary success came with these novels, which were written in the tradition of suspense masters Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Himes also produced a two-volume autobiography. The first volume, The Quality of Hurt (1972), deals with his life in America, while the second, My Life of Absurdity (1977), chronicles his years in Europe. Both dwell heavily on the effects of racism on his personal life and his career.
Until the last three decades of the twentieth century, critics were perplexed by Himes and found it difficult to assess his importance in the stream of American literature. Himes himself felt that he was always competing for literary attention with the better known names of James Baldwin and Richard Wright. Although Himes was well-accepted in Europe, American critics were slow to see him as an important American writer, in part because of his cynical attitude toward his native country. African American critics sometimes expressed dismay at his unflattering portraits of Harlem life and accused him of promoting racial stereotypes. Himes's early “protest” novels were often deemed unworthy of serious literary reviews, and his detective novels were not taken seriously at first by American critics. When his crime fiction began to be reissued in the United States and film versions of his work appeared, he gained more popularity and at the same time a more favorable reception from critics. Since the 1970s Himes has been treated more respectfully as a figure of consequence in African American literature, especially in the black detective genre which he pioneered. As the interest in ethnic and multicultural literature rose during the 1980s and 1990s, several full-length critical studies of Himes, a biography, and a plethora of scholarly articles about his work have added to his literary stature.