Chester Himes Himes, Chester - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

If He Hollers, Let Him Go (novel) 1945

Lonely Crusade (novel) 1947

Cast the First Stone (novel) 1952; revised as Yesterday Will Make You Cry, 1998

The Third Generation (novel) 1954

The Primitive (novel) 1956; revised as The End of a Primitive, 1997

For Love of Imabelle (novel) 1957; revised as A Rage in Harlem, 1965

Il pleut des coups durs (novel) 1958; also published as The Real Cool Killers, 1959

Couché dans le pain (novel) 1959; also published as The Crazy Kill, 1959

Dare-dare (novel) 1959; also published as Run Man, Run, 1966

Tout pour plaire (novel) 1959; also published as The Big Gold Dream, 1960

Imbroglio négro (novel) 1960; also published as All Shot Up, 1960

Ne nous énervons pas (novel) 1961; also published as The Heat's On, 1966; revised as Come Back, Charleston Blue, 1967

Pinktoes (novel) 1961

Un affaire de viol (novel) 1963; also published as A Case of Rape, 1980

Retour en Afrique (novel) 1964; also published as Cotton Comes to Harlem, 1965

Blind Man with a Pistol (novel) 1969; also published as Hot Day, Hot Night, 1970

The Quality of Hurt: The Autobiography of Chester Himes, vol. 1 (autobiography) 1972

Black on Black: Baby Sister and Selected Writings (short stories) 1973

My Life of Absurdity: The Autobiography of Chester Himes, vol. 2 (autobiography) 1977

Plan B (novel) 1983; also published as Plan B: A Novel 1993

Un Joli coup de lune (novel) 1988

The Collected Stories of Chester Himes (short stories) 1990

Chester Himes and Michel Fabre (interview date 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Himes, Chester, and Michel Fabre. “Chester Himes Direct.”1 In Conversations with Chester Himes, edited by Fabre and Robert E. Jackson, pp. 125-42. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.

[In the following interview, originally published in 1983 and translated from French by Fabre, Himes discusses topics such as the influence of his largely expatriate life on his writing, settings and themes in his stories, his interest in sexual psychology, and writers who have influenced his work.]

[Fabre]: When did you actually begin to write short stories? Did you begin when you started college, or only in the 1930s when you first began to be published?

[Himes]: No, I began writing short stories in the penitentiary. At first, it was a way of escaping from the environment I was living in, although I often wrote about the everyday experiences of the prisoners whose lives I shared.

In my early prison stories, I wrote about white characters. It made publication possible, or at least easier, in big magazines like Esquire. When I started writing in the U.S. in the early thirties, a black writer had a hard time getting published. For a long time no one realized that I was a Negro. I wrote about white men because their problems were the problems of convicts, no matter what color they were. They experienced the same emotions, whether they were black or white. I rendered the prison environment faithfully, something critics acknowledged years later.

Did you write exclusively about convicts?

No, I wrote a story about a football player, and another one about two detectives. It was only after I was released from prison that I started writing about other kinds of lives. You know, I didn't deliberately choose to write about Negro life. The war was a tremendous shock, psychologically, and its effect on combatants, civilians, even wives, became a theme for my stories.

In “Two Soldiers,” you show how the growth of a relationship between a black American and a white American results in a triumph of the spirit in the midst of battle.

Yes. I must confess it was a clumsy attempt at propaganda. But I needed the reconciliation between the two soldiers, even though it may've been too trite.

During the war, tragedy was an everyday experience, and the heightened emotions sometimes changed a person's feelings about things. The protagonist of “So Softly Smiling” wonders about the role Negroes might play in the war, about the possibility of national unity. The Negro ultimately realizes that his part is as important as that of a white American.

Was it to escape from the racial climate that you decided to move to Europe in 1953?

My desire to leave America probably resulted from a terrible humiliation I suffered in 1947. I had been invited to sign my novel, Lonely Crusade, and to be interviewed on the radio. At the last moment, everything was canceled without my being told. In this particular novel, I attempted to describe the constant, long-standing fear that lurks in the minds of American Negroes, along with the impact of Communism, of industrialization, of the war, of white women on black men, and the plight of black couples. There wasn't a single event in the story that hadn't actually happened. My characters were real people, living in familiar situations, but no one liked that novel. I ran into a wall of hatred. I wasn't able to leave the country at once, but promised myself I would as soon as I had enough money—which took another six years. I finally sailed to Europe in 1953.

How did you manage to live in Europe?

I had to move about during the first couple of years, while working on The Primitive. I went back to New York City for a while, but couldn't remain there. I left for Paris again in 1956.

I started writing detective novels in Paris, and For Love of Imabelle was published there in 1957. These novels were later published in the U.S. My earlier work was sociological fiction, generally autobiographical. It was called “protest fiction” by the critics. I had only handled the detective genre in a few stories.

In your thrillers, the black characters seem surprisingly unaware of social and racial problems.

When I describe life in Harlem, the people live in poverty and moral misery, but retain a capacity to enjoy every moment. Most of the characters are petty criminals or victims, and many of them have only a hazy perception of the oppression they suffer, or any understanding of the link between racism and economic exploitation. Of course, all of this is part of the fabric of their lives, and they aren't thinking about it. They're far too busy surviving.

Yet this isn't the case in all your novels and stories.

There are some differences. My domestic novels rarely deal with racism explicitly, except Blind Man with a Pistol. These books are really about ghetto hustlers getting around the law to make a living. They show how you can beat the law in ghetto situations, and the solutions are pretty simple, even mathematical.

But the stories portray an increasing number of ordinary characters who appear alongside the criminals and detectives, and those characters help fashion a kind of human comedy, a picture of ghetto people and the circumstances of their lives.

There are many different characters in the short stories: a decent black couple in “One Night in New Jersey,” delinquents and murderers in the prison stories. Each one has his own emotional makeup, his own past, his own worries. At the same time, the action in a short story focuses upon a central consciousness.

The realism is mostly emotional, and what matters is how the evolution of a character within a situation makes him more violent because his environment is so unpredictable.

Do you think your personality changed because of your living in Europe?

Of course. Here a Negro becomes a human being. There's nothing grotesque about a black man meeting a white woman here. There's nothing unnatural about it. This isn't the case in the United States.

Racism became a big problem for me in 1940, when I found I was barred from most of the employment I could find. Segregation hadn't really affected me until then, but it became tangible. I felt I could actually see racism. It colored everything. My first wife was a beautiful black woman, but I was never able to provide the kind of life for her I wanted because we were only Negroes. We separated after fourteen years.

The stories you wrote around that time often deal with characters who have identity problems. I'm thinking particularly of “Dirty Deceivers.”

White society has always wanted black people to feel uncomfortable. There's nothing strange about a Negro whose features and color are close to the white man's trying to pass for white, even if it drives him insane. At the same time, Negroes used to living in constant fear have always found solace in drug addiction.

Has your living in France played an important role in your career?

Only to some extent. I was known in the United States before I left in 1953, and If He Hollers had sold well. But I remained a “Negro writer”; in other words something marginal in the mind of the public; a not quite respectable writer for reasons that had nothing to do with morals. The only Negro writer at the time who enjoyed any status as an “American writer” was Richard Wright. He was recognized as such, but I wasn't, nor were many others.

Later, my detective stories sold well in the United States, but they weren't considered important enough to be reviewed.

Don't you think this is a question of literary genre?

Possibly, but to be a black man, and a writer of detective fiction, amounted to a double handicap in America when I started writing in that genre.

Things have changed now. Detective fiction is being taught in universities. I was glad that Professor Edward Margolies wrote about my novels, along with those of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett [in Which Way Did He Go: The Private Eye in Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, and Ross MacDonald. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1982]. This is where they belong. Blacks are now treated equally with whites, just like detective fiction is being treated equally with so-called legitimate fiction. Dostoyevsky and Agatha Christie have each written about crime in their own ways.

You seem to enjoy writing about the most unbridled kind of violence in your thrillers. Don't you also like to depict thieves, quacks, con men, and such?

Of course I do. That's why there're so many black pimps, religious quacks, con men who deceive white people lusting for black bodies, and petty thieves in my Harlem novels. Especially in For Love of Imabelle and Back to Africa [Cotton Comes to Harlem]. I deal with religious charlatans, fake sisters of mercy, nuns in disguise, with the lost souls who join the Muslims or the supporters of Daddy Grace and Father Divine. Charlatans are found mostly in religion, or in the pseudo-political “Back to Africa” movements.

Did you live in Harlem for very long?

No, I didn't. Only a few months at a time. Just long enough to absorb its atmosphere, although it keeps changing, mostly in terms of fashion, slang, and what is or isn't hip.

I've sometimes been reproached for providing an exaggerated picture, revelling in the depiction of cults and con men, for instance. You only have to go there to realize that reality is often stranger than fiction. At any rate, I don't try to paint an exaggerated, exotic picture.

I really became familiar with the Harlem underworld in the midfifties, when I was broke and alone in New York City. I got to know its geography, its secret places. What I learned about the black bourgeoisie, I learned in the forties when I was staying with cousins of mine, whose lifestyle I depicted in Pinktoes.

I put the slang, the daily routine, and complex human relationships of Harlem into my detective novels, which I prefer to call “domestic novels” for that reason. This is a world of pimps and prostitutes who don't worry about racism, injustice, or social equality. They're just concerned with survival. It may have been because my head was buzzing with so many problems that I enjoyed their company so much.

Did you write at all when you were living in Harlem?

No, I don't remember what I did. I was really staying at the Albert Hotel in Greenwich Village, not residing in Harlem.

Have you written most of your work outside the United States?

A lot. I kept writing wherever I was staying because I had to publish in order to survive after I left the United States. I began “Spanish Gin” in a little Spanish fishing harbor called Puerto Pollensa, on the island of Mallorca where I lived in the fifties. At the time, I drank heavily, and this may explain the madness of that weird, fantastic story. I've even written in Mexico. I revised Back to Africa in the little village of Sisal, where the natives were still living much as they had three centuries ago. There were no comforts there, except a single telephone, and not a single automobile in the village.

I am surprised you're so concerned with comfort.

Nowadays, at my ripe age, I need some comfort, or what everyone else in Europe considers indispensable: electricity, heating, running water, a clean house.

Did you really stop writing after the second volume of your autobiography?

Yes, for all practical purposes. Because of my health.

Do you usually write a story a long time after the incidents or events which inspired it, or do you make use of recent occurrences in your life?

In the fifties, I wrote quickly to make a living, and any topic or theme was fair game. I wrote three stories, “The Snake,” “A Night in New Jersey,” and “Spanish Gin” during that time, and only the last one was based on recent events. The other two were based on events that had taken place in the mid-forties.

When is writing the easiest for you?

It's hard to tell. Sometimes I write with greater ease because I'm boiling with outrage at something. Writing helps me to settle accounts at times like that. Other times I write best when I'm most hard-pressed, when I have to make money quickly. That's the way I wrote the first five detective novels for Série noire. What I was writing seemed to mirror my mood. I was continually looking for a place I could call home, and a kind of life that would suit me. When I found the right place, and some happiness, as I did in the sixties near Aixen-Provence, I found it more difficult to write for some reason.

What's your writing routine?

I like to get up early, have a big breakfast, and work at one stretch until it's time for lunch. If the mail is good, I generally go on with my writing. If it's bad, my mind is disturbed for the rest of the day. I have nearly always typed my manuscripts, without consulting any reference books or dictionaries. In my hotel room in Paris I only needed cigarettes, a bottle of scotch, and occasionally a good dish of meat and vegetables cooking on the burner behind me. Writing's always whetted my appetite.

How much realism do you put in your stories, and how much is imagination?

I hardly remember myself. I wouldn't be able to tell you whether such-and-such a character in my prison novel really existed, but I distinctly remember details, atmosphere, a railing and a gate, a street corner, a section of sky seen from a barred window, or the jingling of the warden's keys. It becomes blurred as the years go by. My characters are mostly composites. I borrow a detail here, a detail there, using a chance encounter or something that impressed me. For instance, in A Case of Rape, the black painter who walked the streets of Paris with a snow-white Borzoi dog is real, as is the same man painting his hotel room white, except for black footprints reaching up to the ceiling. He was called Bertel.

Did you imagine the bizarre episodes of “Spanish Gin”?

This story seems utterly fantastic and crazy, but it had its origin in a party that actually took place in Puerto de Pollensa in 1955. Willa and I had been invited by a homosexual couple, who lived in a superb villa with a terrace overlooking the bay. Bob was born to a wealthy Boston family, and Mog was a fair-haired German boy, a fitting aryan type, whose opinions had caused him to be fired from his job at the U.S. Embassy, where he was teaching literature. We were at the end of a long literary discussion which had just turned sour. I went out to the restroom, and upon my return I found Bob lying on the floor. Mog had accused him of flirting with Willa, and had knocked him out. Of course, we'd been drinking a lot of Tom Collinses with cheap Spanish gin. So much so I passed out myself, for part of the afternoon.

Then we tried to play Monopoly. By nightfall, I became totally engrossed in the bosom of a guest who was feeding our host's cat caviar, while Willa cast angry glances at me. Things didn't go any further because Willa and I went back to our place, soused and wet because we accidentally walked into the ocean.

I don't know why I decided to cook kidneys in the kitchen when we came home. I was doing this when I heard a great crash in the bathroom. I found Willa lying on the tile floor. She'd broken her collarbone and, as she fell, hit her temple on the bathtub. She was so drunk that she'd tried to step out of her dress and her foot had gotten caught in it. She had a black eye for a long time, and people thought I'd hit her. We were so drunk, and it was all so crazy, that I didn't have to exaggerate much to create an utterly crazy story.

What about your prison stories?

Just open Cast the First Stone and you'll realize what kind of material I found in the penitentiary. This is one of my most autobiographical novels, although the publishers cut a lot out of it. But most of the events I used happened to the tough guys I found in jail, rather than to myself.

Did you live in the South for a long time? You describe it well in “The Snake.”

That story isn't set...

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Gilbert H. Muller (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Muller, Gilbert H. “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Detective Fiction.” In Chester Himes, pp. 80-105. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989.

[In the following essay, Muller traces the development of Himes's detective fiction.]

Following his three novels tracing the vagaries of interracial sex—The Primitive, Pinktoes, and A Case of Rape—Himes abandoned both the confessional mode and conventional novelistic genres to erect a radically new fictive universe. Refining the absurd elements inherent in his confessional fiction, Himes created a series of novels centered almost exclusively in Harlem and dealing with the criminal world. With the...

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Robert E. Skinner (essay date 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Skinner, Robert E. “Streets of Fear: The Los Angeles Novels of Chester Himes.” In Los Angeles in Fiction: A Collection of Essays: From James M. Cain to Walter Mosley, pp. 227-38. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Skinner analyzes two early Himes novels, If He Hollers Let Him Go and Lonely Crusade, comparing them to the works of such Los Angeles writers as James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler.]

The most aptly-titled of the stories Chester Himes wrote about life and crime in Harlem is the one called Run, Man, Run.1 In this terrifying noir tale, the protagonist, Jimmy Johnson, is...

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Gary Storhoff (essay date spring 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Storhoff, Gary. “Slaying the Fathers: The Autobiography of Chester Himes.” a/b: Autobiography Studies 11, no. 1 (spring 1996): 38-55.

[In the following essay, Storhoff traces “Oedipal” themes in the two volumes of Himes's autobiography, noting that Himes repudiates not only his familial and literary “fathers” but also the traditional form of autobiography itself.]

In a crucial moment in The Quality of Hurt for the history of African-American literature, Chester Himes relates the famous argument between Richard Wright and James Baldwin about Baldwin's essay “Everybody's Protest Novel.” In the essay, Baldwin criticizes “protest...

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Adam Zachary Newton (essay date fall 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Newton, Adam Zachary. “From Exegesis to Ethics: Recognition and Its Vicissitudes in Saul Bellow and Chester Himes.” South Atlantic Quarterly 95 (fall 1996): 979-1007.

[In the following essay, Newton deconstructs and compares the idea of facial “recognition” in Himes's If He Hollers Let Him Go and Saul Bellow's The Victim.]

We were the end of the line. We were the children of the immigrants who had camped at the city's back door … we were Brownsville—Brunsvil, as the old folks said—the dust of the earth to all Jews with money, and notoriously a place that measured success by our skill in getting away from it. So...

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Persephone Braham (essay date summer 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Braham, Persephone. “Violence and Patriotism: La Novela Negra from Chester Himes to Paco Ignacio Taibo II.” Journal of American Culture 20, no. 2 (summer 1997): 159-69.

[In the following essay, Braham compares the detective novels of Himes and Mexican writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II, arguing that each seeks to regain control of radical and popular history and to redefine their discourses.]

The hard-boiled detective novel evolved as a genre in the United States during the 1920's and 30's, in reaction to the rapid growth of organized crime, institutional corruption and an ensuing disenchantment with the effete British-style whodunit. In the tradition of...

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Ishmael Reed (essay date spring 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Reed, Ishmael. “Chester Himes's Last Visit Home.” Black Scholar 28, no. 1 (spring 1998): 5-9.

[In the following essay, Reed reminisces about Himes's last visit to America in 1972, noting that Himes was never well-accepted by the literary establishment at home.]

In 1972, when Chester Himes made his triumphant return to the United States on the occasion of the publication of the first volume of his autobiography, The Quality of Hurt, the establishment was just beginning to take revenge on black men for having caused much of the political ferment of the 1960s.

Aware of this atmosphere, Himes said, prophetically, on the television show...

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Jimmie Richard Turner (essay date spring 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Turner, Jimmie Richard. “Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones: Violence and Humor in the Mystery Novels of Chester Himes.” Black Scholar 28, no. 1 (spring 1998): 21-2.

[In the following essay, Turner comments on the mixture of violence and humor in Himes's detective fiction.]

Often mystery novels allow the reader vicarious confrontation with violence that has outcomes that are far more empowering than those available in “real life.” Himes was masterful in manipulating violence in his novels. He exploited warring elements in his existence, while appreciating that expatriation permitted him a new type of creativity and artistry. In an interview in...

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Bernard Bell (review date summer 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bell, Bernard. “Conversations with Chester Himes.” African American Review 32, no. 2 (summer 1998): 351-55.

[In the following review, Bell discusses subjects such as Himes's views on violence in American culture and the exploitation of the African American writer.]

“American male writers don't produce manly books,” John A. Williams wrote after reading the manuscript of the first volume of Chester Himes's autobiography, The Quality of Hurt (1972); “Himes' autobiography is that of a man.” This provocative comment on Himes the man and writer appears in the introduction to Williams's “My Man Himes: An Interview with Chester Himes,” the most...

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Christopher Gair (essay date autumn 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gair, Christopher. “Theory Comes to Harlem: The New York Novels of Chester Himes.” 49th Parallel: An Interdisciplinary Journal of North American Studies, no. 6 (autumn 2000). <>

[In the following essay, Gair uses references to the idiom of jazz in Cotton Comes to Harlem to point to the multitude of cultural meanings in the novel.]

There are two instances in Chester Himes's Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965) when the detective protagonists, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, momentarily interrupt their investigations of a tangled case involving fraud, murder, robbery and a host of other...

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Jack Kelly (essay date fall 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kelly, Jack. “‘I Thought I Was Writing Realism.’” American Legacy: Celebrating African-America History and Culture 6, no. 3 (fall 2000): 35-40.

[In the following essay, Kelly gives an overview of Himes's life and work.]

When the expatriate, ex-convict, and lifelong writer Chester Himes couldn't pay the rent with his “serious” novels, he turned up the volume and produced a series of scalding, darkly funny detective stories.

In 1956 Chester Himes was, he told a friend, “living on a prayer.” He had been writing for more than two decades with scant financial success. He owed back rent on his Paris apartment. He was forced to borrow...

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Bruce A. Glasrud and Laurie Champion (essay date March 2001)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Glasrud, Bruce A., and Laurie Champion. “‘No Land of the Free’: Chester Himes Confronts California (1940-1946).” CLA Journal 44, no. 3 (March 2001): 391-416.

[In the following essay, Glasrud and Champion examine Himes's World War II-era short stories, novels, and essays, which reveal the effects of racism on both African Americans and other minorities during this period.]

During World War II thousands of African Americans sought new opportunities and pursued the lure of the West by moving to California in search of the “elusive Eden.” They had reason for high expectations—the West was celebrated as the region with more freedom, and defense...

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William E. Rand (essay date June 2001)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rand, William E. “Chester Himes as Naturalistic Writer in the Tradition of Richard Wright and Theodore Dreiser.” CLA Journal 44, no. 4 (June 2001): 442-50.

[In the following essay, Rand discusses Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, Richard Wright's Native Son, and Himes's If He Hollers Let Him Go as examples of the development of the naturalistic novel.]

In a defense of naturalistic writing, Donald Pizer says that the naturalistic novel “can be written by mature male and female authors,” and he acknowledges that naturalistic writing is known to appear more frequently during periods of economic or social...

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Tony Lindsay (essay date December 2001)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lindsay, Tony. “Expatriate Genius.” Black Issues Book Review 3, no. 6 (December 2001): 18-19.

[In the following essay, Lindsay offers a tribute to Himes and a summary of his life's work.]

A black man from American's heartland, Chester B. Himes (1909-1984) wandered from pre-med studies to prison to poverty and exile in Europe. Still, he became a writer's writer.

Some writers are prolific. Some display highly original thought, and others write with perceptive wit that speaks to the malice and ills of their societies. Chester Bomar Himes did all this and more. My first exposure to his work came through the 1970 film Cotton Comes to...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Fabre, Michel, Robert E. Skinner, and Lester Sullivan, compilers. Chester Himes: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992, 216 p.

Complete annotated bibliography to 1991 of primary and secondary works, along with an introductory essay, a chronology, and an author and title index.


Margolies, Edward, and Michael Fabre. The Several Lives of Chester Himes. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997, 209 p.

Chronological biography of Himes, with emphasis on the many-faceted nature of his experiences and his literary...

(The entire section is 299 words.)