Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6981
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 in the South. I explain in my autobiography how I spent a couple of months on a ranch belonging to my brother-in-law in California near the Nevada border. I was then working on Lonely Crusade. The ranch had little in the way of comforts, and the area was almost deserted. We had to fight an invasion of rats first, and then rattlesnakes came out in the spring. I shot the first one as it came across the yard.
A neighbor told me that we had to burn its body, otherwise the female would come in search of her mate, so I did. That very evening another snake came by, and it crept beneath Jean's naked legs as she was resting in the hammock. It seemed to me that it took forever to crawl by. I struck it with a spade as it was reaching the tool shed. It stood up and bit the handle with such violence that it made a dent in it and broke a fang. I struck it dead, hitting like mad, cutting it into small fragments. Later I shot half a dozen other snakes. From then on, every time we left the house, I felt compelled to search it for fear a snake would be in there.
Has actual experience ever matched the power of your imagination?
One particular case is the fire that destroyed part of the Ohio penitentiary and claimed 360 victims. I used it as the basis for “To What Red Hell.”
The only other case I remember concerns a character in the story, “Strictly Business.” My hero was a gangster, a tall, blonde bodyguard of Swedish origin. I met him when I was looking for work in the 1940s, and asked Frank Bucino, a little one-eyed Italian, for work. He always went around with this tall, blonde, Swede bodyguard.
Bucino had transformed a training camp for the German American Bund into a summer camp, with cottages and trailers. My wife and I worked there, and we lived in the old Bund tavern, on the first floor, with three dogs. We had a Mack truck that I drove at breakneck speed. I wrote about all this in the story, “A Night in New Jersey.”
Which is your favorite character, among all you've created?
It's certainly Jesse Robinson, in The Primitive. I put a lot of myself into him. I probably said everything I wanted to say in that novel, but it caused a great deal of trouble between me and the publisher. I had to intervene repeatedly with my editors to restore things they'd cut out. They found the novel too daring, too risky, too obscene, and cut quite a bit out of it without my permission. The French translation is closer to the original because Yves Malartic made it from the original typescript.
What did you attempt to prove in The Primitive?
This was an attempt, and I believe a successful one, to depict the repressive influences in our time, and our attempt to reconcile the community values of Christian religion with the economic ethics of capitalism. We cling to moral conceptions that don't fit the circumstances of our lives.
It was the same in France a hundred years ago. Zola's Nana said more, in my opinion, about the sexual frustration and impotence of the ruling class in France, than about the desires of a prostitute. Zola was dealing with the national stupidity of his time.
In The Primitive, I put a sexually-frustrated American woman and a racially-frustrated black American male together for a weekend in a New York apartment, and allowed them to soak in American bourbon. I got the result I was looking for: a nightmare of drunkenness, unbridled sexuality, and in the end, tragedy.
What I wanted to show is that American society has produced two radically new human types. One is the black American male. Although powerless and small in numbers, he can serve as a political catalyst. The other type, the white American woman, has developed into something beyond our imagination.
She's better educated, better off financially, and enjoys more freedom than women have at any other period in history. Yet she's the most unhappy, and sexually incomplete creature ever produced, because she isn't loved or cared for. In The Primitive, I exaggerated the situation slightly, and showed how modern woman is the victim of a dangerous delusion that every person of color is a primitive. In fact, the new Negro is a psychological hybrid, the result of the vulgar and depraved compulsions of our culture. The white woman doesn't appreciate how dangerous this has made him.
Your novels very often deal with the black man-white woman relationship. Is this a personal obsession?
I think this is related to one of Western culture's strongest themes. In our culture, the white male both places the white woman on a pedestal and victimizes her. Just the way the black man is victimized. This makes them natural allies. Their mutual attraction derives, in part, from a subconscious wish to break taboos. The black man, also wants to possess the white woman sexually as a form of revenge against his white oppressor. In spite of this, the black man is capable of giving the white woman a kind of love she can find nowhere else. This is what I attempted to show in A Case of Rape and The Primitive.
The Primitive is indeed one of the best depictions I know of sexual psychology.
I may have been a pioneer in this kind of exploration. Whether or not I wrote it as a personal catharsis is irrelevant. There's a lot of violence in this novel, and a frightening struggle between sexes and races, but I also incorporated tremendous compassion for the anguish these two characters suffer.
The novel shows a white woman's desperate quest for love among those she believes are primitives. She's looking for the kind of admiration that twentieth-century American culture denies her, but she fails to understand that the man she seeks it from is an extremely complex personality, which is why the affair ends so tragically.
Yes. Jesse Robinson can't help gradually coming to hate her. What do you hate most yourself?
Racism and what it has done to me. The paranoid delusion that I've been placed on earth simply to be the victim of humiliation.
Do you read many treatises on psychology, psychoanalysis, or sociology?
I never do that, nor do I suggest psychoanalytical motivations for the crimes committed in my domestic novels. The motives for crime are simple: money, fear, hatred, jealousy—motives I know from personal experience.
Does a life of crime ever appeal to you?
Real crime sickens me. I think criminals deserve to be punished.
Why are there so few female criminals in your novels?
I never really thought about it, but it's probably because I have a different image of women. I know there are real female murderers, but I don't like writing about violent women. There's only one female murderer in my detective novels, and that's Iris in Back to Africa [Cotton Comes to Harlem]. Billie only kills to help the detectives in For Love of Imabelle. There are women who experience violent emotions in my other books, such as Kriss in The Primitive, who'd like to kill Jesse, but none of these characters is what you'd think of as a professional killer.
What do you think of the political use of violence? Have you ever read Franz Fanon?
No, I never read him, but I was told he alluded to some of my work in his book, Black Skin, White Masks. I've often spoken about political violence, but I merely acknowledge that it exists, I don't tell people to go out and do it.
You know what I see out there in the real world? Instead of organizing a well-structured political movement capable of efficient action, the Black Panthers waste their time playing “cops and robbers.” And the American press, which likes nothing more than to titillate its readers with stories about crime, has undercut the Panthers' revolutionary potential. If the black masses ever thought that the Panthers might improve their lives, they know better now. The opportunists of both races are manipulating the Panthers for their own purposes.
Is that what you intended to show in Blind Man with a Pistol?
Yes, the Panthers, and other nationalist movements like the Black Muslims. I started another thriller, called Plan B, which is about a large-scale black rebellion led by a black subversive organization, but I didn't quite finish it. In it, the man who secretly sends weapons to blacks finds his plan wrecked because black people don't have the political maturity needed to band together into an effective force. Instead of waiting for an organization to form, each one of them begins shooting white people for his own personal reasons.
This is because of a lack of solidarity?
Yes, a lack of black solidarity.
When did you work on this novel?
In 1967, when I was living in the South of France and here in Alicante. It grew out of a story called “Tang,” but I became uncomfortable with it after a while, because the story became too exaggerated. I originally envisioned a general conflict between the races, but in the final scene Coffin Ed and Grave Digger, shoot at each other. One of them takes the side of his race brothers, while the other one chooses to uphold law and order, not because he feels any loyalty to whites, but because the political and social implications of the rebellion are too much for him.
Why did you kill them off? Was this a literary consideration, or did it reflect some ideological position?
Well, it shocked me to discover that I'd inadvertently ended the careers of Coffin Ed and Grave Digger, because it amounted to a kind of literary suicide. Maybe this is the reason I couldn't complete the book, although I did write a synopsis for an ending. At the time, I had nearly completed all the books that my original contract with Duhamel called for, and I suppose I wanted to turn my attention to autobiographical writing.
Then I became fascinated by a story Phil Lomax told me about a blind man shooting a pistol in the subway. It sounded so completely absurd, a blind man killing people at random, or perhaps according to a choice governed by his blindness. That story resulted in Blind Man with a Pistol.
In which of your characters do you most see a reflection of yourself?
Personally, I never felt any attraction to violence. Besides, black violence against whites has never been as important as the American press pretends to believe. It was obvious to me that blacks had no chance in an armed confrontation, the odds being one to ten. It's through acting upon white guilt, and by knowing how far to carry their threats, that Negroes might achieve the greatest results.
Do you think there's any difference between the novels published by Gallimard in the Du Monde Entier series, and those published in the Série noire?
Marcel Duhamel asked me to write for the Série noire, but my previous novels had appeared in such prestigious series as Nadeau's Le Chemin de la vie with Corréa, and Feux croisés with Plon. Before that, Gallimard had accepted The Primitive for their Du Monde Entier series, although it is in many respects a crime novel. I liked that very much. In writing for Série noire, I was limited by a formula, but this didn't prevent me from saying whatever I wanted. At the same time, my “mainstream” novels are set in a world that is just as violent and obscene as the world of my domestic thrillers. It's the media, the press, the critics who decide how to categorize you. They're the ones who really define literature.
Have you ever had any trouble with the French media?
On several occasions, articles that dealt with my work or career, and that had already been planned for publication, didn't appear. One example is a Paris-Match interview done in 1958, and another is an article on Harlem that I had written at the request of Pierre Lazareff. It was turned down, but was later published in Présence Africaine. I gave Candide magazine a piece in which I compared racism in Algeria with racism in Alabama. Candide printed it, but French friends warned me about reprisals by the Organisation de l'armee secrete. I was worried for a while, but nothing happened.
You wrote somewhere “Writing had become my raison d'etre, something that couldn't be taken away from me. I had become a writer.” What is, in your opinion, the particular function of writing?
In the penitentiary, the simple fact of being able to write a story, to type it on the typewriter, gave a man a particular status. Other convicts respected you for it.
Writing was also a way to escape, because it meant connecting with the novelists I admired, like Dostoyevsky. I admired him, and found an affinity with what he did in The Brothers Karamazov. I became part of a peer group apart from that of convicts.
Which writers do you admire the most?
Among American writers, Faulkner comes first. Some of his less important novels display a terrific sense of humor. You might remember that The Reivers delighted me when you and John [A. Williams] brought it to me while I was in the hospital in April of 1963. Well, I think Faulkner is the greatest. I admire Hemingway's short stories, too.
You often spoke of Faulkner as the master.
I did. He was, to me, the greatest writer in the world until he died. I read all his early works, and it's the early Faulkner who influenced me most, together with Hammett. Sanctuary, Light in August, Mosquitoes—Faulkner can plumb the depths of a soul better than anyone else.
His portrayal of black people is also masterful. More than anyone else, he managed to define and express the mind of the South, both black or white. He was prone to exaggeration, but his picture of Negroes in the South is lively and acute, in spite of the fact that he's occasionally been accused of racism. My favorite book by Faulkner is Light in August, because it shows the absurdity of racism, and the confusion and suffering it causes.
Which American writers do you like nowadays?
You must realize that any educated black American is aware of different literary traditions than those you found in white schools, at least until recently. My mother had a good education, and she made a point of telling us about the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, which we would recite at school. There were nineteenth-century figures like Frederick Douglass, and later, there was the poetry of Langston Hughes. His autobiography made you want to travel to Europe and Africa, and meet all kinds of people.
These books weren't best-sellers, however, and most of the successful books dealing with black people were written by whites, such as Sinclair Lewis or Margaret Mitchell.
What relationship have you had with black novelists?
I've known most of them over the years, like Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and I've long been the friend of John A. Williams. His novels—The Man Who Cried I Am and Sissie especially—are excellent. His work is unknown in Europe, and much neglected in the United States. But those writers weren't my influences, they're my friends.
Yet you're sometimes impatient with them in your autobiography, and when you depict Wright in A Case of Rape.
That book is pure fiction. I didn't use Dick Wright or William Gardner Smith as characters, although I had them in mind when I created my characters. I know Dick believed he was Roger Garrison. He believed he was the only black American writer in the world, and that everyone was against him. It wasn't true.
I wrote A Case of Rape in order to show the prejudice and humiliation American blacks endured in France during the Algerian War, not to expose any antagonism that may have existed between black American writers and artists in France. I loved Dick more than you can imagine.
What about Richard Wright as a best seller?
Native Son rocked the nation like a bomb, like the great revolutionary novel it was. But Uncle Tom's Children had already given a remarkable picture of the living conditions of Negroes in the South.
You were a great admirer of Wright. Do you think you belong to the “Wright school” as has sometimes been claimed?
When you write about the same time as a great writer, and explore similar topics, critics tend to dump you into that same category. There was no school, no circle, but rather a friendly association. I greatly admire the writer in Wright. I didn't always agree with him, but he opened the way for us. He wrote in a strikingly original way.
In The Man Who Cried I Am, John A. Williams has written very accurately, I think, about the Wright who lived in Paris, grappling with complex problems and unethical people. I sometimes wonder why that novel has never been translated into French. I know very few contemporary American novelists, but I think Ishmael Reed is among the best that I have read.
Did you associate with black writers other than Wright in France?
There was a young man who wanted to make films, and who became a writer for that reason—Melvin Van Peebles. He adapted the text for the cartoon series Wolinski created from For Love of Imabelle in Hara-Kiri magazine. Van Peebles made good money from that. Since then, he's enjoyed considerable success with Sweet Sweet-back's Baaadasss Song and Don't Play Us Cheap.
Which novelists have made a strong or lasting impression on you?
Among those I'd mention detective story writers—but they are far more than that—such as Dashiell Hammett and Chandler. Also Dostoyevsky, Maupassant, Flaubert. I also think of Zola's Germinal and The Soil. I've known French writers like Jean Cocteau, Jean Genet, Jean Giono, and the British writer, Robert Graves, who was my neighbor in Mallorca, but those were superficial acquaintanceships, rather than literary influences.
Now, Flaubert explores the French society of his century better than anyone else, including Balzac. He's fascinated by politics and violence, which may explain why I am attracted, not by his style alone, but by the attitudes he expresses.
Are you violent, or sensitive?
You can't have one without the other. The more sensitive you are, the more easily wounded you can be, and the more likely you are to burst into violence.
Have you got a strong sense of humor?
I'm not the one to answer that question. I think my readers have found a lot of humor in my detective novels, in my depiction of Harlem, and even in some of the dramatic scenes of The Primitive.
You need to make a distinction between caricature and humor. I don't think I'm a caricaturist. I provide the details of a scene or a character, and never exaggerate without a good reason for it. By rendering all the details of a scene, you can create a more balanced picture. Through exaggeration, you can sometimes reveal a reality not otherwise apparent, but you must use caution.
You've sometimes been called a “surrealist” writer. Do you think that's accurate?
I didn't become acquainted with that term until the fifties, and French friends had to explain it. I have no literary relationship with what is called the surrealist school. It just so happens that in the lives of black people, there are so many absurd situations, made that way by racism, that black life could sometimes be described as surrealistic. The best expression of surrealism by black people, themselves, is probably achieved by blues musicians.
What do you think of spirituals?
Blues, spirituals, jazz, is the music of my people, my people's greatest cultural contribution to civilization.
Are you still very fond of the blues?
At my age, music is one of the few pleasures left, as long as you retain some hearing. When I was a teenager, I was fond of black musical comedies in the theatres of Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio. I remember hearing Ethel Waters sing in Running Wild. I remember singers whose voices were so sensuous, they were even more erotic than the naked bodies of dancers. I never cared much for classical music, but jazz is something else.
Could you mention the names of a few musicians you like?
Plenty of them. But some are no longer known today, like Budd Jenkins, whereas others have become legends, such as Louis Armstrong. Budd Jenkins is the one who made me love the trumpet. Also Buck Clayton and Cootie Williams. Duke Ellington even wrote a splendid “Concerto for Cootie.” Among sax players, Lester Young remains my favorite, even though I love Miles Davis, Roland Kirk, and the unforgettable Coltrane.
The musicians I've known personally always seemed to me to be exceptional characters, not in the sense of being gods, but ordinary men who had a talent that raised them up and doomed them at the same time. Most of them were ruined by drinking and drug addiction. Budd Powell was the heaviest drinker I've ever known. He was usually drunk when he played. He had to be in order to play the way he did.
What musicians' records have you bought recently?
No really recent ones. There's Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, and Pharaoh Sanders.
What about jazz singers?
There was Bessie Smith, the great Bessie. And Lady Day was a queen. Stubborn as a mule, completely indomitable, but with a lot of class. She was beautiful.
Have you ever been tempted by show business?
I loved it when I was a teenager, but writing got hold of me while I was in the penitentiary. It captivated me from the day I read Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, which was serialized in Black Mask magazine. He had an extraordinary gift for telling stories, while describing at the same time his milieu, and the corruption of American society.
What about your own autobiography? Do you see it as the message of a witness to our times?
The acclaim of The Quality of Hurt was one of the marks of my success with the American audience. When I went back to New York City in 1972, they gave receptions for me, and I was asked to speak on the radio and television with other writers. Since then, I've gone back to the West Coast, to the home of my friend Ishmael Reed. But I have sometimes lost contact with a lot of what is happening in the U.S. Not so much with political developments, but with everyday things that are always changing.
Which black autobiographies moved you the most?
Black Boy and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. You know, Malcolm had read one of my novels as a young man. And I found Maya Angelou's autobiography [I Know Why the Caged Birds Sings] very moving. She's full of life and talent, and has a lively sense of language.
How do you feel about Regrets sans repentir, the condensed version of your memoirs in French translation?
I trust Yves [Malartic's] choice. He retained what was important to French readers. Of course, the French title doesn't correspond to the titles of the two American volumes. I originally conceived of my autobiography as a sort of chronicle, not as a work of art. I wanted to bear witness to my era, and about the way I looked at it.
The Quality of Hurt and My Life of Absurdity are very pessimistic titles, aren't they? Do you still feel the same way about your past?
I've known some hard times in my life. I worked at all kinds of jobs, spent a long time in jail, lived in many places. I've suffered, and my life has often been absurd. But I've also known joy and love, and, at last, I've begun to enjoy some celebrity. I have the satisfaction of having done what I wanted to do without compromise, although I often paid a high price for it. Now I am old and sick. I can see things in a different light, and the little things have really become unimportant.
This is the English version of interviews Fabre made in the 1970s and published in French as a montage, “Chester Himes en direct …” in Hard-Boiled Dicks, Nos. 8-9 (December 1983), pp. 5-21. It included “Chester Himes: ‘J'écris, c'est ma couleur.’” (Les Nouvelles Littéraires, December 7, 1978, p. 8); material supplied to Michel Grisolia for his “Chester Himes: de la souffrance à l'absurdité” (L'Express, September 24, 1983, pp. 47-51); also interview material supplied to Jean-Paul Kaufmann for his “Chester Himes: la tentation de la violence” (Le Matin, October 27, 1993, pp. 26-27) and his “Chester Himes: Un nègre au paradis” (Le Matin, November 14, 1984). Copyright Michel Fabre. Printed with his permission.
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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.
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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 gradual development of his archetypal black detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, he would devise an entirely new crime fiction genre—or antigenre—that places the black experience in America in a new ideological context.
When Jesse in The Primitive observes, “Good thing I read detective stories; wouldn't know what to do otherwise” (160), he offers an uncanny prophecy of the fictive mode that Himes would embark upon for Marcel Duhamel's famous “La Série noire.” Himes himself had read crime and detective fiction since his days as a young convict. In the early 1930s he had published his crime stories in Esquire and Abbott's Monthly. And he had subscribed to Black Mask, the foremost detective pulp of the era.1 Thus when Duhamel suggested to Himes that he read Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, whose early work had appeared in Black Mask, Himes knew what the editor meant. By 18 January 1957, Himes had completed his first novel in a new genre, titled initially The Five Cornered Square, in French La Reine des pommes (Gallimard, 1958), and finally in English, For Love of Imabelle (Fawcett, 1957). For more than ten years, the expatriate author would have Harlem on his mind, creating a unique cycle around what he laconically termed on the dust jacket of the best-known novel in the series, Cotton Comes to Harlem, his “Harlem domestic stories.”
STARTING FROM HARLEM
Harlem begins where Central Park West becomes Eighth Avenue at 110th Street, the junction known as Frederick Douglass Circle. For years a signpost at this junction was misspelled Frederick Douglas Circle—the dropped second s providing an ironic twist to a visitor's entrance into the “black capital of the world.” Central Harlem, bounded by 110th Street on the south, Third Avenue on the east, the parks along St. Nicholas, Morningside, and Manhattan avenues on the west, and the Harlem River on the north, was a world that Chester Himes would re-create from memory. Out of the “pure homesickness” of the exile, Himes went back to both a real and an archetypal realm of America, happily creating “all the black scenes of my memory and my actual knowledge.”2
How did the real and mythopoetic landscape of Harlem come to dominate the literary imagination of Chester Himes? Returning to New York in 1955 at the age of forty-six to reedit The Primitive for New American Library, Himes had resided at the Hotel Albert in Greenwich Village. He visited often with Van Vechten at his apartment on Central Park West. One night at Van Vechten's, he met the Jamaican writer George Lamming, author of the contemporary classic The Castle of My Skin, and from there they went to the Red Rooster restaurant on Seventh Avenue in Harlem. He reports: “I discovered that I still liked black people and felt exceptionally good among them, warm and happy. I dug the brothers' gallows humor and was turned on by the black chicks. I felt at home and could have stayed there forever, if I didn't have to go out into the white world to earn my living” (My Life of Absurdity, 23). Randomly Himes absorbed the typography of Harlem—its streets and sections, from the bleakest ghetto in the “Valley” to elegant Edgecomb Avenue in Sugar Hill and Strivers Row on 138th and 139th streets, its cultural landmarks like the Hotel Theresa (Harlem's Waldorf Astoria), Blumstein's Department Store, and Small's Paradise; the haunts of its legendary figures like Father Divine and Marcus Garvey. Even the mundane bars, beauty parlors, tenements, police precinct houses, nightclubs, theaters, churches, funeral parlors, offices, and stores seemed to raise a question of identity for Himes. “Inadvertently, it was then I learned so much about the geography of Harlem, the superficiality, the way of life of the sporting classes, its underworld and vice and spoken language, its absurdities, which I was to use later in my series of Harlem domestic stories” (My Life of Absurdity, 25).
In My Life of Absurdity, Himes confessed that he “really didn't know what it was like to be a citizen of Harlem.” He had “never worked there, raised children there, been hungry, sick or poor there.” He then underscores a crucial point: “The Harlem of my books was never meant to be real; I just wanted to take it away from the white man if only in my books” (126). Focusing on Harlem, Himes sensed an ideological shift as he explored a largely black universe, not with any intention of offering a slice of life or conventional artistic verisimilitude but rather with the goal of uncovering the absurdity that he had come to believe was the essence of the black condition. “Realism and absurdity are so similar in the lives of American blacks,” asserts Himes, “one cannot tell the difference” (109).
The Harlem that Himes began to explore in The Five Cornered Square (subsequently For Love of Imabelle), the first of the crime novels that he wrote concurrently with Mamie Mason (Pinktoes), has its recognizable geography, but the author is far more interested in the metaphysical dimensions of his grotesque landscape. Himes declares in My Life of Absurdity, “It was not Mamie Mason but The Five Cornered Square that was the logical follow-up to The End of the Primitive” (111). The strange, violent, unreal world of For Love of Imabelle is the arena or perhaps corollary for equally grotesque inhabitants of this locale. From the onset of his crime fiction, Harlem is a world where pandemonium reigns, whether at the Savoy Ballroom (which would be closed in 1958 and subsequently torn down to accommodate an urban renewal project), inside a precinct house, on the street, or in a sleazy bar. It is a world of distortions, dissolution, and chaos: “Looking eastward from the towers of Riverside Church, perched among the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, in a valley far below, waves of gray rooftops distort the perspective like the surface of the sea. Below the surface, in the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living, like the voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts, stick in a hand and draw back a nub.”3 This is not so much a faithful rendering of scene as an expressionistic reconstruction of reality designed to uncover the bizarre and macabre mechanism of an inner city.
A similar cannibalism pervades the settings of Baby Sister, a film scenario that Himes wrote in 1961 “while living in a one-room penthouse atop a five-floor walk up overlooking the Ramparts in the ‘old town’ of Antibes.”4 Termed by Himes a “black Greek tragedy” but in actuality a contrived, maudlin, and melodramatic tale of an archetypal teenager, Baby Sister, the stereotypical symbol of black female sexuality, and her ability to create sexual chaos among her black and white suitors, the scenario is set in a primordial urban jungle: “This is Harlem, U.S.A., a city of contradictions. A city of Negroes isolated in the center of New York City. A city of incredible poverty and huge sums of cash. A city of the meek and the violent. A city of brothels, bars, and churches. Here is the part called Sugar Hill, where the prosperous live—the leaders, the professionals, the numbers barons. Here is the part called the Valley, where the hungry eke out an existence and prey upon one another. The Valley is like a sea filled with cannibal fish” (Black on Black, 7). Baby Sister is a “juicy, tasty lamb in a jungle of hungry wolves,” fit prey to be devoured.
The strict demarcations of this infernal Harlem landscape are apprehended by the white detective Brock in Run Man Run (1966), originally published as Dare-Dare by Gallimard in 1959, and a grim, superlatively conceived crime novel that is unique in that it does not feature Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones:
As Brock drove slowly in the stream of northbound traffic he had a fleeting image of the city in the stomach of a cloud. It was a clean and peaceful and orderly city being slowly consumed.
But when he came into Harlem at 110th Street and turned west on 113th Street the image suddenly changed, and now it was the image of a city already consumed with only bits of brick and mortar left to remind one that there ever had been a city.
(Black on Black, 11)
Here the cannibalism inherent in the earlier description from For Love of Imabelle is replicated with the pictorial playfulness of a Chagall canvas, the apocalyptic emptiness of Ensor.
In fact, the sense of apocalypse—whether in fire or ice—is the most dominant impression generated by Himes's Harlem universe. The climate of his nine Harlem crime novels does not admit any relief or moderation in violent extremes of weather. Four novels in the cycle—For Love of Imabelle (1957), The Real Cool Killers (1959), All Shot Up (1960), and Run Man Run (1966)—transpire in frozen urban terrain. In counterpoint, five of the “domestic” novels—The Crazy Kill (1959), The Big Gold Dream (1960), Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965), The Heat's On (1966), and Blind Man with a Pistol (1969)—are set in the sweltering, claustrophobic months of summer, typically July. The physical landscape of Harlem seems infernal. For example, in The Heat's On, one of the most outrageously grotesque novels in the series in which Coffin Ed and Grave Digger search for ＄3 million worth of heroin, there is no escape from the demonic heat: “Even at past two in the morning, The Valley, that flat lowland of Harlem east of Seventh Avenue, was like the frying pan of hell. Heat was coming out of the pavement, bubbling from the asphalt, and the atmospheric pressure was pushing it back to earth like the lid on a pan.”5 In Himes's Harlem, the weather is an expressive vehicle that heightens the hellish pandemonium typifying a nihilistic world.
Climate in Himes's Harlem novels merely confirms the chaotic disruptions in the inhabitants' lives. Landscape and climate mirror and flatten an alienating culture. Describing in Cotton Comes to Harlem a grim area on Eighth Avenue near 112th Street, Himes writes:
This was the neighborhood of the cheap addicts, whiskey heads, stumblebums, the flotsam of Harlem, the end of the line for the whores, the hard squeeze for the poor honest laborers and a breeding ground for crime. Bland-eyed whores stood on the street corners swapping obscenities with twitching junkies. Muggers and thieves slouched in dark doorways waiting for someone to rob; but there wasn't anyone but each other. Children ran down the street, the dirty street littered with rotting vegetables, uncollected garbage, battered garbage cans, broken glass, dog offal—always running, ducking and dodging. God help them if they got caught. Listless mothers stood in dark entrances of tenements and swapped talk about their men, their jobs, their poverty, their hunger, their debts, their Gods, their religions, their preachers, their children, their aches and pains, their bad luck with the numbers and the evilness of white people. Workingmen staggered down the sidewalks filled with aimless resentment, muttering curses, hating to go to their hotbox hovels but having nowhere else to go.6
Himes's two detectives would pave over this Hogarthian scene and turn white people—the perpetrators of a repressive bourgeois culture—to hogs for having produced it. This is the landscape of nightmare, of hell, far removed from Edgecombe Avenue, not to mention white Manhattan, that Coffin Ed and Grave Digger must mediate their way through and attempt to subdue. It is a demonic world, a dark ghetto confirming Kenneth Clark's astute observation: “the ghetto is ferment, paradox, conflict, and dilemma.”7 More like bedraggled wild men than rational detectives, enraged exiles within their own community, Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson seek meaning in a strictly absurd and ludicrously disruptive community.
GENRE AND ANTIGENRE
That Himes breaks new ground by setting his detective fiction in Harlem makes it impossible to read his work in this genre without apprehending that he transforms conventional reader expectations. He asserts in My Life of Absurdity that when he began writing the first of his crime novels, For Love of Imabelle, he felt “that this wasn't a detective story,” that he “didn't know how to write a detective story” (111). Indeed the famous Harlem detective team of Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones does not appear until the eighth chapter of the novel, and then only after Himes's editor, Marcel Duhamel, had told him, after perusing the first eighty pages of the manuscript, that Himes could not write a policier novel without police. Nevertheless, Himes realized that he was breaking new ground in a world of crime fiction that previously “had been the strict domain of whitey” (120). Himes was thus somewhat disingenuous when he told John Williams that with his crime fiction he was “just imitating all the other American detective story writers,” that he simply took the “straightforward violence” of the genre and its plain narrative form and “made the faces black.”8 In essence, Himes took the critique of culture inherent in the tough-guy or hard-boiled detective fiction of Chandler, Hammett, and other writers of the 1930s and 1940s and transformed the genre into an absurdist parody of the search for order and values in a capitalist and racist world.
In this connection, we must acknowledge that classic hard-boiled American detective fiction emerged from the turbulence of the Great Depression. Similarly Himes began his detective series at a point in American history when the absurdities of racism and oppression would give rise to the civil rights movement, black nationalism, and the urban riots of the 1960s. Himes's two detectives descend from the hard-boiled tradition of the 1930s popularized first by Hammett's Sam Spade, a cynical, unsentimental detective swimming in a sea of urban crime. In The Maltese Falcon, Spade becomes a prototype for many later outsiders who attempt to reestablish justice in a chaotic cultural period, notably Chandler's Philip Marlowe, Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, and Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer. Himes, however, refined and heightened certain contradictions inherent in the genre. As Edward Margolies asserts, “The hardboiled genre is a peculiar mix, celebrating American individualism while at the same time denigrating the corruption of American society.”9 More than his predecessors, Himes uses his two detectives not so much to solve crimes and preserve order as to test the impossibility of sustaining meaning in a sociocultural world that is inherently irrational and absurd. Thus Himes's detective fiction appears in a new critical light as a comic antigenre in which the “crime” derives from a capitalist world fragmented by racism and economic exploitation. In the end, Grave Digger and Coffin Ed, antiheroic cultural agents, are damaged and deracinated by this systemic absurdity.
Absurdity is central to Himes's crime fiction precisely because the citizens of Harlem, including Coffin Ed and Grave Digger, have a contradictory relationship to white power structures. Bruce Franklin shrewdly places the logical absurdities of the antiheroes' dilemma in broad cultural perspective: “Himes's Black killer-detectives protect the people of Harlem by enforcing upon them the law and order of white capitalist America, doing this with a brutal and often literally blind violence their white colleagues can no longer employ with impunity, often committing more crimes than they solve. They embody what they represent, the ultimate stage of social disorder masquerading as order.”10 Crimes committed in Harlem therefore are not exclusively temporal but mythic. For Himes, only a radical social vision combined with grotesque artistic technique could illuminate the problematics of ideology in a world governed by capital.
The sense of evil pervading Himes's Harlem universe arises typically from the pursuit of money—that archetypal incarnation of capitalist values. The clear absence of honest capital in Harlem activates the absurd pursuit of money in any form by Himes's dedicated villains, who would simply imitate their more sedate white counterparts in the pursuit. Clearly the dividing line in this Harlem universe is between the select and corrupt haves and the disenfranchised mass of have-nots. Ideological conflict, expressed in the absurdist action writing Himes perfected, occurs across this line or chasm separating the poor, a sprawling lumpenproletariat, and the amoral criminal rich, who attain their financial advantage or power through a series of ruses, thefts, con games, and deceptions.
This frantic pursuit of money so central to bourgeois ethics can be traced in many of Himes's detective plots. In For Love of Imabelle, several preposterous scams—including the classic raising of money by turning ten-dollar into hundred-dollar bills, and the selling of fraudulent gold stock, as well as the search for a trunk of gold (which turns out to be fool's gold)—animate the action. In The Heat's On, pursuit by contesting criminals and various law enforcement agents of a lost heroin shipment worth ＄3 million results in outrageous, grotesque parody of the spirit of capitalism. Similarly, a bale of cotton containing ＄87,000 misappropriated from Harlem residents by Reverend Deke O'Malley in a phony back-to-Africa scheme triggers the conflict in Cotton Comes to Harlem. In The Big Gold Dream, the very title suggests the omnipotence of money—in this case, a maid's substantial numbers winnings and the criminal pursuit of it—that dictates the savage action. In All Shot Up, eight lives are extinguished for ＄50,000 in political payoff money. Within a culture ruled by such materialist pursuits, the ludicrous spirit of capitalism manifests itself in the frenetic, violent, criminal pursuit of money.
If mock capitalist intrigue is the source of the essential conflict between good and evil in Himes's Harlem crime fiction, the author seems more intent on exploring the absurdist implications of this phenomenon than in lodging a protest about it in the spirit of Richard Wright. “I wasn't showing the Negro as an oppressed, downtrodden people,” he states in My Life of Absurdity, “but simply as an absurdity” (173). Creating almost implausibly grotesque action in an equally absurd world, Himes turned time and again to a rereading of Faulkner—specifically Sanctuary and Light in August—to sustain the harrowing comedy of his crime fiction. “I could lift scenes straight out of Faulkner and put them down in Harlem and all I had to change was the scene” (169). Faulkner, Himes's “secret mentor,” suggests the extent to which Himes was shifting the boundaries of the world of detective fiction, bringing into focus through a range of comic devices a world in which evil and anarchy can scarcely be restrained.
Traditional crime fiction posits an essential chaos at the root of culture and then, if only cynically, reasserts forms of poetic justice; Himes focuses persistently on the divorce, as Camus would have it in The Myth of Sisyphus, between any unifying principle of justice and the irrational and meaningless nature of existence. Even when Grave Digger and Coffin Ed succeed in rescuing culture temporarily from chaos, they still see the world and themselves as fantastical and absurd. As black detectives upholding justice in Harlem, they apprehend that they are parodies of their white counterparts and are exceedingly self-conscious about their ambiguous roles. So consumed by violence and existential restlessness, they rarely retreat to their families and homes in Queens; indeed they rarely sleep. They are the yin and yang of violent retribution, oversized twins of mayhem who slap, beat, and shoot their way through Harlem, continually engaged in an archetypal chase.
Himes in The Real Cool Killers, a tightly plotted thriller, the second in the series, in which Coffin Ed and Grave Digger have to discover who killed a sadistic white man, Galen, who frequented Harlem bars in search of teenage girls, describes his two detectives in terms that would become ready-made for subsequent novels: “The two tall, lanky, loose-jointed detectives hit the pavement in unison, their nickel-plated.38 specials gripped in their hands. They looked like big-shouldered plowhands in Sunday suits at a Saturday night jamboree.”11 They are distinguished from each other only by Coffin Ed's horribly disfigured face, the result of an acid attack by hoodlums in For Love of Imabelle. Deriving partially from two middle-aged detectives in a story, “He Knew,” that Himes had published in 1933 in Abbott's Monthly Magazine, they are most fully described in All Shot Up:12
Coffin Ed's hair was peppered with gray. He had a crescent-shaped scar on the right-side top of his skull, where Grave Digger had hit him with his pistol barrel, the time he had gone berserk after being blinded by acid thrown in his face. That had been more than three years ago, and the acid scars had been covered by skin grafted from his thigh. But the new skin was a shade or so lighter than his natural face skin and it had been grafted on in pieces. The result was that Coffin Ed's face looked as though it had been made up in Hollywood for the role of the Frankenstein monster. Grave Digger's rough, lumpy face could have belonged to any number of hard, Harlem characters.13
Operating out of the 116th Street precinct under the apprehensive but understanding eye of their white superior, Lieutenant Anderson, these two detectives, whose very names symbolize death, are the apostles and explicators of the absurd inner world of Harlem violence.
Unlike most of their detective predecessors, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger are legendary figures in their community. They instill respect and a certain amount of terror in the populace. In For Love of Imabelle, Himes writes in his typically laconic style that “folks in Harlem believed that Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson would shoot a man stone dead for not standing in a straight line” (52). Local humor also permeates another legend in All Shot Up: “The story was in Harlem that these two black detectives would kill a dead man in his coffin if he so much as moved” (30). They are defined existentially by their paradoxical roles. Grave Digger, somewhat more philosophical than his companion, relishes the thought that a killing in Harlem, as he expresses it in The Real Cool Killers, is “the greatest show on earth” (151). Yet in the same novel, Grave Digger senses their limitations: “This is Harlem. Nobody knows all the connections here” (44). Both detectives push at the limits of meaning, experiencing the exhilaration and terror of the absurd. Antiheroes centered in Himes's antigenre, they are fantastical, Herculean figures, native sons struggling with sensational and peculiarly indigenous forms of American violence in an effort to protect their culture from chaos.
GALLERY OF GROTESQUES
Seen through the distorting lens of the absurd, the characters in Himes's detective novels often seem like comic monsters at a masked ball. Julian Symons, in his historical study of crime fiction, states, “The humans among whom the detectives move are credulous, lecherous, treacherous, greedy and savage.”14 In Himes's fiction, they are monstrously grotesque in their outlines, tending toward caricature—metaphorical extensions of a desolate and depleted human landscape.
Himes had a rare talent for populating his demonic world with grotesques. These deformed figures, who constitute a gallery of absurd humanity, help to explain Himes's radical social vision, for their exaggerated deformities are emblems of the absence of orderly arrangement in the culture they inhabit and prey upon. Himes began to populate his world with grotesques in his first Harlem crime novel, For Love of Imabelle. The protagonist, a young man named Jackson, steals money from his employer, the celebrated Harlem undertaker H. Exodus Clay, who appears in several of the Harlem novels. Jackson also is in love with Imabelle, who has stolen a trunk of fool's gold from her husband, a con artist who is a member of a vicious three-man gang that has been selling false gold stock to black people across America.
Jackson has a twin brother, Goldy, who impersonates a nun named “Sister Gabriel” and lives with two other female impersonators, Big Kathy and Lady Gypsy, the triumvirate known collectively as “The Three Black Widows.” (Tricks and disguises, linked to the criminals' attempting to outwit criminals, is a common motif in the Harlem novels.) When Goldy involves himself in the search for the gold, a member of the gang cuts his throat and stuffs him in Clay's 1947 Cadillac hearse. Crammed in the hearse with other paraphernalia, Goldy projects an end that is grim, grotesque, and wild:
Underneath the trunk black cloth was piled high. Artificial flowers were scattered about in garish disarray. A horseshoe wreath of artificial lilies had slipped to the back. Looking out from the arch of white lilies was a blackface. The face was looking backward from a head-down position, resting on the back of the skull. A white bonnet sat atop a grey wig which had fallen askew. The face was a horrible grimace of pure evil. White-walled eyes stared at the four gray men with a fixed, unblinking stare. Beneath the face was the huge purple-lipped wound of a cut throat.
Pandemonium erupts as Jackson drives the runaway hearse through the stalls of the Harlem market, with both his brother's corpse and the trunk of ore toppling out. Following another round of grotesque violence in which two members of the gang are killed, order is restored, with Jackson getting both his old job back and his girl, Imabelle. Grave Digger and Coffin Ed, somewhat peripheral figures, seem almost overwhelmed by the terrifying absurdity of the situation, and indeed Grave Digger, disoriented by the acid attack on his partner, is left “riding the crest of a rage” (189) as he attempts to square justice with a persistently chaotic and paradoxical situation.
Himes's predilection for grotesque caricature continues at the outside of his second crime novel, The Crazy Kill. Originally entitled A Jealous Man Can't Win and in French Couché dans le pain, Himes began the novel in January 1957 after rereading Faulkner's Sanctuary; he finished it 1 May. He based the novel on a café tale told by his friend the cartoonist Ollie Harrington “about a man falling out of a window in Harlem in the early hours of morning during a wake, and landing unhurt in a basket of bread. … It was a simple domestic story which involved a couple of killings and my two detectives, Grave Digger and Coffin Ed” (My Life of Absurdity, 120).
Himes begins with multiple plot threads and grotesque mystification as the Reverend Short, presiding over the wake of a famous Harlem gambler, Big Joe Pullen, leans too far out of the third floor window while observing a man stealing a bag of money from the automobile of an A& P manager and plummets into a loaf of bread. The Reverend, a “short squat midget” with a fondness for drug-laced alcohol, falls in cinematic slow motion: “Slowly his hips leaned out. His buttocks rose into the light like a slow-rolling wave, then dropped below the window ledge as his legs and feet slowly rose into the air. For a long moment the silhouette of two feet sitting upside down on top of two legs was suspended in the yellow-lighted rectangle. Then it sank slowly from view, like a body going head-down into water.”15 Reverend Short's fortunate fall or benign immersion in bread invites a comic contradiction that rapidly turns sinister, for shortly after he picks himself up from the “mattress of soft bread” and returns to the wake, another body, that of Valentine Haines, is found stabbed to death on the same soft, mortal bed.
As it turns out, the famous gambler whom Haines worked for, Johnny Perry, is as responsible for solving the crime as are Grave Digger and Coffin Ed—another involuted technique that Himes employs in his experimental detective fiction. In fact, Grave Digger serves as a worldly philosopher framing Johnny's own efforts at detection. At one point, Grave Digger observes, “This is Harlem. … Ain't no other place like it in the world. You've got to start from scratch here, because these folks in Harlem do things for reasons nobody else in the world would think of” (56). Starting from scratch, Johnny undertakes “to straighten out some of these mysteries” (134). His inquiries parallel those of the two detectives. Ultimately it is the deranged grotesque, Reverend Short, a holy roller whose nearsighted eyes are described as “bulging like bananas being squeezed from thinskins” (78), who is uncovered as the murderer, largely out of perverse passion for Dulcey, Johnny's mildly licentious, highly manipulative wife.
Johnny himself is smart, tough, dignified, even generous as he throws change to the kids of Harlem, but he too is lethal. Himes's description of the gambler also shows the destructive element implicit in the grotesque: “In the center of his forehead was a puffed, bluish scar with ridges pronging off like immobilized octopus tentacles. It gave him an expression of perpetual rage, which was accentuated by the smoldering fire that lay always just beneath the surface of his muddy brown eyes, ready to flame into a blaze” (29). While Coffin Ed and Grave Digger ultimately arrest Reverend Short, Johnny must kill Chink Charley, who had been trying to blackmail Dulcey for ＄10,000. It is implied that his lawyer will extricate him from any criminal charge. Johnny, his humane impulses thwarted by jealousy for Dulcey, nevertheless mediates his way, as do Grave Digger and Coffin Ed, through a grotesque universe where the craziest of kills never conform to normal distinctions and expectations.
By the time he started his third crime novel, The Real Cool Killers, whose original title was If Trouble Was Money and in French Il pleu des coups durs, Himes had perfected a grotesque descriptive technique that ranged broadly from the playful to the most sinister and terrifying and embraced both central and peripheral characters. Often even the peripheral grotesques are central to the action in ways that are only slowly apprehended by both the reader and Himes's two detectives. Thus, at the outset of The Real Cool Killers, a small, aging black man at Harlem's Dew Drop Inn accosts a white soda salesman, Ulysses Galen, with a knife, forcing the bartender to lop off the black man's arm with an axe: “The severed arm in its coat sleeve, still clutching the knife, sailed through the air, sprinkling the nearby spectators with drops of blood, landed on the linoleum floor, and skidded beneath the table of a booth” (8). The elderly assailant, who has accused the white man of “diddling my little girls,” searches frantically for his severed arm in order to continue the fight, before fainting from loss of blood. The white man, in turn, upon leaving the bar is chased down 127th Street in a Keystone Cops scene involving dozens of Harlem's citizenry, a “grotesque silhouette” who ultimately is killed. The little black man was onto a “crime” perpetrated by Galen—the procurement of young women for sadistic sexual purposes—which Coffin Ed and Grave Digger will learn about only slowly. As for Galen, his true murderer remains undetected almost until the end of this bizarre narrative.
Contributing to the ominous and fantastic world of this novel is the presence of a teenage gang, the Real Cool Moslems. Himes was almost prescient in sensing, in the late 1950s, the emergence of the Black Muslim movement as a force in Harlem life and typically cynical in his treatment of this phenomenon. Early in the novel, the eight “real cool” Moslems taunt Coffin Ed and Grave Digger, with lethal results:
“Praise Allah,” the tallest of the Arabs said.
As though performing a ritual, the others said, “Mecca,” and all bowed low with outstretched arms.
“Cut the comedy and straighten up,” Grave Digger said. “We're holding you as witnesses.”
“Who's got the prayer?” the leader asked with bowed head.
“I've got the prayer,” another replied.
“Pray to the great monster,” the leader commanded.
The one who had the prayer turned slowly and presented his white-robed backside to Coffin Ed. A sound like a hound dog baying issued from his rear end.
Compounding this flatulent insult, another Arab attempts to sprinkle sacred scented holy water on Coffin Ed, who, mistaking it for acid, shoots him dead. Within the early chapters of The Real Cool Killers, a gallery of grotesques bent on careless but murderous “fun” creates a world that breaks apart for the two detectives. Coffin Ed is suspended, and Grave Digger, like “a dangerous animal escaped from the zoo” (66), rages through Harlem, “solving” the crime and even discovering that Ed's daughter, Sugartit, had been involved with the Moslems and almost with Galen. Gravedigger figures correctly that Sissie, another gang member, had killed Galen in order to protect Sugartit, and although the power structure decides to bury this information, Grave Digger and Coffin Ed have gone mildly berserk, killing off Moslems in order to rescue Ed's daughter. Despite an anticlimactic resolution restoring order, the dominant impression in the novel is one of mounting emotional and mental disorientation, a “macabre pantomime” (35) involving dangerous rogues bent on driving Coffin Ed and Grave Digger deeper into hell.
Adding to this dissolution into a grotesque state of being is Himes's penchant for splitting the action and scenes within a simultaneous time frame so that sequences of the conflict parallel and confound each other. For example, in chapter 9, Digger visits a whorehouse seeking information, while in chapters 8 and 10 the police are checking an apartment inhabited by the Moslems. A standard narrative technique in Himes's crime fiction, this tracking of the conflict tends to heighten Digger and Coffin Ed's disorientation by leaving them partially in the dark and continually subject to the vagaries of grotesque existence.
The crimes committed by Himes's early rogues and villains render them grotesque and also force Coffin Ed and Grave Digger to contend with their absurdly violent behavior. Such comic villains, however, do not inspire the sort of dread that hovers over Himes's fourth crime novel, Run Man Run (1966), originally published by Gallimard in 1959 as Dare-Dare. The harrowing power of darkness in this novel comes not from black criminals operating beyond the fringes of the law but rather from a white murderer—a police detective—operating within the establishment. Matt Walker is the archetypal white murderer run amok, and Himes's perspective on him and his main quarry, an educated black man named Jimmy who has witnessed Walker's senseless murder of two fellow porters at a midtown automat, is unique. (Himes had worked temporarily at a Horn and Hardart automat restaurant in New York in 1955 in order to earn money for passage back to Paris.)
Himes uses the mazes and passages under midrown Manhattan as a counterpoint to Walker's monomaniacal search for Jimmy Johnson, first at the scene of the crime and then through Harlem. Walker is the emblem of grotesque evil, forcing awareness of a racist culture on Jimmy. He is sadistic and amoral, operating in a “maniacal trance,” killing black people dispassionately. Himes reveals Walker's absurd destructiveness in the shooting of a porter, Fat Sam: “He fell forward, pulling the tray from the rack along with him. Thick, cold, three-day old turkey gravy poured over his kinky head as he landed, curled up like a fetus, between a five-gallon can of whipping cream and the wooden crate of iceberg lettuce” (17). Walker is both mad and nihilistic. The anarchic blindness of his violent behavior cannot be checked by a suitably armed Johnson but only by his brother-in-law, a cop named Brock, who shoots Walker dead at the end of the novel. Walker is not, however, seriocomic. He is pure demonism, pure dread, turning the world grotesque for Jimmy.
With The Big Gold Dream, Himes retreats from his savage critique of white power structures to a more characteristic satire on the religious dimension of Harlem life. Here, Himes's gallery of grotesques typically includes preachers, fanatics, and born-again converts who prey on each other and the community. In The Big Gold Dream, the grotesque Sweet Prophet Brown ministers to the “black, brown and yellow people” of Harlem. He is a fantastic con artist, a “fabulous” man who can mesmerize thousands. At his revival meetings on Harlem's streets, he exchanges sacred bread crumbs for one-to twenty-dollar donations from each convert. Himes describes Sweet Prophet in bizarre terms: “His tremendous bulk was impressive in a bright purple robe lined with yellow silk and trimmed with mink. Beneath it he wore a black taffeta suit with white piping and silver buttons. His fingernails, untrimmed since he first claimed to have spoken with God, were more than three inches in length. They curled like strange talons, and were painted different colors. On each finger he wore a diamond ring. His smooth black face with its buck teeth and popping eyes was ageless; but his long grizzly hair, on which he wore a black silk cap, was snow-white.”16 The Prophet, who believes that “faith is a big gold dream,” is like “a carnival on the loose” (86). His obsession with money—“It takes a lot of money to be a prophet these days. It's the high cost of living” (204)—is an index to the similar fixations of his congregation, as well as the strictly secular representatives of the Harlem community, who will kill for their own big gold dream. Moreover, as with Johnny in The Real Cool Killers, the Prophet shrewdly takes the pulse of the Harlem community, figuring out who had stolen numbers winnings from one of his parishioners (and taking the ＄36,000 from her in turn) before Coffin Ed and Digger arrive at a similar discovery.
By 1959, as Himes began All Shot Up, he admitted that he “was having great difficulty keeping [his] detective stories absurd” (My Life of Absurdity, 196). He was now “the most celebrated writer in France who couldn't speak French” (199), and also the most famous “Série noire” writer. With the Algerian War at its greatest intensity and serving perhaps as a subliminal impulse, Himes in All Shot Up turned to the political arena to fashion another mayhem novel in which absurdly violent action claims eight lives. Here Himes's obsession with sex, violence, and political depravity can scarcely be contained within a complex comic structure. His primary world is now unredeemably evil and apocalyptic in its grotesque outlines, more profoundly sinister than in his earlier crime fiction.
One of the early victims is a transvestite pimp named Black Beauty, who is hit so violently by thieves driving a gold Cadillac that he is hurled through the air and crucified against a wall of a convent: “They discovered an iron bar protruding from the wall at a point about six feet high. Below and above it there were deep cracks in the cement; and, at one point above, the crack had been dug out to form a long, oblong hole. The face of the corpse had been thrust into this hole with sufficient force to clamp it, and the end of the bar was caught between the legs, holding it aloft” (41). However comical this tableau might be, the comedy is overwhelmed by a sense of violent transgression. In fact, as Coffin Ed and Digger begin to investigate the merging worlds of homosexual and political manipulation (Himes's homophobia and essentially negative political anarchism fuel his vision), they find the early deaths that animate All Shot Up a special order of viciousness.
Within the sexual and political superstructure of evil dominating All Shot Up, most forms of violence are bizarre. In one tour de force of grotesque mayhem, the thief, who is attempting to escape from Digger and Coffin Ed, is decapitated by sheets of steel protruding from a truck:
The three thin sheets of stainless steel, six feet in width, with red flags flying from both corners, formed a blade less than a quarter of an inch thick. This blade caught the rider above his woolen-lined jacket, on the exposed part of his neck, which was stretched and taut from his physical exertion, as the motorcycle went underneath. He was hitting more than fifty-five miles an hour, and the blade severed his head from his body as though he had been guillotined.
The truck driver glanced from his window to watch the passing truck as he kept braking to a stop. But instead he saw a man without a head passing on a motorcycle with a sidecar and a stream of steaming red blood flowing back in the wind.
He gasped and passed out.
His lax feet released the pressure from the brake and clutch, and the truck kept on ahead.
The motorcycle, ridden by a man without a head, surged forward at a rapid clip. …
The truck carrying the sheet metal turned gradually to the right from faulty steering mechanism. It climbed over the shallow curb and started up the wide stone steps of a big fashionable Negro church.
In the lighted box out in front of the church was the announcement of the sermon for the day.
Beware! Death is closer than you think!
The head rolled off the slow-moving truck, dropped to the sidewalk and rolled out into the street. Grave Digger, closing up fast, saw something that looked like a football with a cap on it bouncing on the black asphalt. It was caught in his one bright light, but the top was turned to him when he saw it, and he didn't recognize what it was.
“What did he throw out?” he asked Coffin Ed.
Coffin Ed was staring as though petrified. He gulped. “His head,” he said.
After digressing into an account of the two detectives' problems when a truck hits them from behind, Himes returns to conclude his account of the headless motorcyclist:
Gradually the taut headless body on the motorcycle spewed out its blood and the muscles went limp. The motorcycle began to waver; it went to one side and then the other, crossed 125th Street, just missing a taxi, neatly circled around the big clock atop a post at the corner and crashed into the iron-barred door of the credit jewelry store, knocking down a sign that read:
We Will Give Credit to the Dead.
This passage is an extraordinary evocation of the apocalyptic drama that has been building in Himes's detective fiction. The frantic narrative pace, grotesque description, terse irony, and pungent dialogue are concomitants of the jumbled and disintegrative world that Coffin Ed and Grave Digger hustle through. Such an extravagant style gives rise to the creation of grotesque characters and a grotesque landscape. In this tableau, the disparate elements of comedy and horror brought together at the point of violent death are the penultimate frame for Himes's evolving vision of an absurd, malignant, apocalyptic world.
Perhaps Himes never felt comfortable with the affirmative vision that underpins the successful solution of crimes in detective fiction, for he consciously parodies the genre from the outset and progressively explodes it with apocalyptic delight. Thus the violent deaths in Himes's infernal novel The Heat's On, running to twelve (with additional beatings and maimings), exceeds even the relentless killings in All Shot Up. From the outset of The Heat's On, first published in 1961 by Gallimard as Ne nous enverons pas, Coffin Ed and Digger are in a labyrinth of enigmatic violence. A monstrous, idiotic giant, Pinky, whom Himes's describes as “a milk-white albino with pinkeyes, battered lips, cauliflowered ears and thick, Kinky, cream-colored hair” (7), has put in a false fire alarm at Riverside Church in order to alert detectives not to a fire but to a conflagration of another order—the robbery and murder of his father, Gus, by an African and his step-mother. As the two detectives begin to check out Pinky's story (Gus's body, stuffed in a truck, is not found until the end of the novel), they do so with a bizarre sense of impending apocalypse. Ed observes, “It'd be a hell of a note if somebody was being murdered during all the comedy we're having,” to which Digger replies in laconic hermeneutic code, “That would be the story” (20). The comedy the detectives allude to is the fruitless attempt by squads of police and firefighters to beat and shoot Pinky into submission for having called in the false fire alarm. Yet his alarm is an ironic prefiguration of the catastrophes awaiting people, including Ed and Digger, in the novel.
As is typical of Himes's other crime fiction, the logical-temporal realm of The Heat's On is explosively compressed. The action begins at 1:20 a.m. on a viciously hot Harlem summer night and concludes with Aristotelian intensity the same day. Thus the virtual hecatomb of bloodletting that spills from this constricted time frame seems to feed inversely on the very framework of detective fiction. In a brilliant study of detective fiction, Dennis Porter observes that “it is a genre committed to the act of recovery, moving forward in order to move back. The detective encounters effects without causes, events in jumbled chronological order, significant clues hidden among the insignificant. And his role is to reestablish sequence and causality.”17 Yet the sheer magnitude of the murders in The Heat's On, these multiple crimes against the community, seem to parody the ability of Himes's detectives to restore order through discovery.
As the novel unfolds, the apocalyptic element is scarcely contained. Ed and Grave Digger have to break up a half-dozen fights along Seventh Avenue before getting back to their precinct. Later, at 5:27 a.m. (Himes fixes action at precise times and then shatters this mosaic by creating overlapping temporal frames involving other characters), they stop for gumbo at a nightclub on 125th Street, where “the tight close air was churned to a steaming bedlam” (37). By early morning they are charged with unwarranted brutality in the death of Jake Kubansky, a dwarf who had been arguing with Pinky at the outset of the novel. Jake had been a drug pusher, and Digger had punched him once in the stomach, exploding pouches of narcotics that he had swallowed to avoid detection. Observes Digger of their suspension by the commissioner, “It's all right to kill a few colored people for trying to get their children an education, but don't hurt a mother-raping white punk for selling dope” (68). Himes's allusion to the civil rights movement compounds the ambiguities the two detectives perceive as they try to “make a decent peaceful city for people to live in” (220).
Harlem, however, diverges radically in The Heat's On from any image of a peaceful city. Crime provides the dramatic tension as criminals and police frantically pursue heroin worth ＄3 million that Gus had hidden. Even the law of entropy seems to govern the apocalyptic landscape. For instance, in one remarkable scene, the house of the grotesque Sister Heavenly, an aged but lethal faith healer who is Pinky's aunt, is inadvertently blown up with nitroglycerin by her faithful employee Uncle Heavenly, who has been trying to pick her safe:
Strangely enough, the house disintegrated in only three directions—forward, backward and upward. The front went out across the street, and such items as the bed, tables, chest of drawers and a handpainted enamel chamber pot crashed into the front of the neighbor's house. Sister Heavenly's clothes, some of which dated back to the 1920's were strewn over the street like a weird coverlet of many colors. The back of the house, along with the kitchen stove, refrigerator, table and chairs, Uncle Saint's bunk and lockbox, crockery and kitchen utensils, went over the back fence into the vacant lot. … While the top of the house, attic included, along with the old upright piano, Sister Heavenly's throne and souvenir trunk, sailed straight up into the air, and long after the sound of the blast had died away the piano could be heard playing up there all alone. …
But the floor of the house remained intact. It had been swept clean of every loose scrap, every pin and needle, every particle of dust, but the smooth surface of the wood and linoleum went undamaged.
The world that Himes incarnates in grotesque description and action in this novel moves irrevocably toward extinction. Even the final irony has an apocalyptic resonance, for the cretin, Pinky, admits that he has thrown three eel skins stuffed with the heroin into an incinerator and burned the object of so much pursuit.
Himes modulates the violence in his next novel, Cotton Comes to Harlem, in which he achieves fine formal control in adjusting the apocalyptic element to a vision of social manipulation and disintegration. Published initially by Plon in 1964 as Retour en Afrique and in English by Putnam's in 1965, Cotton Comes to Harlem fixes on the back-to-Africa movement popularized initially by Marcus Garvey and in the 1960s by the black power movement. Himes stated in his interview with John Williams that he wrote Cotton Comes to Harlem in order to expose the absurdity of contemporary back-to-Africa movements. “It probably didn't make sense even then, but it's even less logical now, because the black people of America aren't Africans anymore, and the Africans don't want them.”18 Himes in the novel parodies the millenarian promise of the Reverend Deke O'Malley, a “Communist Christian” preacher who steals ＄87,000 from eighty-seven Harlem families, as well as the homestyled promise of Colonel Robert L. Calhoun's “back-to-the-South” crusade. Caught between perverted white and black dialectics of deception, the people of Harlem find themselves in a demonic rather than a promised land. Cotton Comes to Harlem, which was released as a film in 1970, is notably successful in Himes's detective series because of its satiric portrait of white and black tricksters' preying on people's lost dreams.
The opening sequence once again hurls the reader into a perilously grotesque and contradictory world where pandemonium rules. Deke's barbecue and rally to boost his back-to-Africa movement, which takes in ＄87,000, is in turn held up violently by southern-styled white men who escape in a meat truck; these con artists are pursued in turn by Deke and his bodyguards in a hail of machine-gun bullets. The death of one of Deke's recruiters reveals Himes's genius for bizarre description: “There was a burst from a machine gun. A mixture of teeth, barbecued pork ribs, and human brains flew through the air like macabre birds” (13). The tense stylistic virtuosity of Himes's clashing images and metaphors suggests his maturing ability to evoke a comic volcano as the essence of Harlem life.
In this novel, Grave Digger returns to his Harlem beat after six months of recuperation from his near-fatal shooting by Benny Mason's men in The Heat's On. Both Digger and Coffin Ed continue to resemble, to their superior Lieutenant Anderson, “two hog farmers on a weekend in the Big Town” (18). Anderson, trying to subdue the apocalyptic element in Harlem life, wants the two detectives to reduce their brutality in their handling of the crime. The apoplectic Digger responds: “We got the highest crime rate on earth among the colored people in Harlem. And there ain't but three things to do about it: Make the criminals pay for it—you don't want to do that; pay the people enough to live decently—you ain't going to do that; so all that's left is let 'em eat one another up” (20). Digger's philosophical ruminations are inherently nihilistic at this point in Himes's Harlem cycle.
Even Anderson senses that this world is breaking apart. As he leafs through the day's reports, Digger and Ed provide tersely grotesque glosses on the contents:
“Man kills his wife with an ax for burning his breakfast pork chop … man shoots another man demonstrating a recent shooting he had witnesses … man stabs another man for spilling beer on his new suit … man kills self in a bar playing Russian roulette with a.32 revolver … woman stabs man in stomach fourteen times, no reason given … woman scalds neighboring woman with pot of boiling water for speaking to her husband … man arrested for threatening to blow up subway train because he entered wrong station and couldn't get his token back—”
“All colored citizens,” Coffin Ed interrupted.
Anderson ignored it. “Man sees stranger wearing his own new suit, slashes him with a razor,” he read on. “Man dressed as Cherokee Indian splits white bartender's skull with homemade tomahawk … man arrested on Seventh Avenue for hunting cats with hound dog and shotgun … twenty-five men arrested for trying to chase all the white people out of Harlem—”
“It's Independence Day,” Grave Digger interrupted.
The mounting metaphysical disorientation that everyone senses on this sweltering Fourth of July guarantees more violent disruptions. One reviewer of Himes's detective fiction observes, “Against such a landscape, the violent opening of each novel constitutes less a crime to be solved than an overture promising more mayhem to come.”19 In fact, Digger and Ed, assigned to protect Deke, now an informer, try as much to subdue the grotesque as they do solve crimes. What they bring to the light in Cotton Comes to Harlem is the chaotic absurdity at the center of peoples' crazed pursuit of a single bale of stolen cotton containing Deke's criminal spoils.
The universe of Cotton Comes to Harlem is one of total deception. Deke, for instance, both is and is not what he seems, utilizing his multiple disguises to outwit unsuspecting Harlem residents, stay ahead of the Syndicate out to kill him, elude the police, and seduce women. Digger and Ed manage to apprehend him, but they still know that they are “missing something.” As Himes cuts and shifts the action, they cannot unmask all of the ludicrous deceptions keeping them from the bale of cotton.
At the end of the novel, the grotesque auto-de-fé in Deke's church as the detective's tracer bullets literally ignite two thugs is symptomatic of the uncanny apocalyptic element that persistently erupts in Himes's later detective fiction. Digger shoots one criminal in the leg, watching it “break off like a wooden stick” and the trousers catch on fire. Two more bullets set the howling thief totally aflame. “The dying man clawed at the book rack above him, breaking the fragile wood, and a prayer book fell on top of his burning body” (202). Digger and Ed then turn to the second thief and systematically pump bullets into him, igniting him until he slumps “across the bench in a kneeling posture, as though praying in fire” (203). By now, the church is an apocalyptic inferno: “Now the entire platform holding the pulpit and the choir and the organ was burning brightly, lighting up the stained-glass pictures of the saints looking down from the windows. From outside came a banshee wail as the first of the cruisers came tearing down the street” (203). Fire, carnage, and inhuman sounds combine to transform Deke's church into an infernal realm rendered alien by the rush of events.
The apocalyptic sphere of violence of Cotton Comes to Harlem dissipates only when Ed and Digger capture the colonel and demand ＄87,000 from him to return to Harlem's conjured families. The original ＄87,000 had been discovered by the junkman, Uncle Bud, who presciently had gone back to Africa, where he bought 500 cattle and exchanged them for 100 wives. The parodic element comes full circle but not before a sinister world has been erected and destroyed by Himes.
Chester Himes's last novel in his Harlem crime cycle, Blind Man with a Pistol, confirms his preoccupation with an apocalyptic universe while playing havoc with conventional expectations of the detective genre. Himes began the novel in Holland in 1967 after hearing the true story of a blind man with a pistol shooting up Brooklyn from his guest, Phil Lomax. Himes in My Life of Absurdity confesses that the story signalled something to him, forcing him back to the beginnings of his earlier detective stories: “It worried me because it was telling me something” (347). At the same time, Himes was enjoying international celebrity status and relative affluence from film options on his detective fiction, following Samuel Goldwyn, Jr.'s., decision to adapt Cotton Comes to Harlem. Nevertheless he delayed traveling to Hollywood and concentrated on Blind Man with a Pistol, which he acknowledges “was not a customary type of detective story” (348). Himes's agent, Roslyn Targ, found the manuscript “wild, bawdy, shocking and very exciting” (350), selling it to William Morrow. What so gripped Himes as he wrote his last novel was his apprehension that any solution to “crime” in Harlem remains inaccessible, for Coffin Ed and Grave Digger in their final appearance preside over a highly politicized world that breaks apart.
At the outset of Blind Man with a Pistol, Himes immediately destroys any conventional expectations readers might have of detective fiction by providing not one but three forewords and a bawdy poem, each revealing the absurdities of the Harlem condition. One concise anecdotal prologue captures the grin lurking behind Himes's murderous universe:
“Blink once, you're robbed,” Coffin Ed advised the white man slumming in Harlem.
“Blink twice, you're dead,” Grave Digger added drily.
(Blind Man with a Pistol)
Indeed actions and events are so swift and disjointed in the novel that characters—notably the two detectives—find themselves on a grotesque rollercoaster. Demonic forces are operative in this universe that wit and satire can scarcely contain.
The world of Blind Man with a Pistol is totally estranged from human and social norms. Action begins at a dilapidated three-story brick house on 119th Street that is the church site of Reverend Sam (who claims to be one hundred years old), his eleven Mormon wives, and teeming progeny. Sam is the embodiment of human grotesquerie: “He was clean shaven, and his sagging parchment-like skin which seemed but a covering for his skeleton was tight about his face like a leather mask. Wrinkled lids, looking more like dried skin, drooped over his milky bluish eyes, giving him a vague similarity to an old snapping turtle” (18-19). The squalor that surrounds the reverend and his tribe is a surrealist metaphor for the chaotic, collapsed world of Harlem. Reverend Sam's fifty naked children, for example, assume subhuman shape as they settle in for lunch, observed by police from the Harlem precinct who have been called to the tenement by a sign hanging outside advertising for a fertile woman: “At the time of their arrival the children were having lunch, which consisted of the stewed pigsfeet and chitterlings which Bubber, the cretin, had been cooking in the washing pot. It had been divided equally and poured into three rows of troughs in the middle room on the first floor. The naked children were lined up, side by side, on hands and knees, swilling it like pigs” (21). Both the banality and the heightened illusion of surreality that the scene projects contribute to Himes's immediate construction of a precarious world gone slightly mad.
Himes's reductionist and absurdist techniques in two initial chapters, which James Lundquist rightfully evaluates as “the strangest in American literature,” are juxtaposed against the first “Interlude” or interchapter.20 These interludes, which Himes spaces throughout the novel much in the collage-like fashion of John Dos Passos in his U.S.A. trilogy, move from a vision of an earlier, ordered world of Harlem existence to a grotesque and ambiguous world of appearances. Yet the first interlude—a geographic and historical tour of Harlem as the mecca for black people—is almost pristine in its normalcy. The author zooms in on the old Theresa Hotel where everyone from Booker T. Washington to Louis Armstrong stayed in the old days. Here is a version of urban pastoral that is poignant as it contrasts jarringly with the more dominant impression of the absence of order and meaning in Blind Man with a Pistol.
A great deal of the action occurs around the Theresa, located on 125th Street and Seventh Avenue, and if the splendor of the hotel was once a norm for the vitality of Harlem, Himes cunningly contrives apocalyptic episodes to reveal how far Harlem had deviated from the norm in the 1960s. Nowhere does contemporary history weigh more heavily on Himes's artistic consciousness than in this novel—an absurdist critique of a volatile American decade that the author largely was viewing from afar as an exile. The satiric power of Himes's apocalyptic vision obliterates the millennial hopes that characterized the 1960s. With cataclysmic glee he attacks communal life as typified by the Reverend Sam, interracial sex, gay liberation, black power, Black Jesus, the Black Muslims, an assortment of evangelical enterprises, civil rights, and integration. A great comic disaster lurks in virtually every chapter of this grotesque novel, a cataclysm that ultimately swallows the apostles of law and order, Grave Digger and Coffin Ed.
By the time that Coffin Ed and Digger appear in their dilapidated car in chapter 3, passing along “practically unseen, like a ghostly vehicle floating in the dark, its occupants invisible” (43), they are just trying to take it easy on a sweltering Harlem night. Already, however, a white homosexual has been killed by a black man wearing a fez, and Marcus Mackenzie, a new black Messiah preaching sexual brotherhood with his Nordic goddess Birgit, has starred on an orgiastic march with his disciples:
When the marchers came abreast of the 125th Street station on upper Park Avenue, a long straggling tail of laughing, dancing, hysterical black and white people had attached itself to the original forty-eight. Black and white people came from the station waiting room to stare in popeyed amazement. Black and white people came from nearby bars, from the dim stinking doorways, from the flea bag hotels, from the cafeterias, the greasy spoons, from the shoe shine parlors, the poolrooms—pansies and prostitutes, ordinary bar drinkers and strangers in the area who had stopped for a bite to eat, Johns and squares looking for excitement, muggers and sneak thieves looking for victims. The scene that greeted them was like a carnival. It was a hot night. Some of them were drunk. Others had nothing to do. They joined the carnival group thinking maybe they were headed for a revival meeting, a sex orgy, a pansy ball, a beer festival, a baseball game. The white people attracted by the black. The black people attracted by the white.
Surrounded by progressive sequences of grotesque action, the two detectives know that an easy time for them is ephemeral.
Solving the crime of the murdered white homosexual and a potentially related multiple murder and theft of a Gladstone bag filled with money from a quack, Dr. Mabuta, who poses as an African witch doctor promising eternal life through his youth elixir, is what interests Digger and Coffin Ed. Instead they are assigned to monitor and investigate numerous demonstrations and riots that are erupting in Harlem, for the outgoing precinct captain, Brice, sees a subversive pattern behind them. In fact, Captain Brice and Lieutenant Anderson do not want their two best detectives working on homicides—an ironic inversion of what they do best. Thus the detectives are diverted from the primary crime by a more tenuous criminal investigation of conspiracy. The bizarre rush of events and their new job description as political agents or detectives renders them incapable or blind before forces that they only dimly apprehend.
The motif of blindness framing the novel permits Himes to explore in comic fashion some major political and eschatological themes that had been building in his crime fiction for a decade. All of the radical disruptions of the 1960s center symbolically on Harlem in Blind Man with a Pistol, giving rise to a variety of prophets who would strip away the political blindness of the populace. Yet each prophet in turn parodies his apocalyptic vision by engaging in trickery and manipulation.
Marcus MacKenzie suffers from megalomania and a compulsive desire to be loved by white women. Dr. Mubuta is an avatar of Uncle Sam. His elixir—a grotesque concoction of baboon testicles, feathers, eyes, mating organs of rabbits, eagles, and shellfish—is designed to grant blacks extended life so that they can outlast the white race. Similarly, the black power advocate, Doctor Moore, is merely a pimp who provides high-priced prostitutes to a white clientele at the Americana Hotel. And then there is the ludicrous General Ham, a fake prophet who would draft Christ for the cause of black militancy, turning Him into a revolutionary Black Jesus in order to destroy the white race. Yet even as Himes satirizes the various messianic crusades of the 1960s, he continues to probe those political mysteries that define historically the nature of power and powerlessness in contemporary America.
Even the two detectives are subjected to Himes's satirical point of view. Toward the middle of the novel, unable to function as they once did, they must scrutinize the absurdity of their earthly condition:
The two black detectives looked at one another. Their short-cropped hair was salted with gray and they were thicker around their middles. Their faces bore the lumps and scars they had collected in the enforcement of law in Harlem. Now after twelve years as first grade precinct detectives they hadn't been promoted. Their raises in salaries hadn't kept up with the rise of the cost of living. They hadn't finished paying for their houses. Their private cars had been bought on credit. And yet they hadn't taken a dime in bribes. Their entire career as cops had been one long period of turmoil. When they weren't taking lumps from the thugs, they were taking lumps from the commissioners. Now they were curtailed in their own duties. And they didn't expect it to change.
Grave Digger and Coffin Ed are anachronisms in the 1960s, superannuated cops overwhelmed by political and medical disruptions. Crime is now a pretext permitting Himes to explore comically his vision of an urban apocalypse.
Digger and Coffin Ed, deflected from their primary quest, cannot hope to cover the twists and turns unfolding on Nat Turner Day in Harlem. Himes brings the disparate strands of action together in a controlling design as various marching factions converge on Seventh Avenue and 125th Street in chapter 12: “It was all really funny, in a grotesque way. The lynched black Jesus who looked like a runaway slave. The slick-looking young man with his foreign white woman, riding in a car built for war service, preaching brotherhood. And last, but not least, these big Black Power people, looking strong and dangerous as religious fanatics, making black thunder and preaching black power” (130). When these lines of marchers collide in a chaotic tableau, Ed and Digger are engulfed in the ensuing violence. Himes lingers over the strange fighting, plucking his detectives from it as looting breaks out in 125th Street.
As Blind Man with a Pistol increasingly assumes the form of a political odyssey across the landscape of the 1960s, Himes permits his two detectives a measure of revelation. Apocalyptic history is revealed to them when they question the Black Muslim leader, Michael X, who tells them prophetically that the cause of the Harlem rioting is “Mister Big.” Armed with the cryptic knowledge—that racism has turned even their lives grotesque—Ed and Digger lose all capacity to restore order, much less justice. The blind man who “didn't want anyone to know he was blind” (222) materializing near the end of the novel to create pandemonium on a subway train is no more grotesque than the detectives in the last chapter of the novel.
In chapter 22, which with formal elegance returns to the metaphysical architecture Himes created in the first chapter, buildings are being razed on the north side of 125th Street between Lenox and Seventh avenues to make way for an urban renewal project. In this half-savage terrain of poisonous air and crumbling walls, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger idly shoot oversized rats trying to escape into the street. The blind man erupting from the subway exit kills a white cop and in turn is gunned down by three white associates. Again there is rioting, catastrophe without end.
This last of Himes's novels is a sardonic chronicle of the moral corruption and cultural evil that linger over Harlem. The catalog of disasters in Blind Man with a Pistol, the razing of a symbolic part of Harlem at the end of the novel and the civil chaos throughout, is a testament to Himes's talent for grotesque art. If much of the comic viciousness of the earlier detective novels has been replaced by stranger and more subtly sinister forms of evil, this is only because the author's maturing vision wanted to focus satirically on the totality of a malignant American power system. Himes had moved from the ethos forced on him by his French publishers who “wanted me to write a Harlem story—‘put plenty of comedy into it … just an action packed funny story about Harlem.’”21 From the sweet, steaming exotic Harlem of For Love of Imabelle, Himes moved progressively through a dialectical balance of good and evil in the early detective fiction into arresting apocalyptic terrain that permitted him to explore and understand his—and Harlem's—special relationship to American history.
See Edward Margolies, “The Thrillers of Chester Himes,” Studies in Black Literature (June 1970): 10.
Williams, “Chester Himes—My Man Himes,” 315.
Himes, For Love of Imabelle (Chatham, N.J.: Chatham Bookseller, 1973), 111. Subsequent references, cited parenthetically in the text, are to this edition.
Himes, Run Man Run (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973), 7. Subsequent references, cited parenthetically in the text, are to this edition.
The Heat's On (New York: G. P. Putnam's, 1966), 3. Subsequent references, cited parenthetically in the text, are to this edition.
Himes, Cotton Comes to Harlem (New York: G. P. Putnam's, 1965), 48-49. Subsequent references, cited parenthetically in the text, are to this edition.
Kenneth B. Clark, Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 11.
Williams, “Chester Himes—My Man Himes,” 314.
Edward Margolies, Which Way Did He Go? (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1982), 2.
Franklin, The Victim as Criminal and Artist, 224.
Himes, The Real Cool Killers (Chatham, N.J.: Chatham Bookseller, 1973), 15. Subsequent references, cited parenthetically in the text, are to this edition.
Margolies, “Thrillers,” p. 59.
All Shot Up (Chatham, N.J.: Chatham Bookseller, 1973), 17. Subsequent references, cited parenthetically in the text, are to this edition.
Julian Symons, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 201.
Himes, The Crazy Kill (Chatham, N.J.: Chatham Bookseller, 1973), 6. Subsequent page references, cited parenthetically in the text, are to this edition.
Himes, The Big Gold Dream (New York: New American Library, 1975), 9. Subsequent references, cited parenthetically in the text, are to this edition.
Dennis Porter, The Pursuit of Crime: Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 29.
Williams, “Chester Himes—My Man Himes,” 306.
Fred Pfeil, “Policiers Noirs,” Nation, 15 November 1986, 524.
Lundquist, Chester Himes, 117.
Himes to Carl Van Vechten, 16 December 1954, Beinecke Library.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 211
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
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3999
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 the sole witness to the senseless murder of two of his co-workers by a drunken, psychotic white cop. The police refuse to take the word of a black man over that of a cop, and the rest of the novel chronicles Johnson's headlong flight to escape his own murder. Although he manages to survive, the book's conclusion is rife with Himesian irony. The murderer is killed by a fellow officer to protect the reputation of the police, and Johnson, himself, is jailed on a trumped-up minor charge, with only the promise of a reunion with Linda Lou, his courageous girlfriend, to leaven the injustice.
Run Man, Run evokes Himes's frequently stated belief that his life, and that of every other African American, is a life of absurdity. That black people are held to a stricter standard of behavior than whites, yet are consistently denied the right to rise above their poverty and misery, Himes believed, produces a climate in which black people could feel only a consuming dread of, and hatred for, their white oppressors.
Modern readers, if they know Himes at all, know him for a series of eight hard-boiled thrillers that chronicle the exploits of Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, a pair of tough, straight-shooting black police detectives who keep an uneasy peace in Harlem, U.S.A. In these stories, Harlem is less an actual place than the symbolic locus of the many injustices done to American black people.
Himes's fictional universe, while often humorous, is a dark, corrupt place, peopled by demons as frightening as any in literature. Interestingly, these violent, drug-crazed criminals are as much products of their environment as are Himes's protagonists. All are oppressed by white forces, but the criminals either succumb to vicious madness or choose to collaborate with their oppressors. The women at center stage are alluring and sexually exciting, but often they are light-skinned and predatory. In Himes's Harlem, the lighter the skin, the more dangerous the character. White, in Himes's universe, is a symbolic color for evil.
Himes's earlier books, which he set in Los Angeles, are a rough cut of what he so skillfully managed in the Harlem Domestic Series. In those books, If He Hollers Let Him Go2 and Lonely Crusade,3 the protagonists live, not in a fictional Harlem, but in a sprawling, white-dominated, wartime L.A. Like the Los Angeles of Paul Cain, James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, and Raymond Chandler, Himes's Los Angeles is a nightmarish place, with corruption and violence bubbling just under the surface. For Himes, it is a place where racism is no longer held in check, but given free rein by the murderous attack of other brown men, the Japanese, on Pearl Harbor. It is a place where Japanese-Americans have been locked up without trial, and Blacks and Chicanos symbolically lynched in “zoot suit” riots. The dangerous females of these early novels are not the “half-white bitches” of the Harlem Domestic Series, but white women who openly stalk, and bring ruin upon, the black protagonists.
Each of the novels surveys similar territory. Both protagonists are young, educated black men struggling with deep-rooted insecurity and the daily problems brought about by working with inherently racist co-workers and supervisors. In both stories, Himes displays considerable knowledge of the Los Angeles terrain, moving his characters from the shabby garishness of Watts's Central Avenue to the fashionable middle-class black Westside and on through the myriad small communities that made up the Los Angeles metropolitan area of the 1940s.
One of the hallmarks of the Los Angeles novel is the continuous travel by car over the landscape. Both Bob Jones and Lee Gordon drive long distances, each journey an attempt to escape the inescapable. The weight of doom hangs heavily upon each of Himes's protagonists from the opening pages, and the relentless travel serves only to bring each hero closer to it.
Both stories begin with frightened protagonists. Bob has been traumatized by the overt racism that the attack on Pearl Harbor has engendered in the white population. The roundup and imprisonment of the Nisei has him waiting and wondering when they will recognize that his skin is brown, like that of the Japanese attacker, and imprison him as well. His fear has driven him into a paranoiac state, and his sleep is riddled with bizarre dreams that symbolize his helplessness. Lee's fear is different. Somewhat older than Bob, and married, Lee has landed a respectable job as a labor organizer for a union attempting to win over the employees of Comstock Aircraft, an industry with national power and prestige. His happiness at earning this job is gradually undermined by the realization that he has deliberately put himself in a white environment, where he will be subjected to humiliation and insult at every turn.
Both novels have a strong subtext of social protest and labor struggle that places them in the tradition of the proletarian and “strike” novels of the 1930s. However, they differ from that earlier tradition in the way the characters react to their circumstances. Bob Jones, whose emotional anguish has nearly unhinged him, is not struggling for social or racial justice, but only to be accepted as an individual and to lose himself in an ordinariness that his name suggests he might achieve if only he were white. Lee Gordon, on the other hand, is searching for an identity that race cannot provide him. He eventually realizes that fulfillment can come only by merging his identity with the larger group identity of organized labor.
In If He Hollers Let Him Go, Bob Jones's troubles begin at the Atlas Shipyard where he is a leaderman of sheet metal workers. When he asks a white Texas woman, Madge, to work temporarily with his all-black crew, she refuses and calls him “nigger.” When he returns her insult, Bob is demoted. Later that day, after winning a crap game with some other workers, he is beaten unconscious and robbed of his money by Johnny Stoddard, a white man. These two events project Bob into a downward spiral from which he will not escape.
Bob sets two goals for himself after these key events. One is to kill Johnny Stoddard; the other to humble Madge. He tracks Johnny Stoddard to his home with a.38 in his hand, but leaves the killing undone when he realizes the extent of Stoddard's fear of him. Bob becomes euphoric over this new-found power but eventually realizes that his own spiritual weakness, a weakness resulting from a lifetime of racism, prevents him from carrying out the murder. His euphoria deteriorates into hopelessness. Bob's larger goal of humbling Madge is the more difficult, and it eventually leads him to ruin. Of all the female destroyers who inhabit the Los Angeles novel, Madge may be the most dangerous, perhaps because even she does not know what she truly wants.
When Bob confronts Madge for the first time in the novel, we realize that something unspoken has gone on between them before.
She was a peroxide blonde with a large featured, overly made-up face, and she had a large, bright-painted, fleshy mouth … her big blue babyish eyes were mascaraed like a burlesque queen's … She looked thirty and well sexed … as if she might have worked half those years in a cat house [or] she must have given a lot of it away.
More tellingly, when their eyes meet, “she deliberately put on a frightened, wide-eyed look and backed away from me as if she were scared stiff, as if she was a naked virgin and I was King Kong. It wasn't the first time she had … put on that scared-to-death act” (p. 19). Bob realizes that Madge's pretending to fear him and watching his reaction gives her some kind of sexual thrill, knowledge that both enrages him and fills him with lust.
Without his realizing it, Madge has engaged Bob in the strangest of all mating dances, one that takes them from the narrow confines of a warship under construction, to the shipyard canteen, across town to Madge's shabby rooming house, and back into the bowels of the ship where the final act in the bizarre drama unfolds.
Bob's dilemma stems from the equally strong impulses of hatred and lust that the white woman provokes in him. He had entertained the curious, sometimes coy glances of white women before, but Madge has about her an aura of danger; she provides the dangerous lure of interracial sex that both attracts and repels Bob Jones. She has power over him. She can get him demoted, fired, and even killed, knowledge that weighs heavily upon the neurotic young man.
Bob is not starved for female companionship or sex. In the opening chapter he tells us that he has been sleeping with Ella Mae, his married landlady, when her husband isn't around. He trades flirtatious glances with black women at the shipyard and runs into a woman he sometimes plays with when he visits a bar on Watts's Central Avenue. Of more moment to the story is his engagement to Alice Harrison, the nearly-white daughter of a prominent black doctor in Los Angeles's fashionable Westside. Alice, a social worker who is more a therapist to Bob than a lover, expects great things from him, including his enrollment in law school. Like her light-skinned, socially pretentious family, Alice believes fervently in the integrationist line of the 1940s, which dictated that Negroes must quietly, and patiently, earn their equality. Her goal is to force Bob into a role that she finds acceptable. She never understands that all he wants is to escape the stigma of being a Negro in a white world. His painful desire is only to live a quiet, ordinary existence.
Bob's love/hate attraction to Madge eventually leads him to her rooming house where he is first tempted to sleep with her, but is ultimately frightened away when she tells him, “this'll get you lynched in Texas” (p. 147). He thinks: “Just the notion; just because she was white. But it got me, set me on edge again” (p. 147). Eventually she says the one thing that fills him with purest panic:
“All right, rape me then, Nigger!” Her voice was excited, thick, with threads in her throat.
I let her loose and bounced to my feet. Rape—just the sound of the word scared me, took everything out of me, my desire, my determination, my whole buildup. I was taut, poised, ready to light out and run a crooked mile. The only thing she had to do to make me stop was just say the word.
Bob retreats, totally defeated. He is nothing now, all his strength used up. He goes to see his white boss and tries to get his old job back, but the best he can get is a promise that if he behaves himself, and works hard, he will eventually be reconsidered for another supervisory post.
Alice convinces him, in his morally weakened state, that the only way to survive is to play it safe:
“I must tell you again, Bob darling,” she says. “You need some definite aim, a goal that you can attain within the segregated pattern in which we live.” When I started to interrupt she stopped me. “I know that sounds like a compromise. But it isn't, darling. We are Negroes and we can't change that. But as Negroes, we can accomplish many things, achieve success, live our own lives, own our own homes, and have happiness. There is no reason a Negro cannot control his destiny within this pattern. Really, darling, it is not cowardly. It is simply a form of self-preservation.”
Bob accepts Alice's view of black life, and they make plans to be married the following month, but this happy future is not to be. Returning to the shipyard, he accidentally finds Madge asleep in an unfinished part of the ship. When two Navy inspectors on a routine tour try to get into the compartment where they are, Madge panics and cries rape. The men break into the cabin and beat Bob senseless. Somehow Bob escapes the shipyard, but he soon finds that the dangerous streets of Los Angeles lead only to dead ends. Neither Etta Mae nor Alice will help him, and he is eventually picked up at random by two policemen who don't even know of the rape charge.
The final irony is revealed in the courtroom. The president of the shipyard, who it is clear has learned the truth of the matter, comes before the judge to say that no charges will be pressed against Bob, a decision made to prevent “racial tension among the employees.” The judge offers Bob the choice of joining the military or going to jail. He chooses to leave the racial war at home for the shooting war overseas. Bereft of all his hopes, his symbolic lynching complete, he leaves for the military.
If He Hollers Let Him Go owes much to the influence of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler. Bob Jones's tough, cynical narration and his inability to escape from Madge's destructive sexuality is strongly reminiscent of Double Indemnity's Walter Neff. Himes's intimate knowledge of Los Angeles surfaces in the same concrete rendering of the city we find in both Cain and Chandler.
Lonely Crusade contains many of the same elements, but bears none of the hallmarks of the tough-guy novels. Relying less on hard-boiled dialogue and more on philosophical reflection, Crusade is more, as critic and novelist James Sallis would have it, a proletarian novel of ideas.4 Lee Gordon, like Bob Jones, is educated, articulate, and both maddened and emasculated by the racism he confronts on a daily basis, but Gordon is no tough guy. Rather, he is a thinker who spends much of the story mulling over existential ideas or engaging in philosophical discussions with other characters.
Although long-winded philosophizing weakens the book, an undeniable tension permeates the story, derived from the knowledge that Lee Gordon is a marked man from the moment he reaches the gates of Comstock Aircraft. After a lengthy description of the general problems Lee will face in trying to organize black workers, hard-boiled union organizer Joe Ptak warns him:
“The communists will be after you. Just be prepared … They'll get somebody to make friends with you—either another colored man or a white girl. Then they'll try to recruit you. Anyway, they'll try to control you … Watch out they don't undermine you or double-cross you.”
To add to his difficulty, Ptak adds, “on a job like this, the union can't show any special interest in your people or we antagonize the Southern whites. Don't look for none” (p. 25).
Gordon's problems are exacerbated by a deteriorating marriage. He has just emerged from a long period of unemployment, and his wife, Ruth, has been supporting the two of them. Even now, she makes more money than he does, and has her own secretary. His insecurity has made him violent and brutal with her at times, badly straining their relationship.
Ptak's warning comes true all too quickly. Luther McGregor, a brutish, dangerous black man that the communists have planted in the union tries to become his friend. Within a short period of time, Foster, the wealthy plant manager and board vice-president, invites Lee and his wife to his luxurious home for Sunday dinner. There, Foster and his bitterly anti-union personal secretary try to soften Lee up by flattering him, then offering an alluring bribe—a ＄5,000.00 a year job in the personnel department and a promise of other “breaks.” Lee is faced with a dilemma. Since his integrity will not allow him to accept the bribe, he must suffer the sting of Foster's considerable wrath. Ruth, devastated by Lee's refusal of a job that would put them on easy street, quarrels with him, and Lee leaves her.
Now in a state of emotional collapse, Lee is propelled into an affair with Jackie Forks, a white woman whom the local communist cell has set up to compromise him. Oddly, Jackie is a miscast femme fatale. She is a reluctant communist, has only positive feelings about race, and ends the affair out of sympathy for Ruth.
By now, the vindictive Foster has spread rumors of Lee's sell-out to the communists among the black factory workers. Lee subsequently finds that his union co-workers have also turned against him. Not long afterward, Lee and Luther McGregor are waylaid by L.A. County Sheriff's deputies in Foster's employ who first attempt to bribe Lee, then gun-whip him when he refuses to cooperate.
Alone, jobless, and living in a skid-row hotel, Lee is approached again by Luther McGregor. McGregor reveals to Lee that he has been working both ends against the middle—receiving money from Foster to spy on the union while working for the communists in the same capacity. Feeling now that there is nothing to believe in and little to lose, Lee accompanies Luther to the home of one of Foster's corrupt sheriff's deputies, to receive a payoff. There, the violent McGregor gets into an argument with the white policeman and stabs him to death. The police catch up to the fleeing pair, shoot McGregor, and arrest Lee for complicity.
In return for a union official's help in getting free of the murder charge, Lee launches himself into a feverish six-day attempt to undo the damage Foster has done to him, and to persuade black workers to vote for the union in an upcoming National Labor Relations Board election. Along the way, he regains his self-respect, and patches up his relationship with his wife. In the climactic final scene, the forces of the union are drawn up in front of the fortified factory gates, trying to break the line. When Joe Ptak and others are knocked down, Lee grabs the union banner, and heedless of the sheriff's department guns and clubs, breaks through.
It is impossible to read Lonely Crusade without feeling regret for what it could have been. The materials for a tense, gripping novel about a lone man's fight against the forces of corruption are there, but Himes never really makes the best use of them. Lee Gordon is a beleagured man lost in the urban jungle of wartime L.A. He is clearly the target on the one hand of tyrannical industrialists and their corrupt civic minions, and on the other of underhanded communists out to subvert the union and its members for their own purposes.
For perhaps the only time in his writing career, Himes had something other than racism on his mind. The prevailing concerns of this novel are ideas, among them the viability of Marxism as a solution to racism and economic tyranny, the potential unifying power of unionism, and the existential anguish of protagonist Lee Gordon. Unlike Bob Jones, whose major preoccupation was racial hatred, Lee Gordon's main concern is his fear of being used by the communists for aims having nothing to do with racial justice. Himes ground this concern on what he learned while being courted by communists he met in California in the early 1940s. American communists of this era saw black people as fertile ground for their ideas. Although Himes wasn't taken in by them, many black intellectuals, Richard Wright among them, did temporarily embrace communist ideology.
The last glimpse we have of Lee Gordon is that of a man who has found a long-sought identity in something bigger than himself. Whether he successfully crashes the line of deputies, or as a few commentators suggest, rushes to meet a cleansing death, it is an unusually positive ending for Himes.
While his picture of Los Angeles owes a great deal to writers like Cain and Chandler, Himes the writer was always his own man. In their concern for the dilemma of the black man looking for self-fulfillment in the white world, and their ambivalent view of interracial sexuality, both If He Hollers and Lonely Crusade are quintessential Himes books.
In each of these novels, and particularly in If He Hollers Let Him Go. Himes asserts that war with Japan has intensified a latent racism among the population of Southern California. He believes this intensification has served to demonize the non-white, and to justify his brutalization, imprisonment, and disenfranchisement. Himes underscores this at the end of If He Hollers, as Bob Jones loses his job, his socially prominent fiance, his automobile, and his opportunity to improve his lot in life. His all-encompassing loss serves as a symbolic lynching.
Himes had his own ideas about interracial sex, too, that are given voice in these two novels. On the one hand, Himes believed that black people involuntarily brought out a sexual degeneracy inherent in the white race. He mentioned this in interviews, and made both subtle and overt allusions to it in novels such as Blind Man with a Pistol5 and Plan B6 Madge's attraction to Bob Jones is the earliest evocation of this belief to appear in his work. In the scene that takes place in her rooming house, it is clear that Madge can become excited about sex only if she can make it seem like rape.
Alongside this notion is Himes's suggestion that sexual love between a black man and a white woman can have a healing effect on the damage to a black man's self esteem that racism has inflicted. This view is evident in the first volume of his autobiography, The Quality of Hurt,7 in which he chronicles a lengthy love affair with a white woman he met while sailing to Europe in 1953. This was followed by a number of other affairs before he married an Englishwoman, Lesley Packard. In Lonely Crusade, Lee Gordon's feelings for Jackie Forks are far removed from Bob Jones's lust for Madge. When Lee goes to Jackie, he is suffering the loss of his job, his wife, and the trust of his union co-organizers. Jackie provides him with brief solace and comfort before her guilt and pity for Lee's wife causes her to break off the affair.
While Himes's Los Angeles period was a brief one, resulting in only two novels, he laid in them the cornerstones for a more productive period in the 1950s and 1960s. His concern with the effects of racism and the fight against it, along with his unusual notions about interracial relationships, were combined with the influence of the hard-boiled writers of the 1930s and 1940s to result in his own subgenre, the Harlem Domestic Series.
Perhaps as importantly, Himes set an example that continues to find new voice in the work of Walter Mosley, James Sallis, Gar Anthony Haywood, and other modern writers who have chosen to experiment with the black hero in the realm of tough-guy fiction.
Chester Himes, Run, Man, Run (New York: G. P. Putnam's, 1966).
Chester Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go (New York: Doubleday, 1945). Further references to this work are indicated parenthetically in the text.
Chester Himes, Lonely Crusade (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947). Further references to this work are indicated parenthetically in the text.
James Sallis, Difficult Lives—Jim Thompson—David Goodis—Chester Himes (Brooklyn: Gryphon Publications, 1993), p. 85.
Chester Himes, Blind Man With A Pistol (New York: William Morrow, 1969).
Chester Himes, Plan B (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993).
Chester Himes, The Quality of Hurt (New York: Doubleday, 1972).
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7521
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 literature,” implying that Wright's work is similar in intent to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Wright had his opportunity to retaliate when Baldwin, wishing to borrow money, asked Wright to meet him at a restaurant, and Wright requested Himes to accompany him. Unlike Baldwin, Himes recalled the event as rancorous.1 The argument's climax occurs when Baldwin retorts to Wright, “The sons must slay their fathers”—meaning that Baldwin's Oedipal destiny was to write in opposition to his literary forbearers, especially Wright, so as to establish himself. Himes feigns incomprehension at Baldwin's parting riposte: “At the time I thought [Baldwin] had taken leave of his senses …” (Quality 201).
Himes's disingenuous comment is belied by his own entire lifetime of Oedipal revolt, both in his literature and his personal life. The Oedipal aggression Baldwin exposes describes Himes also; especially in his use of the autobiographical genre, Himes exhibits his aggression toward precursors, both literary and ancestral. The two volumes of his autobiography—The Quality of Hurt (1971) and My Life of Absurdity (1976)—reveal his life lived out in rebellion in which he imaginatively slays father figures that he confronts, either historically or literarily. The meaning of Himes's work emerges from constant and incessant repudiation of fathers, expressed not only literally and thematically against the “fathers” that appear throughout his autobiography, but formally against the autobiographical narrative itself.
Himes goes beyond assaulting parental surrogates in the plot; he so fundamentally disrupts the autobiographical form in plot, theme, and action that the reader's expectations are undermined. The white (or black) reader coming to Himes's autobiography expecting a meditation on Himes's “African-American experience” will be profoundly disappointed. Of course, Himes ferociously indicts racism, as do other African-American autobiographers; however, the emphasis of his work is rather on his own aggressiveness toward those who attempt, from his perspective, to control him. The Oedipal rebellion, which David Dudley sees as a component of all male African-American autobiographies, cuts across every dimension of Himes's life and work, dictating life choices, racial politics, and narrative design.2 Himes's autobiography thus constitutes an assault—on authority figures, on the autobiographical form itself, and by extension, on the (white/black) reader.
“THE PURE AND SIMPLE NECESSITY TO BEAT HIM TO THE TRIGGER”: HIMES AND MONOLITHIC MASCULINITY
Himes's vision of himself derives from a childhood and young adulthood during which he was socialized toward violence, when he was taught that violence is an appropriate, even necessary, means of dealing with disagreement and disobedience. Himes seeks what Leland S. Person in a much different context terms “a monolithic masculinity” (516)3—a one-dimensional, overly simplified social construction of manhood that stresses brutality, dominance, and conflict. In the autobiography, Himes shows that his childhood was marked by his evolving conviction that violence was essential to maintain manhood. Born in 1909 in a middle-class family that lived in the South and in Ohio, Himes witnessed incessant conflict between his father and mother that quickly escalated into mutual spousal abuse. Although his two brothers become successful (Joseph becomes an internationally known sociologist; Edward, a union leader), Chester turns to crime in his adolescence. He chooses the role of gang-leader, writing that his most important goal was “the pure and simple necessity to beat [anyone] to the trigger” (Quality 41). At nineteen, he commits armed robbery in a suburban Cleveland home; captured, he serves over seven years for armed robbery at the Ohio State Penitentiary and is paroled in 1936.
Himes's career as a writer brings him personal satisfaction and monetary reward in the celebration of violence. He begins his career as a writer in prison, describing in his short stories the brutality of prisoners and the horror of the 1930 fire at the penitentiary in “To What Red Hell” (1935). Meeting with critical rejection of his subsequent work, he decides to expatriate to Paris in 1953, never to return to America. In 1956, Himes meets Marcel Duhamel, who convinces him (with a ＄1,000 advance) to write a detective story; his nine detective novels, beginning with A Rage in Harlem (1957), feature graphic violence commensurate with his own rebellion: “I was writing some strange shit. … [M]y mind had rejected all reality as I had known it and I had begun to see the world as a cesspool of buffoonery. Even the violence was funny. A man gets his throat cut. He shakes his head to say you missed me and it falls off. Damn reality, I thought” (Life 126).
The choice of violence as a life pattern emerges as his revolt both against his mother and his father. His dark-skinned father, Joseph Himes, was a professor of mechanical arts at various Southern “Negro A & M Colleges” (Quality 4); as Himes grew older, he felt increasingly contemptuous of his father's servility before whites. He disposes of his father precipitously, primarily because his father is submissive in his response to white racism. By putting the words of Booker T. Washington in his father's mouth, Himes economically but cynically characterizes his father's racial accommodationism: “As a child I often heard my father quote the famous saying of the great educator: ‘Let down your buckets where you are’” (Quality 4). The minimal reference to his father implies Himes's refusal to identify with a textualized castrated father.
His light-skinned mother, Esther Bomar Himes, threatens whites with a loaded pistol (like Chester himself), one of his earliest childhood memories (Quality 8). It is her incipient violence against white racism that most clearly anticipates Himes's own.4 But his mother's own internalized racism complicates his identification with her: light-skinned, he is continuously taught by his mother to despise the prominently African features of his father and of his father's family. Mrs. Himes instills her own aggressions against the white power structure and Africanist features.5 To identify with her would risk his masculinity; to repudiate her would compromise his racial identity.
His relationship with her is further complicated by her identification with unreasoning authority. At a critical moment in Himes's youth, Mrs. Himes becomes the symbol of absurdist persecution and punishment that he will inevitably rebel against. This formative incident occurs when Himes was thirteen, when Chester and Joseph follow through on Chester's idea of making torpedo bombs as a chemistry experiment. Mrs. Himes, punishing Chester for minor disobedience, forbids him to assist Joseph, though Chester's help is essential. Joseph, alone on a stage conducting the experiment, is blinded in an unexpected explosion, which presumably Chester's involvement would have prevented, when ground glass particles blast into his eyes. When he finally receives treatment after being turned away from white hospitals, he has lost his vision permanently. From Chester's perspective, his mother's punishment precipitated both Joseph's tragedy and Chester's guilt. The theme that will later shape Himes's detective fiction and autobiography—the absurdity of arbitrarily harsh punishment, which will inevitably have horrifying consequences for the victim and the persecutor—originates in his relationship with his mother and her punishment and its unforeseen consequences to innocent people. His mother's punishment resulted in Joseph's suffering and his own guilt; he will mete out his own punishment of his mother to the women who come into his life. Yet mixed with his desire to inflict pain and suffering on the mother-substitute is his devotion to his mother despite his repudiation of her: “I loved my mother with a strange fierce love which survived everything” (Quality 22).
“COMPLEX, INTRIGUING, AND NOT PARTICULARLY LIKEABLE”: HIMES'S TREATMENT OF WOMEN
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Himes's autobiography is his frank description of his mistreatment of women.6 In his abuse of women, he is, in his own words, “complex, intriguing, and not particularly likeable” (Quality 285). Himes documents his abuse intimately throughout the two volumes of his autobiography, each of which was intended to revolve around his relationship with a woman.7 In his affairs, he seems to test the boundaries of the black masculine roles that are made available to him by a racist society; thus, from this perspective, his brutality toward women stems from his overconformity to a masculine code of toughness,8 and to his unquestioning acceptance of a social construction of masculinity that enshrines the strong, autonomous, violent male. The women in his autobiography act as witnesses to (and recipients of) his ritualistic male gestures of manhood. Yet Himes, perhaps unwittingly, dramatizes the precarious nature of his violent assertions of male identity. The consequences of his objectifying women in his work turn against him, and the effect of his quest for monolithic masculinity is the alienation of his first wife, his subsequent lovers, and many of his friends. Himes's sexual life inevitably leads him into conflicts, not only with Richard Wright and other black expatriates, who (according to the autobiography) refuse to accept Himes's lovers, but with racists he continuously encounters in Europe.9
His sexuality becomes a weapon for him to punish women but also to expect (and perhaps welcome) punitive responses from them. His tumultuous relationships with women reveal Himes's own will to control and dominate, his own need to fulfill a code of brutal masculinity, but also his need to experience abuse and punishment in return. His typical attraction to neurotic, depressive women, in unconscious rebellion against his strong mother who plays the patriarch's role in his childhood, ironically brings him much unhappiness—women who are viciously abused and controlled by him, but who exact some emotional revenge by clinging to him unmercifully.
Himes's choices in women continually seem to invite reprisals—not only from his society, but from the women themselves.10 The most brutalized of his white lovers is Marlene Behrens (Regine Fischer), a German actress half his age whose story constitutes the first sections of Himes's second volume, My Life of Absurdity. Behrens suffers terrible beatings from Himes, he admits, and she lands in the hospital from one incident of battering (these attacks were not isolated), yet he nevertheless depicts her as controlling him, as himself as her pawn: “‘You're going to make me hurt you some day,’ she said” (Life 60). He senses a threat in her presence: “Marlene was entirely capable of destroying me if she didn't have her way” (Life 195). In blaming his victim, Himes intentionally inscribes the most violent form of sexism in their limited relationship: “The final answer of any black to a white woman with whom he lives in a white society is violence” (Quality 137). Behrens and Himes's relationship evolves quickly into a mutually destructive affair; despite his abuse of her, he acts as her rescuer, helping her through her many neurotic periods, but Marlene apparently accepts her role as victim adroitly.
Himes's attempt to force the relationship's end is associated in his autobiography with a struggle against a father figure. In a biographical article, Michel Fabre shows that by 1960, Himes was deeply involved with a new lover, his wife-to-be, Lesley Packard (223-8), and that he wished the relationship over. In his autobiography, however, Himes contrives the ending of his relationship with Behrens over a quarrel with her father who demands of Himes that he “act humanely” (Life 199-200). When confronted with an ostensibly reasonable and equitable father who encourages Himes to identify with him “as a man of [his] generation,” Himes refuses to be manipulated by a father surrogate. Himes is willing to accept Mr. Behren's identification with him only in his own terms: “You've never been kind to her. Neither have I” (Life 200). In the narrative, then, a bitter and angry conflict with the father rescues not only the daughter, but the fictive “son” from a destructive love affair.
The Behrens affair seems to solidify in Himes's imagination the trap posed not only by the white world, but by his own Oedipal rages. In an attempt to exert maximum control over a woman, he loses control of himself completely: “I was her slave because she was helpless” (Life 199). His statements about his own culpability are evasive; rather than confront his own explosive rage honestly, he associates his violence against her with the existential “truth” he learned during his incarceration at Ohio State Penitentiary—that “anyone could do anything” (Quality 65). But if the world was essentially out of control, he too was implicated in this confusion of passions: against the best advice of his friends, her parents, and of his own vague intuition, he had involved himself in a relationship with Behrens that could have been fatal to his artistic career, if not his life. Not only was Behrens in great danger, but so was he. Unwilling to acknowledge his guilt in his vicious treatment of her but also unconscious of why he needed Behrens, he evades the intimate realities of their violent relationship and of the abuse he meted out to her consistently to assert a general, anonymously absurdist conclusion about humanity: “All of reality was absurd, contradictory, violent and hurting” (Life 126).
Himes's involvement with women in his autobiography was intricately connected with his Oedipal resistance, a coded “slaying” of his mother, whose obsession with skin color and arbitrary punishment required, in his own mind, violent retribution through surrogate lovers he chose. Unlike his father, who married a light-skinned African American who revered white skin, Himes chooses white lovers curious about his black skin and then makes them suffer for choosing him. Like a literary character Himes knew well—Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas—Himes repudiates the image of the father by attacking women.
“ONE BLACK AT A TIME”: HIMES AND RICHARD WRIGHT
Himes's compulsion to attack father surrogates extends to his own literary father, Richard Wright himself. David Dudley, who ignores Himes in his recent discussion of African-American autobiography, argues that repudiation of the male predecessor is a primary component of the black male autobiographical tradition: his purpose is to “identify among these writers a kind of Oedipal conflict wherein each rising writer faces and overcomes his predecessor in the tradition” (1). Beyond tradition, Fabre implies that Himes's repudiation of Wright is caused by Himes's envy: “Was Himes resentful of Wright's success and security?” (219). However, envy in this case is complicated by Himes's grim understanding of the economics of publishing, which may overlook him in favor of an established writer: “The powers that be have never admitted but one black at a time into the arena of fame, and to gain this coveted admission, the young writer must unseat the reigning deity. It's a pity, but a reality as well” (Quality 201). Perhaps too, Himes saw in Wright's Native Son a reflection of his own inclination toward violence, especially violence directed toward white women. Bigger Thomas is the most famous literary depiction of a black man abusing women, white and black. His rejection of Wright may stem from that fact that he sensed Wright understood his own compulsions to strike out against surrogates of parenthood all too well.
Himes's rage against Wright is consistent with his repudiation of all authority figures. He met the ultimate father figure in his benefactor, mentor, and literary paterfamilias, Richard Wright. The surprisingly few comments he makes about Wright—who assisted him in his passage to Europe, welcomed him in Paris once he arrived, arranged for his hotel accommodations, lent him money and supplies, supported his work both personally and in published reviews, and introduced him to friends, agents, and publishers—are for the most part unflattering, if not flatly disparaging.11
In the narrative, it is clear that Himes constructs Wright as his own foil. Where the more famous Wright sacrifices integrity for even greater fame, Himes self-consciously chooses the role of the alienated, African-American artist. He makes Wright at least partially responsible, however, for Himes's own alienation. He writes that he frankly “had never liked Dick since early 1957 when he had told [Himes] he had organized the Paris Club, an organization of brothers, and barred [Himes] from joining” (Life 215). Himes asserts that what he found most deplorable in Wright was his adaptation to a “white,” middle class life, one which violated Himes's sense of Wright's inner self:
In trying to effect his departure from America and its way of life, Dick had become more of an American than he had ever been. But, whereas in the U.S. he could not escape his image of a Black Boy, in Paris he was a rich man. And he enjoyed being a rich man, he loved the bourgeois life. But he wasn't adapted to the bourgeois life. From beginning to end, deep in his soul, Dick identified with the poor and the oppressed. He was a natural-born leftist …
The passage creates a stunning contrast of temperaments: whereas Himes has the courage of his own convictions and lives in poverty, Wright chooses affluence and surrenders his identity; whereas Himes stoically bears the existential condition of his own absurdity, Wright craves “authority … he was rootless without an absolute” (Life 8); whereas Himes fulfills in his career and in his personal life the social construction of masculinity, Wright can never escape the “image of a Black Boy.” Himes's derogation of Wright's masculinity reinforces the seriousness of Himes's commitment to the masculine mystique, but this ideology cuts him off from the potentiality of Wright's friendship, offered many times throughout their association in the autobiography. Himes portrays Wright's efforts at friendship as intimidating, threatening his own sense of sexuality that must be bolstered with Himes's aggressiveness.
Himes's repudiation of Wright centers on his repugnance of Wright's own sexuality, and on Himes's own insecurity about his readers' reading of Himes's masculinity. Unable to develop a relationship with Wright that is intimate but free of his own anxieties about possible homosexual implications, he persistently projects his concerns onto observers and his reader. He is especially apprehensive, for instance, that homophobic friends in Paris do not misconstrue his relationship with Wright and his wife Ellen: “[T]he residents in the hotel began to wonder what sort of arrangement we had—were Dick and I lovers, or Ellen and me, or did they take turns with me?” (Quality 188). For Himes, Wright's genuine interest in Himes and his work cannot be untainted by sexual drives. According to Himes, Wright constantly intrudes into Himes's love affairs, but Himes sees Wright's concern only as a vicarious lasciviousness and perhaps evidence of Wright's own latent homosexuality, as when Wright jokes about Himes's “secret weapon,” or when he describes Wright's onanistic fascination with two lesbians: “He had a sharp curiosity about the sexual behavior of odd couples, lesbians, and prostitutes. … He was greatly stimulated by these encounters [with lesbians], and after a moment rushed away to write or to indulge in whatever else he had in mind” (Quality 196).
The main purpose of Himes's own construction of Wright's gender is to fashion Himes's redoubtable masculine identity by contrast. The more powerful, famous, and wealthy Wright is deployed by Himes to dramatize weakness and impotency in comparison with Himes's own virility. Once again, Himes constructs Wright as his complement—where Himes is virile, Wright is voyeuristic; while Himes's masculinity seems controlled, Wright can barely conceal his burning but passive lust; as Himes enjoys his sexual liberty, Wright seems to chafe within his monogamous but (from Himes's perspective) frustratingly bourgeois marriage. Because Himes cannot imagine a friendship with Wright, he forecloses possible friendship and intimacy.
Perhaps the most violent repudiation of Wright that Himes could contrive within the autobiography is the rejection of Wright as a literary mentor, in favor of William Faulkner, Himes's “secret mentor” (Life 169). Himes writes, “I had no desire to write like Dick: Faulkner had the utter influence over my writing” (217). Faulkner, Himes claimed, had a clear sense of life's absurdity, and therefore Faulkner was far closer to Himes's vision of a tormented world than Wright, who seemingly was unable to detach himself emotionally from his own characters. Racial coding in Faulkner's characters paradoxically makes Faulkner seem artistically closer to Himes. The character of Joe Christmas, in one of Himes's favorite books, led Himes to an emotional identification with Faulkner, who, he conjectured, understood the absurd situation of African Americans better than Wright himself:
I read Faulkner's Sanctuary and Light in August; I would crack up reading how the old white Southerner would taunt his grandson by telling him, “You're a nigger, you're a nigger. …” I would feel like running through the street crying “I'm a nigger, I'm a nigger. …” It was lunacy.
In this context, beyond the obvious privileging of the white author over Himes's direct black antecedent, one must recall Faulkner's well-known criticism of Wright and of African-American literature, made in Japan in 1955: Wright, said Faulkner, “had a great deal of talent,” but
[h]e wrote one good book and then he went astray, he got too concerned in the difference between the Negro man and the white man and he stopped being a writer and became a Negro. … Another one named Ellison has talent and so far he has managed to stay away from being first a Negro, he is still first a writer.
Himes's argument for Faulkner's preeminence is contextualized by the respect accorded to Faulkner during the 1960s and 1970s, as opposed to the dismissive attitude toward Wright's work. Himes takes sides against Wright in a critical debate that situated Wright as a distinct inferior, particularly among white literary critics. William Andrews summarizes the segregated nature of literary criticism during this time regarding Faulkner and Wright: “In Faulkner's shadow lurked Richard Wright, but Wright's perspective … was judged parochial next to Faulkner's much-vaunted universality” (1).
Beyond his personal derogation and repudiation of a literary nexus, Himes's autobiography could be read as an encoded “slaying” of Wright's Black Boy and American Hunger—Himes's “signifyin(g)” of Wright, to use H. L. Gates's term to describe intertextual competition among African-American writers (290). More indirect than James Baldwin's distancing from Wright, Himes subverts many of Wright's most essential themes in Wright's autobiography. The Quality of Hurt and My Life of Absurdity—in their contemptuous rejection of Wright's political vision and in Himes's insistence upon his own sexuality—could be interpreted as an implicit repudiation of Wright's own politicized (and almost asexual) autobiography, Black Boy (1945). More important, Himes eschews the “hopeful ending” of Wright's autobiography that, as Janice Thaddeus has pointed out, was imposed on Black Boy by Wright's publishers.12 If Wright (as Thaddeus argues) at first intended to write an “open” autobiography but failed because of the pressure of his editors, Himes pointedly refuses to conclude his autobiography on “a note of triumph.” Unlike Wright's text, Himes's autobiography insists on a world of deprivation, unrelieved oppression, barely controlled rage, and rebellion—in Himes's favorite word, an unrelenting experience of racial “absurdity.” By creating an autobiography that essentially denies the world Wright depicted in his autobiography, Himes's “slaying” of his literary forbearer transcends the merely personal.
THE “SERIOUS SAVAGE”: HIMES AND THE AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL FORM
Himes's repudiation of the formal expectations of the autobiography go beyond his personal relationship with Richard Wright and his intertextual combat with Wright's autobiography. This rejection extends to the conventions of the autobiographical form itself. Although some disagreement exists as to the nature of the genre, surely the controlling expectation a reader brings to an autobiography is that a completed identity will be expressed in the narrative—a rounded, thoroughly known self, encapsulated in the past tense, that the author has meditated upon. In a seminal essay on the genre of autobiography, Georges Gusdorf writes, “Autobiography … requires a man to take a distance with regard to himself in order to reconstitute himself in the focus of his special unity and identity across time” (35). Roy Pascal argues that this quest for “special unity” is an almost formulaic feature of the genre: it “imposes a pattern on a life, constructs out of it a coherent story” (9). The autobiographer's retrospection and his or her faith in the language to construct a self, should lead to a rounded narrative with a strong sense of closure. Ross Miller writes, “The pose of the autobiographer as an experienced man is particularly effective because we expect to hear from someone who has a completed sense of his own life and is therefore in a position to tell what he has discovered” (231). In a much more dramatic tone, Roger Rosenblatt writes that “Every autobiography is an extended suicide note; both announcement and vindication of the event. The life recorded is the life complete to a specific point, and is therefore as good as dead” (178). Though the life is not ended, the reader expects the autobiographer's Aristotelian curve: a plot with a beginning, middle, and definite end; a closed narrative that relates a conceptualized “meaning” that summarizes the writer's existence.13
But Himes resists a reader's attempt to enfold his life within these generic criteria. He deliberately fills his autobiography with trivia to deflect the reader from other, more serious considerations that would lead to an inference of completed meaning of the self. He is especially concerned in overturning a reader's possibly complacent sense of realism in the autobiographical genre. It is as if Himes intends the reader to sense the comic absurdity of a scrupulous concern for accurate representation, given the racist system an African American must confront. For example, he gives the addresses of acquaintances, and then explains that they died or moved (e.g., Life 253, 388). The reader learns of bad restaurants (Life 319, 370, 387; Quality 219), the menu at a much better restaurant (Life 335), the illnesses of his cat (Life 301-5), his neighbors' obnoxious pets (Quality 321), and the misbehavior of his dog Mikey. He goes into inordinate detail about the various pets he owned, even dedicating My Life to his wife “and our cat, DEROS.”
He similarly subverts the conventional inclusion of photographs in an autobiography; photography in an autobiography is supposedly a stringently realistic text, to be “read” just as the literary text itself is interpreted. Himes, however, includes photos that deny an easy assumption that life can be captured in a photo. Several of his photos (ones of his mother and of himself) are full-faced. But other photos humorously taunt the reader attempting to discover Himes. His dog Mikey, for example, is fully featured in two pictures, and two other dogs appear in two other pictures. Four pictures (one a single photo) feature his pet cats, although DEROS does not appear. Two photos depict Himes with his cars; one car is apparently malfunctioning while Himes (dressed in a suit) attempts to repair it. One of the few pictures portraying another African-American writer, Ralph Ellison, is taken from a great distance, so it is impossible to tell which figure he is in the photo.
Himes's playful evasiveness also colors his narrative. He goes into great detail about an automobile he purchased, telling its price, its malfunctioning, its repairs, etc. Knowing that he is violating the generic convention that only “important” material be included in an autobiography, Himes writes: “If one thinks I'm writing too much of my autobiography to my secondhand Volkswagon, that is the way it was” (Life 157)—toying with the reader's expectation of a realistic description of significant events—“that is the way it was.”
In a more conventional autobiography (e.g., Wright's), the tortured story of Himes's adolescence and childhood would be “justified” by an adult perspective characterized by a transcendent and unifying vision, acceptance, and integration. In the beginning of the narrative, Himes establishes these conventional generic expectations of autobiographer's sense of completion. That is, he seems to initiate on his first page (when he intimates his reasons for living in Paris) the generic structural movement from the utter chaos and invisibility of his childhood, adolescence, and imprisonment, to a retrospection in which he reassembles his life's fragmentation into a “special unity.” There were “many reasons” he left America, he tells the reader (Quality 3). But Himes comically upends the reader's expectations in the text's conclusion. He ends the first volume not with his self-vindication, his affirmation of an identity as an expatriate gained through suffering and meditation, but with a letter of apology to a friend for a bounced check that he had intentionally written. The bounced check, however, is a message in itself to the reader of his autobiography. Himes is ending his autobiography by defining himself as a trickster, engaging the world in its most significantly empirical form—money—and then misrepresenting himself and his situation. Furthermore, the deliberately bounced check is itself a literary text, a sign to be interpreted within the context of Himes's generic subversion.
Himes's refusal to play strictly by the genre's rules is emphasized especially in the second volume. Critics have conjectured that the “failure” of My Life is the effect of Himes's illness (he suffered from Parkinson's Disease), his progressively weakening eyesight, poor editing by publishers, or simply Himes's ineptness or artistic indifference. A reading more sympathetic to his oppositional stance leads to a realization that Himes's autobiographical decisions are deliberate and calculated. “Genres,” writes Frederic Jameson, “are essentially literary institutions, or social contracts between a writer and a specific public” (106). Thus, when Himes intentionally violates the conventions of the form and averts in obvious ways the reader's most elementary expectations, he voids Jameson's sense of literary conventions as the “social contract.”
Comically overturning literary convention, moreover, implies his latent aggression towards his readership. Himes remarked in an interview with John A. Williams, “I want these people [his white readership] just to take me seriously. I don't care if they think I'm a barbarian, a savage, or what they think; just think I'm a serious savage” (314). Explicit in Himes's remark is a distrust, verging on hostility, of his readership; a vision of himself as an autobiographer that undermines the reader's complacencies about race and gender so that finally he or she begins to hear what he is trying to say. In The Quality of Hurt, Himes writes that he survived his prison experience only by rage: “I had such violent seizures of rage that I made men twice my size quake with fright. In my fits of insensate fury I would have smashed the world, crushed it in my hands, kicked down the universe” (62). He succeeds in channelling his rage into his literature: In My Life, he writes, “I had come to a final decision a long time ago when I was in prison that I was going to live as long as possible to aggravate the white race” (314). The aggravation he intends to inflict is produced in his manipulation of the autobiography genre, a commodity consumed by those readers eager for a considered “truth” about Himes's unique African-American experience. His “serious savagery” is subtly implied in his aggression against his reader, and his own sensibility leads him to wrench conventional forms.
How are we to assess his work? Himes is uninterested in the opportunity the genre offers to reveal his subjective experience and uncover the causal patterns of his life. For example, most of the critics who discuss Himes's autobiography are puzzled that Himes chooses to withhold from his reader why he began writing fiction in the first place.14 Just as Frederick Douglass neglects to narrate the details of his escape, Himes never explains why he chose to begin writing in prison. But such a personal revelation is irrelevant to his fundamental concerns. Himes is concerned mainly with interrogating the traditional autobiographical form of a completed, considered life. Himes challenges the authority of autobiographical conventions by refusing to comment on his most private decisions, and by “concluding” his narrative casually, with irresolution, with a sense that any presentation of a self is only provisional.15 To determine precisely what he does is to call into question the socio-political nature of reader-response literary analysis, especially since theorists are often indirect or evasive in treating how a (white, middle-class especially) reader confronts a text written by an African American, particularly a writer so long ignored as Himes has been.
Briefly, reader-response criticism examines the effects of a text on a reader, or on “interpretive communities.” In essence, the reader in this model is forced to engage with a text to shape its meaning himself or herself; no passive recipient of a predetermined meaning, the reader actively processes a text that is filled with gaps, erasures, and blanks, to construct a meaning that is his or her own. Aesthetic meaning emerges, then, from a process of interaction between the reader and the fissiparous text. The aesthetic object, which Wolfgang Iser in The Act of Reading identifies as the meaning of the text, varies “in accordance with the social and cultural code of each individual reader” (93).
The “social and cultural code,” however, remains problematic for a writer who chooses to reject traditional Euro-American autobiographical models. Robert B. Stepto has brilliantly called into question the reader-response approach offered by Iser, Stanley Fish, Jonathan Culler, and other theorists. Stepto has proposed that African-American writers, anticipating the skepticism or even hostility of their (white) readers, have been led to “create and refine … a discourse of distrust” (312). Stepto contends that an African-American author posits an unreliable reader who himself or herself must be assaulted:
In Afro-American storytelling texts especially, rhetoric and narrative strategy combine time and again to declare that the principal unreliable factor in the storytelling paradigm is the reader (white American readers, obviously, but blacks as well), and that acts of creative communication are fully initiated not when the text is assaulted but when the reader gets “told”—or “told off”—in such a way that he or she finally begins to hear. It is usually in this way that most written tales express their distrust not just of readers but of official literate culture in general.
This is precisely what Himes is accomplishing: he is using his autobiographies to disappoint and frustrate the reader, to “tell the reader off.” In challenging the formal shaping of the autobiography genre itself, Himes challenges the (white) literary establishment that endows an autobiography with meaning. He forces a re-examination of covert assumptions about literary forms. For an African American like Himes, Euro-American discourse and discursive structures have been used primarily to oppress. For Himes, racism functions in the subtlest expressions, the most obvious forms. The conventional autobiographical form—because it assumes closure, coherence, and meditative meaning—leaves Himes no space to speak with force and political power.
Himes does not merely ignore literary conventions. He defies them. He structures his work in patterns of violated expectations; he first asks us to read his text as an autobiography, but then deliberately leads us to question the critical conventions on which our readings are based. Thus, the fictive frame of his work is constantly being broken. Involuntarily, the reader of Himes's literature is led to see the consequences of racism in America in Himes's own rage—against his family, his colleagues, his women, and finally against his own readership. Describing one of his earlier books, Himes writes, “I had intended to write about the deadly venom of racial prejudice which kills both racists and their victims” (Quality 112). By “telling [the reader] off,” Himes keeps alive in the reader's imagination his struggle against racism.
There are, presumably, many reasons for the scholarly neglect of Chester Himes. The last thirty years of his life were spent in Paris although Himes never became the internationally known figure Richard Wright was. Himes's work, including the autobiographies, has gone in and out of print in part as a consequence of his tumultuous relationship with his agents and publishers. Himes himself had a theory about critical indifference to his work: he believed that the white publishing world rewarded only “one black at a time,” and he was eclipsed by the more famous Wright, and then by James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. Yet in reading the autobiographies, one senses that a major reason for Himes's neglect may be that he deliberately creates a very unappealing self-portrait, one that virtually assaults the reader. In his autobiography, he mocks his family, commits crimes, brutalizes his women companions, and betrays his wife, his friends, and his patrons. It is as if his own rage inspires his work. Himes's aggression cuts across literary precursors to life choices and narrative structures. At the heart of his aggression is his unrelieved Oedipal revolt.
For other discussions of this incident, see Chamey, Fabre 362-3, and Leeming 64-5. For Baldwin's account, see his essay “Alas, Poor Richard” (156-9). Baldwin remembers a rather cordial discussion with Wright.
Dudley's study of the male African-American autobiography develops two themes in seven writers: the Oedipal revolt against precursorial literary models and “a three-part pattern of bondage, flight, and freedom as the prevalent pattern of men's writing” (10). Although he does not discuss Himes, Dudley's model is useful in illuminating Himes's intertextual relationship with Wright's Black Boy. However, my study differs from Dudley's in my attempt to demonstrate Himes's Oedipal dynamic influencing both life and narrative. For a discussion of the Oedipal Complex in Himes's fiction, see Reckley.
Both Person and Brod argue that “masculinity” is as much a social construct as is “femininity.” As Brod writes in asserting the need for a systematic “men's studies,” “[t]he most general definition of men's studies is that it is the study of masculinities and male experiences as specific and varying social-historical-cultural formations” (40).
Himes's mother's propensity for gun-play is recounted dramatically in his autobiographical novel The Third Generation (1954), when “she took a small revolver from her purse and aimed it at the white man's back” (100). His own identification with his mother goes further: Chester carries his mother's name, Bomar, and explains that before he began his own autobiography, he reviewed her autobiographical sketches (Quality 121), though he did not use them.
Houston Baker, in his review of The Quality of Hurt, discovers an absence of “group consciousness” in the volume (90) and hypothesizes that an African-American reader, expecting African American solidarity, will be disappointed. Perhaps Himes's resistance to brotherhood begins with his tortured relationship with his mother's ambivalence to race, but the frustration that a black reader may experience is entirely deliberate.
A simplistic view of Himes's troubling behavior towards women would be that his violence is somehow “within him,” evidence of a possible personal disturbance to explain his battering. Himes himself implies this explanation, suggesting that he was an almost passive agent of his own violence: “I discovered I had become very violent” (Quality 47). Possibly abuse was linked to Himes's wish to demonstrate his masculinity, a cause of violence “more frequent than realized,” according to Davidson (37).
A more complex view of his violence, however, considers his violent background, his learned response to stress while in prison, black powerlessness in society, and the patriarchal structure of his world. From this perspective, violence is generated not only by the individual, but finds its origin in the interactions of systems that enmesh the individual. Giles-Sims writes: “A general systems theory of family violence assumes that violence is the outcome of the complex social interaction within the family system which exists as part of a larger social system” (19).
Himes planned three volumes of his autobiography. Each volume was to revolve around his relationship with a woman. The last volume was to describe the relationship with his wife.
In this context, consult Russell on the concept of the “virility mystique.” See also Brod, esp. 51-3.
For a discussion of Himes within the context of the African-American expatriation to Europe in the 1940s and 1950s, see Margolies.
He meets the first lover, Alva Trent Van Olden Bameveldt (Willa Thompson), on the ship's passage across the Atlantic. While they live together, he completes his novel, The End of the Primitive; in a letter to his agent, he explains the inspiration Alva provides: “No, I have not killed Alva. I found I was able to do it with my imagination in creating the [novel's] murder scene. So she is still here” (Life 311). Although they collaborate on a novel, when it is rejected by publishers, she suffers a deep depression that makes life difficult for Himes; her departure for America is a relief for him.
Another white lover, Vandi Haygood, is addicted to drugs and alcohol; in a mutually abusive relationship, the two finally split up never to see each other again. She eventually dies young, perhaps of an intentional overdose of barbiturates.
Fabre speculates that Himes's attacks on Wright spring from a thinly veiled envy: “But Himes felt estranged from the novelist who had made it [Wright]: … Was Himes resentful of Wright's success and security?” (219).
Thaddeus's thesis, that Wright was forced to submit a truncated ending to his autobiography in order to be published at all during the war years, exonerates Wright from the implication that he simply caved in to his editors. Though willing to accommodate with his publishers' requests, Wright had no clear idea of the kind of drastic changes that were to be made in his text's conclusion.
Olney also argues that the genre is self-consciously literary, even in earliest autobiographies (4).
For criticism of Himes's reticence about discussing his own motives for writing, see Hairston, Lederer, and Skeeter.
Cf. Werner: “[The] insistence on the continuity of the self … becomes a leitmotif in Afro-Modernist autobiographies” (211).
Andrews, William L. “Mark Twain, William Wells Brown, and the Problem of Authority in New South Writing.” Southern Literature and Literary Theory. Ed. Jefferson Humphries. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1990. 1-21.
———. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1986.
Baker, Houston A., Jr. Rev. of The Quality of Hurt, by Chester Himes. Black World 21 (July 1972): 89-91.
Baldwin, James. Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son. New York: Dell, 1961.
Braxton, Joanne M. Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition within a Tradition. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1989.
Brod, Harry. “The Case for Men's Studies.” The Making of Masculinities: The New Men's Studies. Ed. Brod. Boston: Allen, 1987. 39-62.
Butterfield, Stephen. Black Autobiography in America. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1974.
Charney, Maurice. “James Baldwin's Quarrel with Richard Wright.” American Quarterly 15 (1963): 65-75.
Davidson, Terry. Conjugal Crime: Understanding and Changing the Wifebeating Pattern. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1978.
Dudley, David L. My Father's Shadow: Intergenerational Conflict in African American Men's Autobiography. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1991.
Eakin, Paul John. “Malcolm X and the Limits of Autobiography.” Olney, Autobiography 181-93.
Fabre, Michel. From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840-1980. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1991.
Faulkner, William. Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner, 1926-1962. Eds. James B. Meriwether and Michael Millgate. New York: Random House, 1968.
Franklin, H. Bruce. The Victim as Criminal and Artist: Literature from the American Prison. New York: Oxford UP, 1978.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
Giles-Sims, Jean. Wife Battering: A Systems Theory Approach. New York: Guilford, 1983.
Gusdorf, Georges. “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography.” Trans. James Olney. Olney, Autobiography 28-47.
Hairston, Loyal. “Chester Himes—An Indigenous Exile.” Freedomways 12.2 (1972): 155-8.
Himes, Chester. The Quality of Hurt: The Early Years. New York: Paragon House, 1971, 1972.
———. My Life of Absurdity. New York: Doubleday, 1976.
———. The Third Generation. New York: Thunder's Mouth, 1989.
Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.
Jelinek, Estelle C. The Tradition of Women's Autobiography: From Antiquity to the Present. Boston: Twayne, 1986.
Leeming, David. James Baldwin: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1994.
Lederer, Norman. Rev. of The Quality of Hurt, by Chester Himes. America 15 April 1972: 408.
Margolies, Edward. “Experiences of the Black Expatriate Writer: Chester Himes.” CLA Journal 15 (June 1972): 421-7.
Milliken, Stephen F. Chester Himes: A Critical Appraisal. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1976.
Miller, Ross. “Autobiography as Fact and Fiction: Franklin, Adams, Malcolm X.” Centennial Review 16 (1972): 221-32.
Muller, Gilbert H. Chester Himes. Boston: Twayne, 1989.
Olney, James. “Autobiography and the Cultural Moment: A Thematic, Historical, and Bibliographical Introduction.” Olney, Autobiography 3-27.
———, ed. Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton UP, 1980.
Pascal, Roy. Design and Truth in Autobiography. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1960.
Person, Leland S., Jr. “Henry James, George Sand, and the Suspension of Masculinity.” PMLA 106.3 (1991): 515-28.
Reckley, Ralph. “The Oedipal Complex and Interracial Conflict in Chester Himes' The Third Generation.” College Language Association Journal 21 (1977): 275-81.
Rosenblatt, Roger. “Black Autobiography: Life as the Death Weapon.” Olney, Autobiography 169-80.
Russell, Diana E. H. The Politics of Rape: The Victim's Perspective. Briarcliff Manor, NY: Stein and Day, 1975.
Skeeter, Sharyn J. Rev. of The Quality of Hurt, by Chester Himes.” Essence 3 (August 1972): 81.
Stepto, Robert B. “Distrust of the Reader in Afro-American Narratives.” Reconstructing American Literary History. Ed. Sacvan Bercovitch. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986. 300-22.
———. From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1979.
Thaddeus, Janice. “The Metamorphosis of Richard Wright's Black Boy.” American Literature 57.2 (1985): 199-214.
Werner, Craig. “On the Ends of Afro-American ‘Modernist’ Autobiography.” Black American Literature Forum 24.2 (1990): 203-20.
Williams, John A. “My Man Himes: An Interview with Chester Himes.” Flashbacks: A Twenty-year Diary of Article Writing. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974.
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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 productions.
Sallis, James. Chester Himes: A Life. New York: Walker and Company, 2001, 368 p.
A study of Himes in the context of his times and life experiences, with an assumption that Himes was the most important American black writer.
Cochran, David. America Noir: Underground Writers and Filmmakers of the Postwar Era. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000, 280 p.
A study of several “underground” writers, including Himes, and film directors from post-World War II America.
Fabre, Michel, and Robert E. Skinner, editors. Conversations with Chester Himes. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995, 150 p.
Series of interviews with Himes conducted over a period of years.
Silet, Charles L. P., editor. The Critical Response to Chester Himes. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999, 288 p.
Excerpts from literary criticism on Himes over several decades.
Additional coverage of Himes's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African-American Writers, Ed. 2; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography and Resources, Vol. 2; Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 2; Black Writers, Ed. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28R, 114; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 22, 89; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 4, 7, 18, 58, 108; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 76, 143, 226; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Mystery and Suspense Writers; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; and St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, Vol. 4.
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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 that when poor Jews left, even Negroes, as we said, found it easy to settle on the margins of Brownsville.
—Alfred Kazin, A Walker in the City
These were the poorest people of the South, who poured into New York City during the decade following the Great Depression. … They felt as the Pilgrims must have felt when they were coming to America. But these descendants of Ham must have been twice as happy as the Pilgrims, because they had been catching twice the hell. … The children of these disillusioned colored pioneers inherited the total lot of their parents—the disappointments, the anger. To add to their misery, they had little hope of deliverance. For where does one run to when he's already in the promised land?
—Claude Brown, Manchild in the Promised Land
Certain pairings of texts from different literary or cultural traditions—say, Conrad's Nostromo and García Márquez's Hundred Years of Solitude, or Gogol's story “The Overcoat” and Melville's “Bartleby the Scrivener”—make a natural kind of sense, marriages, if you will, born of more than just creative matchmaking. But Saul Bellow and Chester Himes? A high-cultural Nobelist and an equally driven, willful ex-convict, the one a testament to the ideology of literary man as thinker and of Jew as “humanist,” the other to that of writer as raw force and Black man as art—“my form, myself”?1
Imagine a line extending from the totemic fiction of Malamud's Tenants at one end to the polemic friction between Blacks and Jews, as replayed by Harold Cruse and Cynthia Ozick, at the other.2 Call it a single narrative of blackjewishrelations (which I spell as one word to emphasize the inflated quality of this particular piece of symbolic capital)—a literary history of sorts, short but bitter. Haven't the organizing structures of fiction and journalism, then, already beaten literary criticism to the punch? Where, in other words, is there space on that “line” for another “point,” another story?
With its hypertrophied Jew and its elemental Black, Malamud's novel alone would seem to consign the unlikely conjunction of real-life writers like Bellow and Himes to the twilight zone of the uncanny. Ozick's and Cruse's (albeit dated) analyses of the cultural politics pitting Black intellectuals against Jewish undercut the very idea. No doubt Bellow (and Himes, were he still alive) would chafe at being so associated even on the accessory, ad hoc plane of “representational thematics,” the interpretative school to which my “thematics of recognition” belongs.
Nevertheless, of all possible paired texts by American Black and Jewish authors, If He Hollers Let Him Go and The Victim seem to me one of the most apropos, for in conjunction they uncannily convert exegesis into political, and ethical, exigency, into an ethical-politics of recognition. If we regard literary history and criticism alike as venues of “social space,” a space formed by the ligatures, the binding ties, which interventive readings forge or create, then “intertextuality” signifies a critical task as much as a property of texts themselves.3
Whether the lived realities of anti-Semitism and racism can be doubletracked (and I do not gainsay the need to do so, if I do not feel sanguine about the outcome), an identity politics which cordons off these texts from one another or backlights them against the separate horizons of “African American” and “Jewish American” literature makes for a pinched and hamstrung criticism. A dynamic of engagement, however, places these novels in a relationship of genuine tension, facing off in a textual encounter. Such “dialogizing” of literary invention by Blacks and Jews does not necessarily carry over into public discourse or Lebenswelt. (Gloss, not glass, best describes representation's relation to the Real anyway, as Brecht knew when he endorsed cigarette smoke interposed before his aesthetic “mirrors.”4) But neither is literary criticism merely academic with recognition as the shared optic for reading these texts, bending their combined light toward a critically engineered public space. To the degree that “the public” is the vector generated by points, or acts, of ethical encounter, literary analysis of this sort should have genuine ethical force.
Accordingly, the term “face,” a recurrent motif in these texts, functions as part of a “thematics of recognition,” a representational grammar internal to the texts themselves. But as a metaphor for staging ethical encounter, it also serves as an external hinge between their African American and Jewish American imaginaries, hence facing Black and Jew. “Face” functions in a frankly Levinassian mode here as well, with the role assigned to ethics in my formulation “an ethical-politics of recognition.” With the qualifying adjective supervening in the phrase, “politics” becomes the more dependent and anchored term. “Ethical-politics” thus signifies a politicizing of specifically Levinassian themes and categories here, and the “politics of recognition” consequently undergoes a certain skewing, at least so far as its terms have been defined by Charles Taylor and others.5
If we take the title of Emmanuel Levinas's essay “Politics After!” at face value, “politics” becomes the supervening term in an already ethical formulation; the political moment, while crucial, arrives late (or prematurely, as the case may be). Even if we grant, with Roger Simon, that the politics of recognition is “based on the assumption that the public assertion of the collective history to which one belongs is supposed to serve as a corrective to some deficit in self-esteem,”6 selfhood's esteem already labors under a deficit incurred vis-à-vis the Other. To put it another way, before victimization becomes badge, flag, or redoubt, it is grasping hand and seeing eye, the phenomenal constitutiveness of human encounter. “The articulation of identities,” as Simon notes, “cannot be reduced to a personal desire for cultural acknowledgment. What's at stake must be written in different terms.”7
Asa Leventhal, one of several candidates for the titular condition of Bellow's Victim, comes not from Brownsville but from Hartford, Connecticut, that is, from one of those “middle class districts that showed the way to New York” rather than from somewhere truly impoverished. Still, having for a time drifted on New York's Lower East Side, “starved and thin,” he has learned that Kazin's “getting away from it” can also mean getting away with it: “He had almost fallen in with that part of humanity of which he was frequently mindful (he never forgot the hotel on lower Broadway), the part that did not get away with it—the lost, the outcast, the overcome, the effaced, the ruined.”8 In Kazin's terms, Bellow's protagonist has come to mark a division between a “they” and a “we,” and we must conclude with him that “to settle on the margins” promises a less than happy ending, tantamount as it is to being set apart, singled out, enclosed.
“Even,” pace Kazin, for “Negroes.” Take, for instance, Bob Jones, the titular—though elided—“nigger” in Himes's If He Hollers Let Him Go. Conversant, like Leventhal, with the dilemmas of marginality, of the “end of the line,” of they and we, Jones too learns hard lessons of mis-placement. And, in a sense, he also knows what getting away from/with it means. But his fate remains far more penumbral than Asa's, and he catches “twice the hell,” since for Bob place rhymes much more than accidentally with race. Framed for rape at the end of the novel (a trumped-up charge in which the court colludes), he is given “a break” by the judge and allowed to enlist in the army rather than be incarcerated:
“If I let you join the armed forces—any branch you want—will you give me your word you'll stay away from white women and keep out of trouble?” I wanted to just break out and laugh like the Marine in my dream, laugh and keep on laughing. 'Cause all I ever wanted was just a little thing—just to be a man. But I kept a straight face, got the words through my oversized lips. “Yes sir, I promise.” … Two hours later I was in the Army.9
That is how Himes's novel ends, and a similar mood of éminence grise and scene of escort occurs in the last paragraph of The Victim:
“Wait a minute, what's your idea of who runs things?” said Leventhal. But he heard Mary's voice at his back. Allbee ran in and sprang up the stairs. The bell continued its dinning, and Leventhal and Mary were still in the aisle when the houselights went off. An usher showed them to their seats.10
How it feels to be “Colored” (or Jewishme/Jewish) or (Black) like me: we, in contradistinction to you, in relation to they—that most durable of tropes in the literature of ethnic auto/biography. Kazin and Brown sketch it in my epigraphs as the difference between identity's home and its beyond. Bellow's and Himes's texts, however, begin in situ, taking the otherness of place for granted as merely laying the ground for the otherness of person—or of self. Even a matter as ostensibly benign as pronominal deixis—the marking out of you or your, those or my, “people”—in these novels demonstrates an equally underlying politics and poetics; indeed, pronouns and proper nouns could, in a way, be considered their twin “theme”—the discursive machinery, the “attack-words,” in Elias Canetti's phrase, of anti-Semitism and racism.11
A related but even more embodied thematic pattern in these two novels, however, propels The Victim and If He Hollers Let Him Go from their very first pages: a persistent, even obsessive, concern with the human face as subject and object, as tenor and vehicle, ultimately as field for recognition. Bellow's novel begins with two epigraphs, a parable of accountability from The 1001 Nights and the following quotation from Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater: “Be that as it may, now it was upon the rocking waters of the ocean the human face began to reveal itself; the sea appeared paved with innumerable faces, upturned to the heavens, faces imploring, wrathful, despairing; faces that surged upward by thousands, by myriads, by generations.” In the case of Himes's text, the novel proper opens with a series of hallucinatory visages. In the first of five dream-set pieces corresponding to the five days of the story's action and telescoping the novel's propulsive anatomy of racial animosity, Jones dreams of a Black man given the task of “look[ing] at the dead body of Frankie Childs in the face.” Jones then turns over in his sleep and conjures up a second tableau of humiliation, a dream which centers on his own excruciated fascination with two white faces persistently laughing at his own. Upon waking, Jones laments that he has been recently greeting the day with fear and trembling, which he correlates with the “handicap” of race, now brought home to him all the more powerfully by recalling “the look of people's faces when you asked them about a job.”12
In fact, the differentia specifica of figure, physiognomy, and hue runs absolutely riot in Himes's novel, an obsessive feature of the text's descriptive field:
The first to be called was a medium-sized, well built, fast walking dark brown man of about thirty-five.
She was a full-bodied, slow-motioned home girl with a big broad flat face, flat nosed and thick-lipped; yellow but not bright.
He was a thin, wiry nervous Irishman with a blood-red, beaked face and close set bright blue eyes.
[I] straightened up, face to face, with a tall white girl in a leather welder's suit … a peroxide blonde with a large-featured, overly made-up face, and she had a large, bright-painted fleshy mouth, kidney shaped.
A short, dumpy, brown-skinned girl with slow-rolling eyes and a tiny pouting mouth let us in.
A light-complexioned, simple-looking girl with a pretty face and dangling hair sat on the arm of an empty chair. … A slim, good-looking fellow about her colour with conked yellow hair and a hairline mustache sat on the middle of the davenport.13
At the same time, the novel compulsively stages scenes of face-to-face “recognition”:
Something drew her gaze and she looked up into my eyes. We held gazes until I stopped just in front of her.
Looking up, I caught a young captain's eye. He didn't turn away when our gazes met; he didn't change expression; he just watched us with the intent stare of the analyst.
The white woman next to me stopped talking and looked around. I could feel her gaze on me. … Our eyes met. … She looked away after a moment and I looked into the mirror and met the eyes of the man on the other side of her.
We both jumped back from pure reflex. Then recognition came into his eyes and his face turned greenish white. It froze him, nailed him to the spot. For a moment I was stunned. I'd never seen a white man scared before, not craven, not until you couldn't see the white for the scare.14
In the case of Bellow's novel, albeit less blatantly than Himes's, the entire narrative and its imagistic tension follow, one could say, from the looks traded by and the prolonged mutual “studying” of two faces—Leventhal's and his nemesis, Allbee's—a Jewish and a non-Jewish face, the one delineated as such, the other through implicit contrast (we are told mainly that Allbee is tall and blonde):
Some such vague thing was in Leventhal's mind while he waited his turn at the drinking spout, when suddenly he had a feeling that he was not merely looked at but watched. Unless he was greatly mistaken a man was scrutinizing him, pacing slowly with him as the line moved.
Well, now you've found out that I still exist and you're going home, is that it? … I mean that you just wanted to have a look at me … wanted to see me.
But now and then, moving from cage to cage, gazing at the animals, Leventhal, in speaking to Philip, or smoking, or smiling, was so conscious of Allbee, so certain he was of being scrutinized, that he was able to see himself as if through a strange pair of eyes: the side of his face, the palpitation of his throat. … Changed in this way into his own observer, he was able to see Allbee, too … his raggedly overgrown neck, the bulge of his cheeks, the color of blood in his ear.
He had a particularly vivid recollection of the explicit recognition in Allbee's eyes which he could not doubt was the double of his own.15
While these passages may suggest merely descriptive contours for a thematics of “face,” Levinas's phenomenological ethics can provide more elaborate exegetical possibilities. Extending “face and recognition” in Levinassian ethics to the thematics of ethnic literature also politicizes Levinas's work in turn, thereby allowing us to trace one path from exegesis to ethics and back again, “from ethics to exegesis,” in Levinas's terms.16
In Levinas's philosophy, “ethics” means more than an account of norms for human sociality; it is first philosophy (and therefore prior to ontology) because it marks the very ground of being, its power lying precisely in its ab-original character. Levinassian ethics sees “in justice and injustice a primordial access to the other beyond all ontology.”17 This is not justice as fairness, as Rawls has defined it.18 The “original position” for Levinas is not predicated upon a veil of ignorance which guarantees each person a similarity of position to, but not vis-à-vis with, all the others; neither is it the rationally willed categorical imperative of a Kantian moral agent vis-à-vis objective norms of social relation. Nor, finally, is it the communitarian ideal of a society rooted in attachments, hydra-headed in its collective vis-à-vis. Instead, this “original position” is simply, and radically, vis-à-vis: the intersubjective drama of face-to-face encounter, the independent self “unseated” from selfhood by the moral claim posed by the other person in his/her alterity. As lived obligation, as relatedness “undergone,” ethics, then, is featured and bodied forth by visage. Ethics is presystematic because it stands above all as manifested, that is, as directly experienced through the concrete, immanent, and sensuous encounter with the Other. And it is the human face, a primordial “upsurge,” which marks the site of such encounter. “Even when he does not regard me,” Levinas fondly quotes the Song of Songs, “he regards me.”
Along with its power to show forth—its phenomenal character—the face is defined for Levinas by its capacity for language. The face as primordial manifestation speaks, and in so doing enjoins responsibility; it says, “You will not kill.” As Levinas explains,
“Thou shalt not kill” or “Thou shalt love thy neighbor” not only forbids the violence of murder: it also concerns all the slow and invisible killing committed in our desires and our vices, in all the innocent cruelties of natural life, in our indifference of “good conscience” to what is far and what is near, even in the haughty obstinacy of our objectifying and our thematizing, in all the consecrated injustices due to our atomic weight of individuals and the equilibrium of our social orders.19
The biblical topos here is not incidental to the argument, for Levinas has particularized the metaphysical thrust of all his work—independent of his philosophical writings—in a series of essays on Jewish identity and in Talmudic commentary.20 But particularity serves as both problem and problematic here. On the one hand, Levinas typically identifies it with privileged (i.e., “seated”) positions of autonomy, a positionality that he castigates:
The original perseverance of being in its being, of the individualism of being, the persistence or insistence of beings in the guise of individuals jealous for their part, this particularism of the inert, substantivized into things, particularism of the enrooted vegetable being, of the wild animal fighting for its existence, and of the soul, the “owner and interested party” Bossuet speaks of, this particularism exacerbated into egoism or into political “totalities,” ready or readying themselves for war, is reversed into “Thou shalt not kill,” into the care of one being for another being, into non-in-difference of one toward the other.21
Or, to put it another way, the “narcissism of little differences” (Freud) simply picks up where primary narcissism leaves off. Yet, on the other hand, Levinas just as consistently privileges the specific textual and prophetic traditions of Jewish peoplehood as uniquely embedded particulars grounding a universal drive toward justice: Israel as “a figure in which a primordial mode of the human is revealed.”22 Elsewhere, he explicates “Judaism” as follows:
As a prophetic moment of human reason where every man—and all of man—end[s] up redefining one another, Judaism would not mean simply a nationality, a species in a type and contingency of History. Judaism, rather, is a rupture of the natural and the historical … as if Jewish destiny were a crack in the shell of imperturbable being and the awakening to an insomnia in which the inhuman is no longer covered up and hidden by the political necessities which it shapes, and no longer excused by their universality.23
A similar argument can be—and has been—made about race, such as Frantz Fanon's analysis of hypostatized Blackness: “[The Jew] and I may be separated by the sexual question, but we have one point in question. Both of us stand for evil.”24 As even the sexual distinction drawn here is debatable, the unifying point, I think, is symbolic capital, the capacity to “stand for,” to represent both particularly and universally. And indeed, Levinas expressly concerns himself with the presymbolic, or what we might call the precultural—ethics as a dimension of height which arrests and contests the laterality, or mutual translatability, of independent realms and nationhoods.25 Height is ascribed to ethics but also, more vexedly, to “Judaism”—a singular witness to the irruption of ethics into being and, more concretely, of what Levinas calls “Holy History” into the ongoing formation and dissolution of cultures.26
Now, reckoning seriously with such an emphatic defense of exceptionality as the “formation and expression of the universal”—and Jewish exceptionality, at that—would seem to upend the very question of a pluralism of texts and of peoples; even to juxtapose culturally specific documents, as I do here, would be to incur Levinas's punning and double-edged charge of “disorientation”: a distracting “saraband” of contrived diversity.27 Moreover, his solution—the specificity of Judaism—offers, it seems, no wider interpretative applicability, not least in the domain of secular, culturally particular literatures. Longitude, not latitude, plots the always prior place of Jewish particularity for Levinas.
Indeed, both of our texts here may be read as fortuitously dramatizing Levinas's metaphor of “awakening to an insomnia”: each of the five days which comprise the action of If He Hollers Let Him Go, for example, begins with Bob Jones's awakening from disturbed sleep to the greater nightmare of everyday racism; and throughout The Victim Asa Leventhal either has his sleep interrupted by visits from his nemesis or has felt “threatened by something while he slept.” Even so, neither novel develops its particular, ethnically specific “case” after the fashion of Levinas's paradoxically transcendental/exceptionalist model.
Or does it? Is there any approach that would both unify the texts and extend, perhaps challenge, Levinas's work? Two obstacles in Levinas's thought seem to hamper its usefulness for a criticism-as-ethical-politics: (1) “face” is identified not with culturally marked features but with “abstract man disengaged from all culture”;28 and (2) “particularity” signifies not difference but uniqueness (the particularity of goi echad, of a “unique nation,” as in the petitionary [Tachanun] prayer of the Jewish daily service). The second is admittedly the thornier difficulty, as Levinas plainly demonstrates in a section of “Judaism and Revolution” entitled “Politics and Violence”: “We [the people of Israel] are a vineyard more complicated than a plot of land that is cultivated; only its owner, sublime particularism, is equal to the task of removing the thorns.”29 That is, G-d acts singularly, and redemptively, in Jewish history. This is not the place to assess such a claim, but certainly other grand narratives of cultural and ethnic misfortune can claim the identical privilege of defining collective identity through the particularist removal of historically contingent thorns. More succinctly and pointedly, a universal moral indemnity vibrates through, and rescues, human history.
The other obstacle (and the more relevant one here) has already been extensively redressed in Narrative Ethics, where I argue for the constitutive “dress” of what appear to metaphysicians' eyes, perhaps, to be subsidiary accoutrements of identity. Thus in Stephen Crane's story “The Monster,” Melville's Benito Cereno, and Richard Wright's Native Son, ethical homicide, in Levinas's sense—“the indifference of ‘good conscience’ to what is near and what is far”—means the murder done to Black faces by White eyes. The failure, or abrogation, of recognition in these texts devolves upon an impaired moral faculty which perceives (and dehumanizes) faces that are racially and culturally particular. If “violence can aim only at a face” (in Levinas's memorable phrase), at the emblem and core of humanity, the exterior feature of interiority par excellence, then (in homage to Ralph Ellison) violence aimed at Black or Jewish faces would limn Black or Jewish masks.30
We often process physiognomic information in fiction as simply the establishing material of vraisemblance; this, the text is telling us, is a fully featured “character.” And yet, in The Victim, Bellow renders faces and face-to-faces with an exactitude unremarkable in itself perhaps, but which gathers piquancy in light of the ambient air of mystification hovering about the plotted circumstances of recognition.31Something here is flagging our attention:
Leventhal's figure was burly, his head large, his nose, too, was large. He had black hair, coarse waves of it, and his eyes under their intergrown brows were intensely black and of a size unusual in adult faces. … They seemed to disclose an intelligence not greatly interested in its own powers, as if preferring not to be bothered by them, indifferent; and this indifference appeared to be extended to others. He did not look sullen but rather unaccommodating, impassive.32
Bellow's eye for the discrete particular notwithstanding, this text (whose burden is being “summoned” to account) works in particular by soliciting us directly to look at its dynamics of looking:
The park was even more crowded than before, and noisy. There was another revivalist band on the corner, and the blare of the two joined confusingly above the other sounds. The lamps were yellowed, covered with flies and moths. On one of the paths an old man, sunburned, sinewy, in a linencap, was shining shoes. The fountain ran with a green, leaden glint. Children in their underclothing waded and rolled in the spray, the parents looking on. Eyes seemed softer than by day, and larger, and gazed at one longer, as though in the dark heat some interspace of reserve had been crossed and strangers might approach one another with a kind of recognition. You looked and thought, at least, that you knew whom you had seen.33
Immediately after this description, Kirby Allbee (Leventhal's antagonist in the full classical sense) accosts him. Leventhal muses, “My god, my god, what kind of fish is this? One of those guys who wants you to think they can see to the bottom of your soul.” A dance of eyes, faces, and recognitive looks fills out the episode, reaching a pitch in the following passage:
Leventhal grimly looked at him in the light that came through the leaves. He [Allbee] had been spying on him, and the mystery was why! How long had he been keeping watch on him and for what reason—what grotesque reason? Allbee returned his look, examining him as he was examined, in concentration and seriousness. … And in the loom of these eyes and with the warmth of the man's breath on his face, for they were crowded together on the beach, Leventhal suddenly felt that he had been singled out to be the object of some freakish, insane process, and for an instant he was filled with dread.34
Now, certainly, alternative phenomenologies of “the look” can be brought to bear here, as plausibly from, say, Hegel or Sartre, or even Erving Goffman, as from Levinas. But, in the context of the idea that “strangers might approach one another with a kind of recognition” (what Levinas will call l'approche du prochain) and a sensation of being “singled out” (what Levinas will call “the subject … unseated by a wordless accusation”), the recognition scene at this juncture in the text seems nothing short of uncanny—as, in truth, it does to Leventhal himself:
Any derelict panhandler or bum might buttonhole you on the street and say, “The world wasn't made for you any more than it was for me, was it?” The error was to forget that neither man had made the arrangements, and so it was perfectly right to say, “Why pick on me? I didn't set this up any more than you did.” Admittedly there was a wrong, a general wrong. Allbee, on the other hand, came along and said, “You!” and that was so meaningless. For you might feel that something was owing to the panhandler, but to be directly blamed was entirely different.35
In fact, the plot progressively indicates to Leventhal and readers alike that he does bear a certain irrecusable responsibility—that the unfamiliar betrays more than a little familiarity through one of life's inveterate unheimlich maneuvers—direct “blame” or not.
Face-to-face interactions in If He Hollers Let Him Go are more flagrantly polarized, and in that sense perhaps more “political,” than those in The Victim, but they really illustrate only another—and analogous—kind of existential harrowing:
The red light caught me at Manchester; and that made me warm. It never failed; every time I got in a hurry I got caught by every light. … When the light turned green it caught a white couple in the middle of the street. … But when they looked up and saw we were coloured they just took their time, giving us a look of cold hatred. … I sat there looking at the white couple until they had crossed the sidewalk giving them stare for stare, hate for hate. … My arms were rubbery and my fingers numb; I was weak as if I'd been heaving sacks of cement all day in the sun.36
I am struck here especially by the ambient pressure of arrest—the “light caught me”; “it caught a white couple”—the absorption into the body of the pained weight of scrutiny (something Bellow's text also features—or better, figures), and, of course, the charged and contestatory gazing itself. As in Fanon's repeated motif of specular aversion in “The Fact of Blackness”—“Look, a Negro!; Mama, see the Negro!”37—being Black in this novel means fundamentally to be seen. And while Levinas's favored trope may marshal its power from the ethical urgency of speech and vision conjoined in the human face, each signifying both entreaty and command, its peculiar relevance for this novel, it seems to me, centers on the way in which faces act as either weapons or targets of racism's negative proof (or political corrective) for the ethics of encounter. That is, in the concrete, physiognomic facts of Blackness (or Jewishness, or any particularized humanity, for that matter), Levinas's transcendental ethics may find its political objective correlative.38
Now, it should be evident that I have been invoking Levinas thematically here, borrowing against the rich and capacious pledge of image and figure that valorizes his argumentation throughout, taking his ever-more intense drive toward the material content of ethical encounter as legitimation for my own restricted focus on trope and image. Or (to remotivate a distinction drawn earlier), in thus bending it, I get demonstrably away from—though not “with”—strict Levinassian ethics. (Clearly, my critical approach responds to Levinas, as witness the noninterchangeable and asymmetric facing of texts which guides my readings here.)
Levinas often adverts to the biblical formula hineni (“here I am”) in its French translation—me voici—in order to emphasize what he cleverly terms the “accusative” aspect of subjectivity; selves assume a place already marked out by obligatedness and thus occupy, as it were, an ethical terminus ad quem. Instead of the “merely” ethical deixis expressed by here I am, however, the racialized subjects of Himes's and Bellow's novels might be said to exclaim let me go, a quite different trope of accusation, but one which has its biblical precedent too—in an archetypal narrative of bondage and culturally legitimated persecution. To be the protagonist of such a text means to be literally agonized—the victim of unreasonable and yet unaccountably personalized prejudices.39 Not classical, but rather the most modern subjects of cultural tragedies, American Jews and Blacks in these respective novels are the objectified subjects in the unreconstructed grammar of racism: trapped (“let him go”), outraged (“if he hollers”), ontologically slotted (“victims”).
That both novels traffic in victimization does not necessarily make them congruent anatomies of race-hatred (nor does it align them with the more recent, simpleminded agitprop of “victimese,” the rhetoric of injury). They tell different stories, regardless of any points of contact I might instigate here. Bellow's title names no referent, so it could just as plausibly designate Allbee, the novel's putative malignity, the subplot of Leventhal's sister and dying nephew, or the assorted urban anonyms who fail to “get away with it”—a bum, a peddler, a dishwasher, a Filipino busboy, a dying man on the subway tracks.40 By contrast, the anonymous third-person pronoun “captured” by the doggerel title of If He Hollers Let Him Go draws ironic attention to Bob Jones's singular nonperson double bind as both first-person narrator and second-person “phobogenic object”41—in either case, the only and unequivocal victim of his story. To paraphrase Mikhail Bakhtin, since Bob Jones cannot simply be himself, he must cite himself—with a vengeance, which is as much a self-catching as a letting-go:
I wanted to tell him I didn't want to go to bed with her, I wanted to black her eyes; but just the idea of her being a white woman stopped me. I felt flustered, caught guilty. I couldn't realize what was happening to me myself. It was funny in a way. I couldn't tell him that I didn't want her because she was a white woman and he was a white man, and something somewhere way back in my mind said that that would be an insult. And I couldn't tell him that I did want her, because the same thing said that that would be an insult.
Every white person I come into contact with, every one I have to speak to, even those I pass on the street—every goddamn one of them has the power of some kind of control over my own behavior. Not only that but they use it—in every way.42
While the second passage above arguably describes another textual dilemma—the seizurelike quality of Jones's narration—the first conveys a communicative paradox from which his narrative is not exempt. Does the narrator's “penning” (in Stanley Cavell's aperçu) spell release or just another kind of incarceration?43 I think the novel's answer to that question is finally equivocal, but of the two texts If He Hollers certainly draws a far bleaker picture of the racialized subject-as-prison-house.
Bellow seems to work off of the more broadly Levinassian premise that a kind of indefeasible guilt attaches to selfhood ab initio, even though Allbee assuredly aims his violence at Leventhal's specifically Jewish face; despite being singled out through—or better perhaps, along with—anti-Semitism, Leventhal meets it, face to face, with an excessive obligatedness and answerability. Indeed, this very polarity of surpluses—the “remainder” of selfhood which is ethnic particularity and the extra weight which is the Other—defines the thematic tension between both novels and Levinas's philosophy which is the “politics of recognition”—the self alienated from within by its own exorbitant otherness, while still pledged outward.44
It is closer to the pole of “ethical responsibility,” then, that The Victim's sequence of events seems to cluster. (The Victim taps long-patent metaphysical and allegorical veins of American fiction, especially in its play with figures of substitution and doubling; my interpretative recourse to the “transcendental” is, accordingly, not outside the purview of either this novel or Bellow's work generally.) The very first time Allbee descends upon Leventhal, for example, the two initially fail to make contact—conspicuously so: “He had already taken off his shirt and was sitting on the bed unlacing his shoes when there was a short ring of the bell. Eagerly he pulled open the door and shouted, ‘Who is it?’ The flat was unbearably empty. … There was no response below. He called out again, impatiently.”45 If there is a kerygmatic text that stands behind this scene (using “kerygmatic” in Levinas's sense of the summoning quality of encounter), it is less likely existentialist than biblical—Song of Songs (5:2-6): “I was asleep, but my heart was awake; hark my beloved is knocking. … I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned away, had gone. … I sought him, but I could not find him. I called him, but he did not answer me.” Whether Bellow intended the allusion or not, the point is the ritualized staging of encounter. Indeed, Levinas uses this very same trope of (mis)recognition to evoke the way in which the other person intrudes unbidden on the complacencies of selfhood, arresting it in its pouvoir de pouvoir,46 or, perhaps more appositely in this case, its boudoir de pouvoir.
When Leventhal and Allbee finally meet in the park shortly afterwards, the vector from summoning to facing is drawn and scored with Asa's “feeling that he was not merely being looked at but watched.” Allbee's second visit even more obviously lays bare the metaphysic of “intrusion” on which the novel can be said to turn:
“Now who in the name of hell would ring like that?” he said. But he already knew who it was. It was Allbee. … He knew that he had come in; nevertheless he controlled his desire to turn. … To enter without a knock or invitation was an intrusion. Of course the door was open, but it was taking too much for granted all the same not to knock. “I owe him hospitality, that's how he behaves,” passed through his mind.47
Now, if “intrusion” is understood as a cognate of “recognition,” interpreted in the double sense of “facings” within and between texts, what The Victim rehearses is precisely Leventhal's indemnity, irrespective of any actual impact he may have had on Allbee's life; and the latter's anti-Semitism is ultimately formulated as “something very mysterious, namely a conviction or illusion that at the start of life, and perhaps even before a promise had been made.”48
But what has happened to the politics of recognition? What of the pole of ethnic/racial/religious surplus, of “particularity”? Surely, Allbee's anti-Semitism—its content and motivation—is not incidental to The Victim's “metaphysic of intrusion,” its recognitive plot of target, pursuit, and capture:
“Why do you sing such songs?” he said. “You can't sing them. … You have to be bred to them. … Sing one of the psalms. I'd love to hear it … [or] any Jewish song. Something you've really got feeling for. Sing us the one about the mother.”
She has that proud look that's proud without being hard. You know what I mean. It's a serious look. You see it in Asiatic sculpture. … It's apparent enough; it doesn't need any investigating. Russia, Poland, I can see at a glance. … I've lived in New York for a long time. It's a very Jewish city, and a person would have to be a pretty sloppy observer not to learn about Jews here.
“And try to imagine how New York affects me. Isn't it preposterous? It's really as if the children of Caliban were running everything. … I go into the library once in a while to look around, and last week I saw a book about Thoreau and Emerson by a man named Lipschitz. … A name like that?” Allbee said this with great earnestness. “After all, it seems to me that people of such background simply couldn't understand.”
You people, by and large—and this is only an observation, nothing else, take it for what it's worth—you can only tolerate feelings like your own.49
Allbee (is the name portentously “ontological” or simply an exclamation of surprise?) bears down on Leventhal throughout The Victim, both as the imagined cause of all his misfortune and as a Jew—two contingent facts—the accidentally particular and the peculiarly particular—that intertwine. Allbee never approaches or reproaches Leventhal on any basis apart from the “stain” of “you people-hood.” But does the text? What weight does it assign to ethnic difference in its own discomfiting of Leventhal's subjectivity?
Looking for an answer, I turn again to Himes. The crux of If He Hollers Let Him Go is what can only be called an extended face-off between Bob Jones and Madge, his White co-worker at the wartime shipyard, the “tall white girl in a leather welder's suit” with whom Jones comes “face to face”:
We stood there for an instant, our eyes locked, before either of us moved; then she deliberately put on a frightened, wide-eyed look and backed away from me as if she was scared stiff, as if she was a naked virgin and I was King Kong. It wasn't the first time she had done that. I'd run into her on board a half-dozen times during the past couple of weeks and each time she'd put on that scared-to-death act. … But now it sent a blinding fury through my brain. Blood rushed to my head like gales of rain and I felt my face burn white-hot. It came up in my eyes and burned at her; she caught it and kept staring at me with that wide-eyed phoney look. Something about her mouth touched it off, a quirk made the curves change as if she got a sexual thrill, and her mascaraed eyelashes fluttered. Lust shook me like an electric shock; it came up in my mouth, filling it with tongue, and drained my whole stomach down into my groin. And it poured out of my eyes in a sticky rush and spurted over her from head to foot. The frightened look went out of her eyes and she blushed right down her face and out of sight beneath the collar of her leather jacket, and I could imagine it going down over her over-ripe breasts and spreading out over her milky-white stomach. When she turned out of my stare I went sick to the stomach and felt like vomiting. I had started toward the ladder going to the upper deck, but instead I turned past her, slowing down and brushing her. She didn't move. I kept on going, circling.50
Behind the lurid and hard- (or pot-) boiled style (though the sexualization of racial difference is hardly unimportant here), Himes has skewed Levinas's “rectitude” of the face-to-face relation in a very interesting way: the face becomes the look as the rules of engagement yield to the rules of performance. The scene of recognition, in other words, has been overtly dramatized, its inherent potential for theatricality realized.
Several pages later, the narrator and his new nemesis square off once again: “She had her back to me and her hood up so it covered her hair, so I didn't recognize her right off. … I saw that she was the big, peroxide blonde I'd run into on the third deck earlier; and I knew the instant I recognized her that she was going to perform then—we would both perform.” And, needless to say, the ensuing story-length, full-cast performance follows the familiar script to the letter. Madge says the magic words which expressly countermand the Torah injunction against murder (even when such homicide is “ethical” or “merely” discursive): “‘I ain't gonna work with no nigger!’ she said in a harsh, flat voice.”51
The novel's deliberately, extravagantly potboiling plot boils over, with Jones eventually arrested for a non-rape that he and Madge “perform” through several acts. (As Fanon, an obvious admirer of the novel, puts it, “So it is with the character in If He Hollers Let Him Go—who does precisely what he did not want to do.”52) And institutionality, finally, plays its part in the denouement as Bob Jones gets “escorted” from dockside labor to armed service—the more sinister sense of being “let go.” In fact, this last development is anticipated at the very beginning of the novel, when Jones, reflecting on the recent internment of Japanese Americans, says, “It was taking a man up by the roots and locking him up without a chance. Without a trial. Without a charge. Without even giving him a chance to say one word. It was thinking about if they ever did that to me, Robert Jones, Mrs. Jones's dark son, that started to get me scared.”53 Thus even the novel's narrative thrust knowingly performs itself, telegraphing, predicting, always driving toward its inevitable ending. Written on the heels of Native Son (Bob Jones even refers to Wright's novel), If He Hollers Let Him Go flaunts a whole repertoire of signifyin(g), sending itself up as it brings its “hero” down. No wonder, then, that each of the plot's five units of action begins with dreamwork, the hard realities of racial prejudice literaturized, fictioned from within and from the start.
“Good acting is what is exactly human,” says a character in The Victim. (Later, Leventhal reapplies this maxim to the exigencies of his own situation: “He liked to think ‘human’ meant accountable in spite of many weaknesses—at the last moment, tough enough to hold.”54) Indeed, Bellow's novel trades as often as Himes's does on metaphors of acting and performance. (A subplot involves Leventhal's attempt to get Allbee hired by a talent scout; an ensemble discussion of acting takes place at the dead center of The Victim; and it ends with a recognition scene in a theater, where Leventhal reencounters Allbee on the arm of a “famous actress.”) And much like the coupled characters of If He Hollers, Leventhal and Allbee subtend degrees of facing with angles of masking—all of it intensely physicalized:
Leventhal remarked to himself that there was an element of performance in all that he [Allbee] was doing. But suddenly he had a strange, close consciousness of Allbee, of his face and body, a feeling of intimate nearness. … He could nearly feel the weight of his body and the contact of his clothes. Even more, the actuality of his face, loose in the cheeks, firm in the forehead and jaws, struck him, the distinctness of it; and the look of recognition Allbee bent on him duplicated the look in his own.55
I alluded earlier to Erving Goffman, whose treatment of face-to-face interaction is, of course, relevant to the thematics of recognition in both Levinas's work and the two novels at hand.56 Faces—and especially those distinguished by, say, racial or ethnoreligious characteristics—to the degree that they are “presented,” could be said to perform rather than simply manifest themselves. In Goffman's more pragmatic model of social phenomenology, “frame analysis” is applied to precisely those particularized features of human encounter which Levinas's philosophy would bracket: the “antiethical” devices (Levinas might say) of self-masking that cushion and keep at bay the proximity and approach of “the neighbor.” Thus, in an important essay entitled “Reality and Its Shadow,” Levinas speaks of the doubled, shadowed, even “caricatured,” relationship that continually haunts personal identity: “A being is that which reveals itself in its truth, and, at the same time, resembles itself, is its own image.”57 In other words, an external veneer of semblance (i.e., of both resemblance and dissembling) glosses the baseline level of signification—selfhood which is answerable, prima facie, to others—what Levinas calls the “nudité” of the face, in a companion essay to “Reality and Its Shadow”:
The absolute nakedness of a face, the absolutely defenseless face, without covering, clothing, or mask, is what opposes my power over it, my violence, and opposes it in an absolute way, with an opposition which is opposition in itself. The being that expresses itself, that faces me, says no to me by his very expression. … The face is the fact that a being affects us not in the indicative, but in the imperative, and is thus outside all categories.58
All of Levinas's philosophy is devoted to the ethical epiphany of unmasking, of showing forth, of facing. If exposure defines contact with the Other, then, conversely, a sort of double exposure describes the ambiguous nature of identity left to its own devices. And yet here again we encounter the “faces that we meet” in Himes's and Bellow's novels as political object lessons of ethical transcendence in human relations. For in The Victim and If He Hollers Let Him Go, to be seen or addressed or pursued as a “Jew” or a “nigger” is to be ineluctably double-exposed. Levinas's ethics of imperative intersubjectivity does not always (or perhaps can never fully) transcend the specificity of this or that person who is “culturally” singled-out—the person, in other words, whose face will lend itself involuntarily to the indicative mode of “an Asiatic” cast or a “flat-nosed, thick-lipped” mien. In being a “Black” or “Jewish” face, in other words, Bob Jones's or Asa Leventhal's face is thematized, allegorized, from within.
Double exposure, double-talk, double consciousness: these represent the shadow-graphs that limn a politics of recognition. When James Weldon Johnson referred, in The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, to the “free-masonry of race,”59 he was adumbrating the masque or performance which (in Levinas's sense) turns the ethnic or racial subject into an allegory of itself, into its own image, into the “remainder of selfhood” described above. To put it another way (paraphrasing The Victim), in the literature of ethnic entrapment, acting—good or bad, willed or forced—is what is exactly Black or Jewish.
In his analysis of contemporary French Jewish identity, Alain Finkielkraut says that for a certain segment of “Jewish romantics these days … the word ‘Jew’ is worn like a brooch on a dark gray suit.”60 I appreciate this conceit not only because of its wonderful turn on identity as adornment, but also for the way it resonates with the same sort of recognitive bric-a-brac that crams the texts (and glosses the faces) of The Victim and If He Hollers Let Him Go like so much theatrical makeup:
[Leventhal] was on a boardwalk. … On his left, there was an amusement park with ticket booths. … He entered a place that resembled a hotel … but proved to be a department store. He was here to buy some rouge for Mary. The salesgirl demonstrated various shades on her own face, wiping each off in turn with a soiled hand towel and bending to the round mirror on the counter to draw a new spot. There was a great, empty glitter of glass and metal around them. What could this possibly be about? Leventhal wondered.61
Or, as Himes renders it in the climactic rape-charade:
“Help! Help! My God, help me! Some white man, help me! I'm being raped.” I saw the stretch and pop of her lips, the tautening of her throat muscles, the distortion and constriction of her face … as if her face were ten feet high. … My eyes felt as if they were five times their natural size; as if they were bursting in their sockets, popping out of my head. “Stop, nigger! Don't, nigger. Nigger, don't. Oh, please don't kill me, nigger.”62
Like a brooch on a dark gray suit.
At the end of The Victim, Leventhal is redescribed: “His obstinately unrevealing expression had softened. His face was paler and there were some gray hairs in his hair, in spite of which he looked years younger.” In this same chapter, the assignment of one's place in life is called a “promise” which is either a “conviction or [an] illusion”:
In thinking of this promise, Leventhal compared it to a ticket, a theater ticket. And with his ticket, a man entitled to an average seat might feel too shabby for the dress circle or sit in it defiantly or arrogantly; another, entitled to the best in the house, might cry in rage to the usher who led him to the third balcony. And how many more stood disconsolately in the rain and snow, in the long line of those who could only expect to be turned away? But no, this was incorrect. The reality was different. For why should tickets, mere tickets, be promised if promises were being made—tickets to desirable and undesirable places? There were more important things to be promised. Possibly there was a promise, since so many felt it. He himself was almost ready to affirm that there was. But it was misunderstood.63
Inflecting this metaphor—already grounded in the theatrical—toward the Levinassian renders tickets the “illusion” that is the necessary obverse of “conviction.” Tickets operate as the evidence-checkpoint of objectified surface which interrupts otherwise unimpeded passage, thereby forcing a kind of occlusion of depth—“a glass darkly” anterior to any promise of “face-to-face” encounter. Pop-eyes, thick lips, and big noses are “mere” features that “thematize” the “absolute nakedness of a face without covering, clothing, or mask.” For Levinas, the face speaks, and says, “NO.” But it more typically says, “Kick me, Kike me,”64 or “catch a nigger by the toe,” or “you people.” As with Kazin's “even Negroes” and Claude Brown's “scrubbing ‘Goldberg's’ floor,” language, too, fails the test of transparency, always clutching the tickets to, and thereby carrying with it, the places it has been.
“Recognition” in Bellow's and Himes's novels shows how and where the ostensibly transcendent encounter between two human faces trips over particularity. In Levinas's terms, while the ethnic or racial face may indeed affect us in the imperative, it does so within, not outside of, categories—categories which are as often linguistic as they are visual. Hence, finally, the paradox of transcendent visage “sealed in blackness” (Fanon's phrase)—or Jewishness—reaching its logical conclusion at the end of If He Hollers Let Him Go, where hollering—the cry of the victim—means, precisely, being caught.
“Wait, I'll let you in,” I shouted above the din. “Wait, this woman is crazy!” A guy leaned over the hole and swung at my head with a ballpeen hammer. … I saw the guy's face, not particularly malevolent, just disfigured, a white man hitting at a nigger running by. I hadn't even tried to rape her. I'd been trying to get away from her. … She'd kept me there, cornered me, hadn't let me go.65
My quotation is from Bernard Malamud's novel The Tenants (New York, 1971), 68, and, perhaps needless to say, my characterization is meant ironically: once fiction becomes a gloss for life, reflexivity cannot be far behind. In his autobiography The Quality of Hurt (New York, 1972), Himes himself reflexively calls his first novel “my bitter novel of protest” (75), a description echoed two pages later in a broadside against his publisher's less than enthusiastic marketing: “The whole episode left me very bitter” (77). A contemporary “review” of If He Hollers Let Him Go from an editorial in Ebony (November 1947), however, makes “bitter” an understatement: “an invidious, shocking, incendiary … virulent, malicious book full of venom and rancor [that] substitutes emotions for intelligence, dictates thinking with the skin rather than the brains” (44). The reception for Bellow's 1947 novel, on the other hand, was highly favorable, although Bellow presumably regards The Victim as an “early” effort that still holds up.
See Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (New York, 1967), especially “Negroes and Jews—The Two Nationalisms and the Bloc(ked) Plurality” (476-97); and Cynthia Ozick, “Literary Blacks and Jews” (her updated reflections on Malamud's “fiction of blows”), in Paul Berman, Blacks and Jews: Alliances and Arguments (New York, 1994), 43-75.
See Adam Zachary Newton, Narrative Ethics (Cambridge, 1995), especially the introductory discussion of Levinas in “‘Creating the Uncreated Features of His Face’: Face and Monstration in Crane, Melville, and Wright,” 179-235; and Facing Black and Jew: Re-Imagining American Literary History (forthcoming). See also Simon Critchley, The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas (Oxford, 1992); cf. the introduction to Tobin Siebers, The Ethics of Criticism (Ithaca, 1988), for a concise genealogy of this critical imperative.
Bertolt Brecht, Shriften zum Theater (Frankfurt, 1957), 1: 165.
See Charles Taylor, Multiculturalism and the “Politics of Recognition”: An Essay (Princeton, 1992). Taylor explicitly concerns himself here with the competing claims of disparate constituencies and the institutional structures that govern or mediate responses to them—hence the force of politics. Accordingly, he deploys the linguistically allied phrases “politics of universalism” and “politics of difference” in a characteristic (and characteristically cogent) historicizing of communal claims on representation and visibility. His Essay is not without its points of arguability, as the accompanying response pieces in the volume attest. But in terms of my own difference from Taylor, what I mean by the “politics of recognition” is an unavoidable surplus of identity borne by actors in intersubjective dramas of recognition which italicize, as it were, their “particularity,” namely, as Blacks or Jews. Ethics would be the phenomenon, then, and politics its epiphenomenal shadow; or, in Taylor's terms: “We must be open to comparative cultural study of the kind that must displace our horizons in the resulting fusions” (73), where “displacement” signifies for me an ethical troubling of intact political “fusions.” For alternative approaches, see Multiculturalism: A Critical Reader, ed. David Theo Goldberg (Cambridge, 1995); and David Hollinger, Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism (New York, 1995).
Roger Simon, “Face to Face with Alterity: Postmodern Jewish Identity and the Eros of Pedagogy,” in Pedagogy: The Question of Impersonation, ed. Jane Gallop (Bloomington, 1995), 90-105; quotation from 90. See also S. P. Mohanty, “Us and Them: On the Philosophical Bases of Political Criticism,” Yale Journal of Criticism 2 (1989): 1-31.
Simon, “Face to Face with Alterity,” 90.
Saul Bellow, The Victim (New York, 1975 ), 21, 27.
Chester Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go (New York, 1986 ), 203.
Bellow, Victim, 256.
From the essay of the same title in Elias Canetti, The Conscience of Words, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (New York, 1976), 140-44. Since these are experiential as much as discursive issues, socio-phenomenological analyses like those of Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon, and Alain Finkielkraut gloss these texts as readily as any literary criticism might. See Jean-Paul Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew (Reflections on the Jewish Question), trans. George J. Becker (New York, 1948); Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (New York, 1967); and Alain Finkielkraut, The Imaginary Jew, trans. Kevin O'Neill and David Suchof (Lincoln, 1995); see also the essays in The Anatomy of Racism, ed. David Theo Goldberg (Minneapolis, 1990).
Himes, If He Hollers, 2, 3.
Ibid., 5, 7, 17, 19, 65.
Ibid., 129, 59, 39, 127.
Bellow, Victim, 31, 33 (my emphasis), 99, 151.
See Newton, Narrative Ethics.
Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, 1968), 89; my emphasis.
Cf. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA, 1971); and Justice as Fairness (New York, 1991).
Emmanuel Levinas, “From Ethics to Exegesis,” in In the Time of Nations, trans. Michael B. Smith (Bloomington, 1994), 109-13; quotation from 110-11.
See, for example, Emmanuel Levinas, Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures, trans. Gary D. Mole (Bloomington, 1994).
Levinas, “Ethics to Exegesis,” 110. Compare the following critique of politicized pluralism from “Phenomenon and Enigma,” in Collected Philosophical Papers, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Dordrecht, 1987), 65-73: “The saraband of innumerable and equivalent cultures, each justifying itself in its own context, creates a world which is, to be sure, deoccidentalized, but also disoriented. To catch sight, in meaning, of a situation that precedes culture, to envision language out of the revelation of the other … in the gaze of man aiming at a man precisely as abstract man disengaged from all culture, in the nakedness of the face … is to find oneself able to judge civilizations on the basis of ethics” (101). See also Emmanuel Levinas, “The Rights of Man and the Rights of the Other,” in Outside the Subject, trans. Michael B. Smith (Stanford, 1994), 116-25; and the essays in Difficult Freedom, trans. Seán Hand (Baltimore, 1990).
Levinas, “Ethics to Exegesis,” 110.
Emmanuel Levinas, “Demanding Judaism,” in Beyond the Verse, 3-10; quotation from 4.
Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 180. Cf. these remarks: “I am the slave not of the idea that others have of me but of my own appearance” (116); “with the Negro the cycle of the biological begins. … The Negro is the genital” (161-62); “the Negro is comparison” (211). Even more pointedly: “The Jew is attacked in his religious identity, in his history, in his race, in his relations with his ancestors and with his posterity; … But it is in his corporeality that the Negro is attacked” (163). “Is this the whole story? Unfortunately not. The Negro is something else. Here again we find the Jew” (180). See also Sander Gilman, Jewish Self-Hatred: The Hidden Language of the Jews (Baltimore, 1986); and The Jew's Body (New York, 1991). What makes the role of representation so tricky here, however, is its duality: on one hand, it can take the form of an unreflective process of symbolization (anti-Semitism/philo-Semitism, Negrophobia/Negrophilia), and, on the other, it is sustained by a wholly otherwise, second-order level of ethical judgment and political critique. Still, any gesture toward some kind of ethnic Imaginary will almost inevitably betray the long arm of fiction, another reason why Himes's and Bellow's novels gloss Levinas's ethics as aptly as it applies to them.
As Levinas says elsewhere, “The approach to the face is the most basic form of responsibility. As such, the face of the other is verticality and uprightness: it spells a relation of rectitude. The face is not in front of me (en face de moi) but above me”; quoted in Richard Kearney, “Dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas,” in Face to Face with Levinas, ed. Richard A. Cohen (Albany, 1989), 13-33; quotation from 24.
For Levinas Jewish particularism is always a historicized particularism. Yet he oscillates (as does Jewish self-understanding generally) between two legitimating explanations: a nationhood founded on sacred responsibility (“You shall be holy for I am holy”), and responsibility ensuing from the continued travail suffered as, or in, peoplehood. Answerability for the other is first enjoined on Mounts Moriah and Sinai, then earned as the dialectic response to repeated political scourgings and ethnic cleansings. “The congenital universality of the Jewish spirit,” Levinas writes in “Assimilation and New Culture” (Beyond the Verse, 196-201), “involves an ineffaceable moment of isolation and distancing. This peculiarity is not simply the fruit of exile and the ghetto, but probably a fundamental withdrawal into the self in the awareness of a surplus of responsibility towards humanity. … This is undoubtedly what the awareness of being chosen is,” as opposed to “an irremediable particularism, a petitioning nationalism” (198). See also “Judaism and Revolution,” in Nine Talmudic Readings, trans. A. Aronowicz (Bloomington, 1990), 94-119, where Levinas syllogizes “Judaism or responsibility for the entire universe, and consequently a universally persecuted Judaism” (115). The particular particularism, in this case of Jewish peoplehood, derives from its being absolutized from both within and without.
See note 21; and David Theo Goldberg's helpful essay “Multicultural Conditions,” in Goldberg, ed., Multiculturalism, 1-41.
These matters certainly warrant more than cursory attention since, even within the strict confines of Levinas's oeuvre, they pose real structural difficulties. For him, the overriding cultural distinction is between Jewishness and the West or “Hebrew” and “Greek.” The “Orient,” in other words, denotes Israel. His political loyalties as a French national, his directorship of the Westernizing Ecole Normale Israelite Oriental, and his resolute “Europocentrism” all lend a significant bias to the terms he dignifies for argumentation, as well as underwriting the ideological assumptions on which he proceeds. The “other” in Levinas is thus not entirely pre- (or even post-) cultural; alterity is implicitly Western and masculine. A wider ambit for considering this conceptual shibboleth is offered in Ernst Simon, “The Neighbors Whom We Shall Love,” in Modern Jewish Ethics: Theory and Practice, ed. Marvin Fox (Columbus, OH, 1975), 29-56; and Jacob Katz, Exclusivism and Tolerance (Oxford, 1961).
Levinas, “Judaism and Revolution,” 113. The point of reference here is a debate on revolutionary politics in the tractate Baba Metzia, 83a-83b, of the Talmud. See also the essays in the “Politics” section of The Levinas Reader, ed. Seán Hand (Oxford, 1989).
See Ralph Ellison, “Twentieth Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,” in Shadow and Act (New York, 1964), 24-44.
Cf. Roland Barthes's analysis of verbal precision in The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Howard (New York, 1975): “The exactitude in question is not the result of taking greater pains, it is not a rhetorical instrument in value, as though things were increasingly well described—but of a change of code: the (remote) model of the description is no longer oratorical discourse (nothing at all is being ‘painted’), but a kind of lexicographical artifact” (26-27). But in Bellow's case, the language of the text does in fact take greater pains.
Bellow, Victim, 20.
Himes, If He Hollers, 12-13.
Frantz Fanon, “The Fact of Blackness,” in Black Skin, White Masks, 109-40. See also the following passage from Himes, If He Hollers: “I just had time to see him: a tall young blond guy about my age and size. His mouth was twisted down in one corner so that the tips of his dogteeth showed like a gopher's mouth and his blue eyes were blistered with hate. I'll never forget that bastard's eyes. Then that sick, gone feeling came in the pit of my stomach—just a flash. And a blinding explosion went off just back of my eyes as if the nerve centres had been dynamited. I had the crazy sensation of my eyes popping out of my head. … Bile rolled up in my stomach and spread out in my mouth. I started retching and caught myself. The sun beat down on my head like showers of rain. My skin was tight and burning hot, but it wouldn't sweat. Only in the palm of my hand holding the knife did I sweat” (33, 35).
Levinas, of course, would insist on the necessary contradiction between ethics and politics (or the subordination of one by the other) in this sense. See “Ideology and Idealism,” in Hand, ed., Levinas Reader, 235-47: “The otherness of the absolutely other is not just some quiddity. Insofar as it is a quiddity, it exists on a plane it has in common with the quiddities that it cuts across. … Absolute difference cannot itself delineate the plane common to those that are different. The other, absolutely other, is the Other [L'autre, absolument autre, c'est Autrui]. The other is not a particular case, a species of otherness, but the original exception to order. It is not because the Other is novelty that it ‘gives room’ for a relation of transcendence. It is because the responsibility for the Other is transcendence that there is something new under the sun” (245). When asked in an interview about Israelis and Palestinians as each others' paradigmatic “Other,” Levinas replied, “My definition of the other is completely different. The other is a neighbor, who is not necessarily kin, but who can be. And in that sense, if you're for the other, you're for the neighbor. But if your neighbor attacks another neighbor or treats him unjustly, what can you do? Then alterity takes on another character, in alterity we can find an enemy, or at least we are faced with the problem of knowing who is right and who is wrong, who is just and who is unjust”; see the interview with Levinas, Finkielkraut, and Shlomo Malkr on Radio Communauté, 28 September 1987, in Les Nouveaux Cahiers 18 (1982-83): 1-8. What can one say but that Levinas finesses the issue of particularity in a not altogether unambivalent fashion, at times disallowing it and at times appealing to it.
To be sure, victimization—real persecution predicated on ethnic hatred—explicitly enters Levinas's philosophy only in his treatment of historical Jewish identity. Yet it almost surely serves as an implicit model for the recasting of terms he introduces in Otherwise Than Being: Or, Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (The Hague, 1978), where subjectivity becomes a “persecution” and a “wounding” by the Other, with the self “held hostage” by the claim of alterity in a steady state of unwilled “substitution.”
See Bellow, Victim, 33, 95, 96, 119, 198.
Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 151.
Himes, If He Hollers, 119, 16.
Cf. the similar—and self-conscious—predicament described by Alfred Kazin, A Walker in the City (New York, 1951): “It troubled me that I could speak in the fullness of my own voice only when I was alone on the streets, walking about. There was something unnatural about it; unbearably isolated. I was not like the others! I was not like the others!” (24).
Apropos of the cleft without and the fissure within, see Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York, 1991): “Strangely, the foreigner lives within us: he is the hidden face of our identity, the peace that wrecks our abode, the time in which understanding and affinity founder. By recognizing him within ourselves, we are spared detesting him in himself. A symptom that precisely turns ‘we’ into a problem, perhaps makes it impossible. The foreigner comes in when the consciousness of my difference arises, and he disappears when we acknowledge ourselves as foreigners, unamenable to bonds and communities” (1). Charles Taylor comes at this dialectic of interiority and exteriority from a similar (though differently historicized) angle of approach in Multiculturalism and … “Recognition”: “What has come about with the modern age is not the need for recognition but the condition in which the attempt to be recognized can fail” (35).
Bellow, Victim, 29.
Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 198. For the allusion to Song of Songs, see Otherwise Than Being, 141-42. See also Jacques Derrida, “At This Very Moment in This Work Here I Am,” in Re-Reading Levinas, ed. R. Bernascon and S. Critchley (Bloomington, 1991), 11-48, which begins, “He will have obligated … as after the passing of some singular visitor, you are no longer familiar with the places, those very places where nonetheless the little phrase—Where does it come from? Who pronounced it?—still leaves its resonance lingering” (11 [Levinas's emphasis]).
Bellow, Victim, 66.
Ibid., 34, 70, 131, 179.
Himes, If He Hollers, 19.
Ibid., 27. For a comprehensive analysis of racism as language, see David Theo Goldberg, “The Social Formation of Racist Discourse,” in Goldberg, ed., Anatomy of Racism, 295-318.
Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 140.
Himes, If He Hollers, 3.
Bellow, Victim, 75.
Ibid., 144. In the dream sequence that follows, Leventhal has “an unclear dream in which he held himself off like an unwilling spectator; yet it was he who did everything” (150).
See especially Erving Goffman, Interaction Ritual: Essays in Face-to-Face Behavior (Garden City, 1967); and The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Garden City, 1959).
Emmanuel Levinas, “Reality and Its Shadow,” in Collected Philosophical Papers, 1-12; quotation from 6. See also Newton, “Face and Monstration,” in Narrative Ethics.
Emmanuel Levinas, “Freedom and Command,” in Collected Philosophical Papers, 13-22; quotation from 21.
James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (New York, 1927), 21-22.
Finkielkraut, Imaginary Jew, 71.
Bellow, Victim, 245.
Himes, If He Hollers, 183.
Bellow, Victim, 249. Tickets of admission form a motif in their own right here; cf. pages 27, 30, 112, 150, 155, and 186.
Lyrics of “They Don't Care about Us” by Michael Jackson, from his recent CD HIStory, Epic Records, MJJ Productions, New York, 1995: “Sue me, Jew me, everybody do me / Kick me, Kike me, don't you black or white me.” These lines have since been revised for a second pressing.
Himes, If He Hollers, 184.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8233
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 Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, the hard-boiled detective is a vigilante descended from the knights of Arthurian legend, whose romantic mission—the search for truth and justice—contrasts tragically with the corruption of his society and its institutions. The outcome of the clash between the detective's personal ideals and the corporate reality is inevitably violent, and dramatizes a greater battle for discursive territory: “the ‘right’ to signify from the periphery of authorized power” (Bhabha 2) through the demarcation of an alternative cultural patria.
Mexican writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II has created a protagonist, Héctor Belascoarán Shayne, who stretches this role to its logical extreme: the hardboiled detective as terrorist. Taibo's neopoliciaco novels amalgamate the hard-boiled genre with a critical patriotism that unites violence—as a juridical norm as well as a tool of resistance—with the utopian vision of a recovered patria. This project is driven by the desire to recover radical and popular history, and by extension discursive territory, from its fossilized state in institutionalized discourse. Taibo reveals this ideology directly and also intertextually, through the use of epigraphs and allusions to the reading habits of his principal character. In one story, Belascoarán acquires two novels by Chester Himes, the black1 American writer whose Harlem detective stories are a critical antecedent to Taibo's construction of the terrorist detective.
The British humorist G. K. Chesterton condemned the abuse of conventional patriotism to justify imperialism, exclusion, and genocide, and suggested a primordial connection between criticism and patriotism when he wrote in his “Defence of Patriotism” that “‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober,’” (The Defendant 125). For Chesterton, criticism of society and its institutions is the first duty of a true patriot. As writers of detective fiction, Taibo and Himes are patriots in the sense that they adhere to an ideal of locating community in the face of institutional acts that dislocate their respective constituencies. Their advocacy of illegal and violent action in the pursuit of this goal reinforces their patriotic status in a undertaking analogous to that of the IRA or the ETA,2 in that it attempts to subvert authority through the representation of chaotic practices.
Himes and Taibo use violence to foreground the absurd nature of their basic premise—the detective's pursuit of truth and justice amid the intransigent reality of Harlem and Mexico—as well as to attempt its resolution. Both deny that their exploitation of the detective genre is parodic:3 Chester Himes adopts instead the term absurd to identify his detectives' predicament as agents of the law in a subculture that suffers from a continual state of injustice. Absurdity also describes the divergence of expectation and realization experienced by black people in a racist society. The neopoliciaco as Taibo practices it examines reality—employing abundant references to actual history, news and people—to a point almost beyond rationality, while the violence in the Harlem novels is exaggerated, cartoon-like and macabre, and is meant to demonstrate that Harlem is, as Himes puts it, “a cesspool of buffoonery” (Absurdity 126).
In a reversal of traditional plotting practice, Belascoarán and the Harlem detectives employ violence rather than conventional deductive techniques to propel the action. Fredric Jameson has asserted that in Chandler's hard-boiled narratives “the empty, decorative event of the murder serves as a way of organizing essentially plotless material into an illusion of movement, into the formally satisfying arabesques of a puzzle unfolding” (124). The formula for a typical detective story, whether it is hard-boiled or a classic whodunit, is basically a stable one: “crime + clues + deduction = solution.” In these texts, however, clues and deduction play very little part in the process of detection. Rational, scientific or even traditional hard-boiled methods are ineffective in Mexico and Harlem because neither, as portrayed in these fictions, operates according to the rationalist/positivist tenets that (at least nominally) governed detective narrative in its earlier incarnations.4 Criminal motives can be opaque to the conventional logic of detection: in Himes's The Heat's On, a black albino kills his stepfather for saying that black Africans would not accept a white black person like him. Himes's two black detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, are so tough that “it was said in Harlem that Coffin Ed's pistol would kill a rock and Grave Digger's would bury it” (A Rage in Harlem 49). Their method of detection is elemental and usually involves pistol-whipping and shooting suspects with the specially outfitted.38 specials they both carry. Coffin Ed and Grave Digger are frequently suspended for police brutality, but almost as often they themselves are the victims of violence. After a thug throws acid in his face in the first novel, Coffin Ed becomes distinctly volatile in his reactions towards criminals, uncooperative witnesses and racist white policemen, and must periodically be restrained by his partner. In one story, believing Grave Digger is dead, his attempts to find the killer turn into a night-long, murderous rampage:
He had gone in with a long nickel-plated revolver in each hand and homicide in his eyes. … He had left a trail of hysteria, screaming jeebies, knotty heads and bloody noses. But it hadn't meant a thing. He hadn't gotten any leads, hadn't found out anything he didn't know. Just a blank.
(Real Cool Killers 174)
Both the violence and the futility of this particular search are typical of the Harlem novels: Ed and Digger's actions rarely seem driven by reason and are more likely to be unmeditated reactions to events over which they have no control. In The Big Gold Dream, Digger and Ed acknowledge that “the Medical Examiner's report, photographs, fingerprints, the findings of the criminal laboratory and all the results of modern police techniques—including police theories—were generally useless in solving murders in Harlem” (56). Taibo, too, states unequivocally that “no existe ciencia ninguna que pueda aproximar a un mexicano a descubrir la verdad” (Ramírez 43).5 When his detective finds himself in a typical Chandlerean confrontation, traditional methods are rendered moot:
“Todo había parecido muy claro en los primeros instantes: sacar pistola, patear puerta, entrar cuarto. De acuerdo al guión escrito había que: o sacarle la caca al gordito a patadas, para que dijera el nombre del hotel de la calzada Zaragoza, o envolverlo en una conversación en la que soltara la papa. Héctor se sentía incapaz de ambas cosas.”
(Cosa fácil 109)6
As one critic has observed, the relationship of the detective to the criminal in the hard-boiled novel is an inherently unstable one, in which the detective's actions provoke an escalation of violence as the criminal tries to remain undetected (Hühn). Belascoarán's “method” of detection is the obverse of this formulation, in that he deliberately provokes the escalation of violence by harrassing or assaulting his suspects. He states his technique as follows: “Voy a averiguar tanto como pueda y chingarlos tanto como pueda” (No habrá final feliz 101).7 Rather than rage, as in Coffin Ed's case, Héctor's violent actions are the result of a vague impulse to provocation which he himself does not fully understand, and which he observes with some detachment while bombing a pornographer's studio: “Porque los finales felices no se hicieron para este país, y porque tenía un cierto amor infantil por la pirotecnia, Héctor fue empujado por esas y otras oscuras razones hacia el desenlace” (190).8
Moreover, in these texts, the solution may have little or no causal relationship with the original crime. Raymond Chandler's solutions are inevitably bloody, disillusioning, and complex, but they are fully unfurled for the benefit of the reader: the central mystery is explained; loose ends are tied up, and corrupt or not, an underlying order is revealed. Both Taibo and Himes depart radically from this model in their construction and treatment of solutions. Survival alone is an achievement, as Belascoarán observes in Cosa fácil:9
Ningún modelo operaba. Era una jodida broma, pero cuando en seis meses había logrado que lo intentaran matar seis veces, cuando la piel tenía las huellas de cada uno de los atentados, … cuando había logrado sobrevivir aquellos meses, … la broma dejaba de ser un fenómeno particular y se integraba en el país.
Criminals are rarely punished according to conventional processes; instead, the detectives seek exposure of the criminals or restitution to their victims: Coffin and Digger steal a campaign slush-fund and the profits from a spurious Back-to Africa group to give to neighborhood families and children, and let a murderer go because they believed the victim deserved to die. Belascoarán is even further removed from convention: he avoids his clients so as not to tell them the truth; turns evidence over to journalist friends, blackmails criminals into returning stolen goods and gets killed twice, once as Belascoarán and again, by allusion, as a character named Paco Ignacio Taibo II.
Taibo's detective is conditionally optimistic in that he believes himself to be acting on behalf of a specific community—“los nativos” or “chilangos”: the natives of the DF, as opposed to “las autoridades” (Adiós Madrid 23)—but Himes is undeniably a nihilist. Unlike Taibo, Himes shows little sympathy for the victims: Harlem is populated by a cannibalistic melange of pushers, gangsters, whores and pimps who routinely sell each other out to white policemen, perverts, and politicians. Community and well-being themselves are suspect notions: as one of his characters says, “A good feeling is a sign of death, Daddy-O” (Rage in Harlem 20).
Severed limbs are a recurrent motif in Himes, exemplified in this scene, where a hermaphrodite attacks a murderer: “She put her whole weight in a down-chopping blow and sank the sharp blade of the axe into the side of his neck with such force it hewed through the spinal column and left his head dangling over his left shoulder on a thin strip of flesh, the epithet still on his lips.” (148). When a bartender chops a man's arm off in a bar fight, it rolls under a booth, and the man crawls after it to get his knife out of the severed hand and keep fighting (The Real Cool Killers 8)11; in other stories, a thief gets decapitated while fleeing on a motorcycle, a man walks into the street with a knife through his head; and a corpse with a slit throat gets driven through a produce market with its head flapping grotesquely out the back of the hearse.
This estrangement of limb and body echoes a greater estrangement: that of identity. The cultural dislocation experienced by the inhabitants of Himes's texts reveals itself corporeally through violence, but also symbolically through the multiplication of signifiers, the hierarchy and signification of skin colors, gender ambiguity, linguistic indeterminacy and masquerade. Almost everyone in Harlem, except the victims, goes by a “moniker” rather than by his given name, from Coffin and Grave Digger to the Sheik (leader of the Real Cool Moslems), Slick (a bookie), Sugartit (a young girl), Snake Hips (a male exotic dancer), Pinky (an albino), Sister Heavenly (a heroin merchant), Sweet Prophet Brown (a preacher) and the Dummy (a deaf-mute stool pigeon). Janitors and porters go to work with their overalls in briefcases to look like businessmen (Rage in Harlem 134); policemen unwittingly interview a dead woman (Real Cool Killers); a murder victim comes back to life in a later chapter (The Big Gold Dream). The initial crime—the catalyst for violence—usually takes place in the form of a scam: the false sale of a golden Cadillac; a bogus back-to-Africa movement; a gang of fake Moslems; a scam called “the blow,” in which con men claim to chemically “raise” the denomination of money; a gigolo who sells his women's furniture to a Jew while they are at work; and a preacher who gives out “blessed” crumbs of bread in exchange for ＄10 bills. The community is divided into the criminals and “squares,” their stupid, sheep-like victims. The victims in Harlem are always the darkest-skinned, the honest, the pious and the poor. Those who prey on them are usually light-skinned, especially the women.12
To the problem of color is added that of gender: Himes's stories are unusually dense with sexually indeterminate characters. Cross-dressing, clandestine homosexuality and hermaphroditism complicate identity and engender red herrings that Ed and Digger must circumnavigate in their pursuit of the criminals: the wife of a homosexual politician dresses as a pimp (Mr. Baron), male transvestites masquerade as old women, nuns (Sister Gabriel), gypsy fortune tellers (Lady Gypsy), and even “landprops” or bordello madams (Big Kathy). By contrast, Ed and Digger are definitively “male”: they carry big.38's instead of knives; eschew costumes and insist on the direct, physical route to discovering the facts in a case.
Language is a further instrument of confusion in the Harlem novels. Dialogue is rarely used to convey information; instead it obscures the truth or deflects the question. The fact that Dummy, the deaf mute, is one of Digger and Ed's best informants, ironically highlights the typical attitude of witnesses towards giving information to the police. For this reason, Ed and Digger always mistrust language as a means of securing information. At times their suspicion of language is assuaged only by depriving a witness of the power of speech: in one scene Coffin Ed smashes out the teeth of a pimp who has been lying to him, and continues the interrogation on what he obviously feels will be a sounder basis, saying: “When the answer is no, shake your head. And don't make any more mistakes” (The Heat's On 146). In a similar situation, Héctor tires of conventional techniques of questioning: “Usted me atraganta señor Cuesta …—dijo Héctor y poniéndose en pie le asestó un tremendo bastonazo en la mandíbula. Oyó el nítido crac del maxilar al quebrarse” (Cosa fácil 189).13
Both Taibo and Himes are stylistically indebted to Raymond Chandler, whose Los Angeles underworld slang was a deliberate artistic creation. Chandler was educated in England and, as he put it, he “had to learn American like a foreign language” (Most 134). Himes acknowledged that his Harlem-speak was a literary invention, noting that during his years in Europe his slang became seriously outdated (Absurdity 241). The resulting language is a specialized idiom which identifies its users as members of a linguistically-based, and therefore suspect, community through oblique reference to common evils. The citizens of Harlem speak in a code that multiplies meaning and, at the same time, redirects discourse to the rawness of actuality. “You is going to be happy,” says Sister Heavenly, a heroin pusher who masquerades as a faith healer, to a sick man. “You is going to be happy if you got the faith.” He replies as she jabs him with the needle, “I is got the faith” (The Heat's On 44). A drug peddler masquerading as a Sister of Mercy quotes equivocal scripture as he sells two “tickets to heaven” to a little girl: “And I saw heaven opened, and beheld a white horse” (Rage in Harlem 27). At times, Himes translates this jargon, which must have presented difficulties for his white readers in the 50's and 60's:
He had crashed all the notorious shooting galleries in Harlem, the joints where the addicts met to take their kicks and greet their chicks; where the skinpoppers and the shmeckers (those who used the needle and those who sniffed the powder), the pushers and the weedheads gathered for sex circuses and to listen to the real cool jive.
(Real Cool Killers 173)
Critics have linked the fragmentation of the modern city to the disruption of a cohesive human identity—both individual and collective—in modern urban life (Denning, Berman, Prendergast). Chester Himes's Harlem is not only a fragmented urban space; it, like its population, exists in complete segregation from the rest of New York.14 It is a city within a city, just as the two black detectives are a separate unit within the (then white) New York metropolitan police force. White policemen are unable to function effectively in Harlem because they do not understand the language and all black people look alike to them.15 Conversely, a black fugitive panics on leaving Harlem: “When he saw the stone wall surrounding Central Park he realized he was out of Harlem. He was down in the white world with no place to go, no place to hide his woman's gold ore, no place to hide himself” (Rage in Harlem 137). This geographical boundary echoes the racial one. Nora Alter traces a trajectory from the detectives' function as mediators between the black and white spheres in the early novels to one of complete rejection by both, which renders them completely ineffective as detectives by the final novel, Blind Man with a Pistol, in 1969. This trajectory follows major events in race relations, from school-desegregation and other civil-rights actions in the early 60's to increasingly militant movements like Back-to-Africa, Black Power and the Black Muslims. But Chester Himes's political views appear to have been fully radicalized from the beginning: only his external points of reference change. His portrayal of black religious or militant movements as large-scale scams clearly demonstrates his belief that they are merely secondary attributes of racism. As he states in his autobiography, violent action, not language, is the sole viable response to a discourse that is already controlled by the enemy:
Every black person in America knows how to fight racism, whether he will do it or not, whether he will admit to this knowledge or not. Whether he is willing to risk his life for equality or not. Deep in the heart of every American black person is the knowledge that the only way to fight racism is with a gun.
Far from being perceived as “traitors” by the black community, as Alter and Skinner argue, Digger and Ed inspire fear and respect through the use of violence, and their big guns excuse them from the necessity of resorting to lies or subterfuge. Ultimately, the confusion of identities, so multiplied by linguistic games, equivocal sexualities, scams and masquerades, resolves itself in the universal epithets “nigger” and “mother-raper,” the verbal equivalents of the physical violence with which they alternate. Violence, then, is to be regarded as a response not only to racism, but also to a generic confusion emanating from questions of identity, nationality and cultural affiliation.
Héctor is one-eyed, lame, and covered in scars. Coffin Ed's face is disfigured and all three detectives have been shot repeatedly. More than mere battle scars, these marks are the physical inscriptions of the bearers' marginalized, absurd engagement with a brutal society. The “double alienation”16 of the police and detective protagonists, who are set apart from their fellow beings by their scars as well as their chosen profession, is to some extent a function of the foreignness (both literal and critical) of Himes and Taibo to the environments they describe. The light-skinned Chester Himes always felt separate from other black people. He was an educated man who spent seven years in jail for armed robbery in 1928. His sense of marginalization was exacerbated by a self-imposed exile in Paris, where he was never able to learn the language (Absurdity 121). Like Chandler, Himes was a compulsive nomad whose essential nationlessness is evident throughout his autobiography, “I never found a place where I even began to fit. … I went through life without liking anyone, black or white …” (155). Even his experience of Harlem was fragmentary: although he visited sporadically in the mid-50's, he mostly lived downtown during his brief stays in New York, describing himself as “black, despised and outcast” (25).
Taibo was born in Spain, and although he moved to Mexico in 1958, he only became a citizen of that country in 1980. Although he certainly considers himself Mexican, he is in some sense an outcast from the Mexican critical establishment. Like Himes, he enjoys critical success mostly outside his own country, and considers Mexican literary criticism to be just another hegemonic discourse.17 His detective Belascoarán is likewise not native to Mexico: rather, he willfully uses his profession to insert himself into its social, political and historical discourses. He is afraid of leaving the DF: “que fuera del DF era cadáver” (Adiós Madrid 24).18 As an antidote to official history, the sacred myths and icons of Mexican nationality, (which the Mexican cultural critic Carlos Monsiváis has called “petrificación mítica” [Escenas 95]), Belascoarán proposes the interstitial experiences of popular urban culture: frequenting street-vendors and taquerías (where he often gets sick), shopping at the Medellín market, taking merengue lessons in a local arts center, riding the subway, walking the streets endlessly at night, injecting his cases into radio talk shows, TV quiz shows and other popular media. Héctor and his friends speak a distinct Mexico City argot laced with profanity, malapropisms and bad grammar, addressing each other, ridiculously, with the formal “Usted.” Their professions are laughably prosaic—a plumber, an upholsterer and a sewage engineer—but symbolize the multi-layered corruption of Mexican politics.
In Himes's Harlem, violence occurs at an individual level but is meant to dramatize the predicament of thinking black men in a racist society, epitomized by Himes himself. In Taibo's Mexico, violence occurs in a much more overtly wholesale manner, is primarily institutional in nature, and assaults the citizenry as a whole: Algunas nubes recounts the true story of fourteen drug traffickers who were robbed and assassinated by police and dumped in a sewer; No habrá final feliz revisits the Falcons, a paramilitary group who massacred a group of students in 1971; Adiós Madrid recounts the theft of Moctezuma's breastplate from the national museum. As one critic observes, most of the crimes in these stories can be traced to the police: “Sus novelas revelan pistas sobre las relaciones entre policía y violencia, policía y narcotráfico, policía y crimen, que cotidianamente confirma la vida real.”19 These police are brutal and arbitrary: as Taibo says, “no tienen fidelidad a nadie (…) les gusta joder. No hay nada en el mundo que les guste más que el poder que ejercen cuando aterrorizan a alguien” (Mercado).20 Beyond his own self-defense, Belascoarán's own violent acts appropriate this institutional barbarism and reorganize it on an individual level, in the same way that his individualized historical investigations aim to recuperate history from textbooks written by the power elite. One critic claims, somewhat exaggeratedly, that Belascoarán is “on a permanent hunt for the missing link of the nation's collective identity” (Stavans 1990, 6). It is true, however, that Belascoarán personifies Taibo's interrogation of institutionalized patriotism: he chases down reports of “un tal Zapata, de nombre don Emiliano”21 reputed to be living in a cave; visits the house of one of Pancho Villa's 25 wives; and rescues the stolen breastplate of Moctezuma. Taibo contends that his interest in radical history, worker's movements and detective novels all fit together in “una especie de lógica de resistencia del ciudadano contra el sistema” (Ramírez 41).22 This recuperation of revolutionary ideals melds with the detective project in Cosa fácil, where Héctor is assisted by El Cuervo, a night-time deejay who alludes to a the possibilities of a collective venture into deduction: “la gente puede colaborar. No tienes idea de la cantidad de gente que escucha y lo ansiosa que está la gente de esta ciudad de colaborar en algo” (Cosa fácil 102).23
Taibo describes his detective as “surrealist” because he pursues a neoromantic object, justice, in the face of an atrocious reality: the injustices perpetrated by those in power (Ramírez 42). He admits his debt to Chandler but stresses the new ingredients in the Mexican neopoliciaco genre: “Chandler's character moves within rational histories,” he said in one interview, “whereas mine is surrounded by a chaotic atmosphere, Kafkaesque and corrupt, Mexico City” (quoted in Sherman). Although he may be overstating this distinction, the atmosphere of the DF is a crucial element of the neopoliciaco, and one which almost supplants the action. Much of the action in Taibo's stories takes place at night, in a Mexico City populated by insomniacs and sodden by a relentless, dirty rain. Like Coffin and Grave Digger, Belascoarán often foregoes sleep for the duration of a case: for him, nocturnal activity represents an escape from the corrupt vigilance of institutions. His refusal to sleep is thus constructed as a conscious act of rebellion, and those who share the night with him are his co-conspirators.
Hard-boiled fiction is preoccupied with defining and projecting the feel of the urban medium. If de Certeau and Foucault postulate the ordered representation of urban space as a means of control, then the urban spaces in both Taibo's and Himes's novels have completely escaped these notions of order. The Harlem of Himes's detective novels is an imagined landscape, which he constructed as a topographical expression of the absurdity of the black condition. The geography is apocalyptic, its irrationality accentuated by the extremes of weather which form an atmospheric backdrop to the action.24 Their fragmented, close-up, typically nocturnal visions of the city resist the totalizing view, the reading that is the necessary antecedent to authoritative manipulation. In the following passage from his first detective novel, Himes juxtaposes this bird's eye view of Harlem with the submerged, invisible world of its inhabitants:
Looking eastward from Riverside Church, perched among the university buildings on the high banks of the Hudson River, in a valley far below, waves of gray rooftops distort the perspective like the surface of the sea. Below the surface, in the murky waters of fetid tenements, a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living, like a voracious churning of millions of hungry cannibal fish. Blind mouths eating their own guts. Stick in a hand and draw back a nub.
(A Rage in Harlem 93)
The imagery of cannibalism and carrion is reiterated later in the same text, in his description of the 125th Street police station:
Whores buzzed about the area like green flies over stewing chitterlings. … Muggers with scarred faces cased the lone pedestrians like hyenas watching lions feast. Purse snatchers grabbed a poke and ran toward the dark beneath the trestle, trying to dodge the cops' bullets pinging against the iron stanchions.
The Harlemites in Himes's novels use darkness as they do daylight: life, death, and the elaborate scams carry on throughout the night. Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones, as their names imply, work the graveyard shift.
Harlem at night is as busy as during the day: “Most of the bars were closed. But people were still in the street. … They came and went from the apartment houses where the after-hours joints were jumping and the house-rent parties swimming and the whores plying their trade and the gamblers clipping chumps” (89).
A further link between the Harlem and Belascoarán novels is the attempt on the authors' part to combat the culture of victimhood through which marginalized peoples are often characterized. In Mexico, the image of the savage, hermetic Mexican popularized by Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes (among others) has led to a certain cultural binarism whose basic formula is “chingar o ser chingado.”25 According to Carlos Monsiváis, crime fiction has not flourished historically in Latin America because, among other reasons: “lo excepcional, lo desusado, no es que un latinoamericano resulte víctima, sino que pueda dejar de serlo” (3).26 Taibo tries to combat this construct of Mexico as a culture of victimization by transforming the phenomenon itself into a fulcrum for resistance. Belascoarán's personal identity as a Mexican of the masses—a victim who complains about the price of tortillas and the corruption of the transit police—is the source of his energy and diligence as a detective; the powerlessness of the everyday citizen reconstructs itself into a critical stance that facilitates action:
Esta conciencia social adquirida por motivos emergidos de un humanismo elemental, primitivo, de una valoración de la situación eminentemente superficial, de una conciencia política construida desde el interior del mundo personal del detective, le permitía al menos concebir México desde una perspectiva acre, desde una posición crítica, desde afuera del poder y el privilegio.
Balancing his utopian vision of fraternity, however, is Belascoarán's realization that the exercise of his profession is inherently absurd in Mexico, where the revelation of truth does not necessarily alter the fact of injustice. In this context, his identification with the everyday Mexican citizen, formerly a source of empowerment, becomes the source of dislocation and expatriation. Belascoarán's prayer to the goddess of night (whom he implicitly offers as an alternative to other national female icons such as “la chingada” [“the violated”] La Malinche or the Virgin of Guadalupe) at the end of No habrá final feliz reveals his despair of ever realizing his ephemeral patria:
Señora de las horas sin luz, protégenos, dama de la noche, cuídanos.
Cuídanos, porque no somos de lo peor que le queda a esta ciudad, y sin embargo, no valemos gran cosa. No somos de aquí, ni renunciamos, ni siquiera sabemos irnos a otro lado para desde allí añorar las calles y el solecito, y los licuados de plátano con leche y los tacos de nana, y el Zócalo de 16 de Septiembre y el estadio de Cuauhtémoc y las posadas del Canal Cuatro, y en esta soledad culera que nos atenaza y nos persigue.
The culture of victimhood was also problematic for Chester Himes. While he always perceived himself as a victim of racism, Himes wanted his detective novels to show black life as absurd, but not pathetic (Absurdity 158). He set himself apart from other black writers, describing Richard Wright's protest novels as “Uncle Tom” writing whose main aspiration was to evoke pity.29 In contrast, Himes intended his texts to be a protest against racism itself excusing all their sins and major faults. “Black victims of crime and criminals might be foolish and harebrained, but the soul brother criminals were as vicious, cruel and dangerous as other criminals—I knew because I'd been one—the only difference being they were absurd” (111).
The brutality of Coffin Ed and Grave Digger is directed primarily towards the black community and is meant to illustrate this attitude, which refuses to excuse criminals on the basis of oppression alone. The criminals that evoke the most rage and hatred are those who ally themselves with white criminals to prey on Harlem; as Grave Digger says to a one of these:
If I find out that you're lying I'm going to kill you like a dog. I'm not going to shoot you, I'm going to break all your bones. I'm going to try to find out who killed Galen because that's what I'm paid for and that was my oath when I took this job. But if I had my way I'd pin a medal on him and I'd string up every goddamned one of you who were up with Galen. You've turned my stomach and it's all I can do right now to keep from beating out your brains.
(Real Cool Killers 102)
If Chandler or Hammett's lonely crusaders were his models, Himes made an anomalous choice in creating his dual protagonist. Not only do Ed and Digger work as a team, they are best friends, next door neighbors, and family men. At times their personal lives become entangled with their professional lives, as when Coffin Ed's daughter gets involved with a gang. Taibo, likewise, endows Belascoarán with a family history, a sister and brother, and three office-mates who sometimes participate in his cases. His clients are often figures from Héctor's personal history. While, as one critic notes, Chandler's Philip Marlowe has the freedom to remain somewhat detached from the crimes he investigates, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger, by virtue of being black, have no option but to participate fully in the experience of being so (Rabinowitz 24). This can also be said of Belascoarán, whose willed Mexicanness is a palpable presence in the texts.30 For him, violence, especially that perpetrated by institutions against individuals, is an inescapable part of Mexican experience, and his mission is simply to reply in kind. Belascoarán's choice to be a detective, like Ed and Digger's choice to be policemen, results from his commitment, less to an abstract notion of justice, than to an imagined community. As isolated as they are by their seemingly absurd choice of profession, it is only by the exercise of that profession—whose symbiotic relationship with crime licenses their use of violence—that they are empowered to pursue this patriotic ideal. But in order to do this, Belascoarán, like Coffin Ed and Grave Digger, must “embrace the demonic” (Muller 6). In the end, he admits, a terrorist detective is not necessarily any better than a criminal:
¿No era suya la misma impunidad que la de los otros? ¿No había podido tirar cartuchos de dinamita, balear pistoleros, volar camionetas sin que pasara nada?
Casi estaba por aceptar la tesis del tapicero que repetía una y otra vez: “En este país no pasa nada, y aunque pase, tampoco.”
(Cosa fácil 194)31
From Borges and Alfonso Reyes on, critics in Latin America have tried to explain why detective literature attracts the literate reader. Whereas in Spain many have adopted the French intellectual taste for detective stories, Anglo and Latin American critics are often anxious to separate the mass-market detective novel from “serious” literature. Chester Himes was initially very ambivalent about writing genre fiction and only agreed to do so for financial reasons.32 Taibo is clearer about his appropriation of a traditionally “low” form and refuses all attempts to otherwise classify the Belascoarán Shayne novels.33 He admits absolutely no continuity between Belascoarán and other Mexican detective characters, such as Antonio Helú's Máximo Roldán or Martínez de la Vega's Peter Pérez, who he claims were parodic figures.34 In doing so, he insists on disconnecting his use of the genre from the parodic, hence artistically legitimate, Latin American tradition. His deliberate choice of a formulaic literature is reinforced by his detective's insistence (down to the trenchcoat) on following the exterior conventions of the hard-boiled story, while the transplantation of the genre to a seemingly hostile environment, rather than attenuating this generic connection, enriches the genre.
Fredric Jameson believes that the detective story foregrounds the significance of fragmentary, everyday acts in a way that “high” literature does not, by revealing interstitial, extra-official realities to the half-focused mind. The “right to signify” or construct history from an unprivileged position is the political analogue to the interstitial niche occupied by genre fiction: an ideological objective whose formal modes of expression are to be found in the cross-cultural phenomena of popular culture. G. K. Chesterton argued in his 1901 essay “Defence of Detective Stories” that the detective novel, precisely because it is a popular genre, expresses the soul of a society just as the epic or the chivalric novel did in earlier times, observing that “the first essential value of the detective story lies in this, that it is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life” (The Defendant 119). It was Chesterton, who through Borges became of the most influential voices in the formation of Latin-American detective narrative, who observed that the detective novel is not an escapist literature. Rather, it serves to remind the complacent that “we live in an armed camp, making war with a chaotic world, and that the criminals, the children of chaos, are nothing but the traitors within our gates” (123).
In 1973, Carlos Monsiváis predicted the demise of the Mexican detective novel, asking: “¿A quién le importa quién mató a Roger Ackroyd … si nadie sabe (oficialmente) quién fue el responsable de la matanza de Tlatelolco o quién ordenó el asalto de los Halcones el 10 de junio?” (“Ustedes” 10).35 Following the model established by the Harlem domestic novels, Taibo appropriates the chaos of the real world by adapting the hard-boiled detective narrative to Mexican political facts. While traditional genre detective fiction is dedicated to the premise of order, in these texts the perpetuation of chaos becomes a tool for reclaiming discursive territory. Himes confessed that he didn't really know Harlem; and said of his invented village that it was “never meant to be real; I never called it real; I just wanted to take it away from the white man if only in my books” (126). The two authors' use of the detective genre to articulate a critical ideology pairs mayhem with cultural dislocation: these detectives reject the search for order; instead pursuing violence as both a terrorist act and as a dramatization of their own cultural dismemberment.
Taibo's Mexican detective is Irish on his mother's side and Basque on his father's side; his father was also a terrorist on the side of Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War.
Since Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares wrote the Don Isidro Parodi stories in the 1940s, many critics have supported the idea that the Latin American detective novel constitutes a parodical take on the “traditional” detective story, in the sense that it is understood as an appropriation of formal elements proper to existing non-Latin American models. Elzbieta Sklodowska argues this point convincingly, using Todorov's definition of parody, not as a denigrating joke, but rather as a “creative transgression of the model” (175).
The historic construction of the detective story as an exercise in logic is usually based on analyses of Edgar Allan Poe's detective, C. Auguste Dupin, while the emphasis on empiricism is usually attributed to Arthur Conan Doyle. However, Dupin himself points out the fallacies of abstract logic when applied to moral intrigue; he states in “The Purloined Letter” that his method consists of identifying the suspect as either a poet or a mathematician, in order to anticipate whether his actions will be limited by logic. This method is founded rather on intuition and empathy than on reason. The Mexican-American critic Ilán Stavans makes a well-intentioned effort to theorize a “decalogue” of crime fiction, including among the elements “Lo moral y lo intelectual,” wherein he describes the logic of the genre as follows: “Triunfa siempre la razón sobre la sinrazón y el orden sobre el desorden; indistintamente, sea Poe o Chesterton, lo humano en lo detectivesco termina victorioso y el caos del universo es sometido a un riguroso plano intelectual” (Antihéroes 46). [Reason always triumphs over unreason and order over disorder, indifferently, whether in Poe or Chesterton, the human element ends up victorious in the detective genre and the chaos of the universe is subordinated to a rigorous intellectual plan.] Stavans overlooks the true Chestertonian contribution, which suggests that chaos is the true reality and individual acts of reasoning (or deduction) are poetic abstractions. This is the side of Chesterton that Borges, the great popularizer of detective fiction in Latin America, celebrated, and which we see reenacted in the texts of Taibo and Himes.
“There is no science that can lead a Mexican to discover the truth.”
“Everything had seemed very simple at first: take out gun, kick in door, enter room. In accordance with the script he now had to: either kick the shit out of the fat guy so he would give up the name of the hotel on Zaragoza, or involve him in a conversation in which he would let slip the information. Héctor felt incapable of either.”
“I'm going to find out whatever I can and screw them as much as I can.”
“Because happy endings were not made for this country, and because he had a certain infantile love of pyrotechnics, Héctor was impelled by these and other obscure reasons towards the final act.”
In Himes's final novel Plan B, which is not part of the Harlem domestic series, Ed kills Digger before being murdered himself. Defending Belascoarán's resuscitation in his fourth novel of the group, Taibo claims that “la resurreccíon es un fenómeno mexicano” (Ramírez 44); that is, the readers willingly suspend their disbelief in order to continue sharing Belascoarán's adventures. But resurrection has another, more political role, which can be traced to a statement made by Chester Himes: “When America kills a nigger it expects him to remain dead. … But I didn't know I was supposed to die” (Muller 2). Himes's metaphorical death in the critical press, like Taibo's, is analogous to Héctor's death at the end of No habrá final feliz; he simply refuses to cooperate with conventional expectations.
“No model served. It was a fucking joke, but when in six months he had managed to get them to try to kill him six times, when his skin bore the traces of every single attempt … when he had managed to survive those months, the joke stopped being private and began to integrate itself into the country.”
This type of scene was inspired by Himes's compulsive rereading of William Faulkner's Sanctuary (cf. the opening scene) during the period in which he wrote the first Harlem stories.
See Robert Skinner's thoughtful analysis of skin color and character in Two Guns from Harlem, 50-67.
“You make me sick, Señor Cuesta …—said Héctor and getting to his feet he socked him hard in the jaw. He heard the clean crack of the jawbone as it broke.”
Aside from the detectives themselves, many characters—the undertaker H. Exodus Clay, the soul-food queen Mamie Louise,—appear in several novels, alluding to a living continuity which exists outside the texts themselves. This is a technique that we have all become familiar with in our readings of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha, Gabriel García Márquez's Maocndo, and Juan Carlos Onetti's Santa María.
Ed and Digger are also able to get away with violent tactics that, during the '60s, were becoming politically difficult for white police in black communities.
Nora Alter uses this term to describe the Harlem detectives' final inability to belong in either the black or white world (16).
He organizes the Semana Negra, a congress of detective story writers, in Spain.
“that outside of the DF he'd be a cadaver.”
“His novels reveal clues about the relationships between police and violence, police and drugs, police and crime, that everyday life attests to.”
“They have no loyalty to anyone … they like to mess with people. There is nothing in the world they like more than the power they exert when they terrorize someone.”
“a certain Zapata by the name of don Emiliano.”
“a kind of logic of resistance by the citizen against the system.”
“The people can collaborate. You have no idea how many people listen and how anxious they are to collaborate on something.” This may also be an allusion to the Cuban socialist detective novel, in which the detective is often represented as “the collective.” Taibo refers to this subgenre often: in Adios Madrid, his friend the museum curator is named Justo Vasco after a well-known Cuban detective novelist.
See Denning for a thorough analysis of this topography.
Something like “screw or be screwed.” For a discussion of the role of high culture in fostering this image of Mexican identity, see Carlos Monsiváis, “Los viajeros y la invención de México.”
“What is exceptional, singular, is not that a Mexican could be a victim, but that he could stop being one.”
“This social conscience acquired through practices emanating from an elemental, primitive humanism, from a strictly external evaluation of the situation, from a political consciousness constructed from the personal world of the detective, at least permitted him to perceive Mexico from a mordant perspective, from a critical position, from outside the realm of power and privilege.”
“Lady of the lightless hours, protect us, lady of the night, protect us. Protect us, because we are not the worst thing left in this city, even though we are not worth much. We are not of the city, nor can we renounce it, we don't even know how to go somewhere else so we can long from there for the streets and the sun, and the drinks of plantain with milk and the tacos, and the 16th of September plaza, and the Cuauhtémoc stadium and the posadas of Chanel Four, and in this dirty solitude that tortures and pursues us.”
Himes was enormously bitter towards the American literary establishment for not recognizing his merit, and intensely jealous of other black expatriate writers: “Every other American black living abroad was at least recognized if not helped. But as far as Americans were concerned, I was dead” (144).
This also could be a response to the ridiculously Europeanized protagonist of Rodolfo Usigli's Ensayo de un crimen (1944), who eats at Sanborn's and takes tea at Lady Baltimoree.
“Wasn't his the same impunity as the others'? Hadn't he been able to throw sticks of dynamite, shoot gunmen, set fire to vans without anything happening? He was almost ready to accept the opinion of the upholsterer, who always said, ‘In this country nothing happens, and even if it does, it doesn't.’”
According to Himes, he consoled himself with the thought that he was writing only for the French, who would believe anything about black life in America (Absurdity 102).
See Cawelti, Chapter 1, for a discussion of the functions of formula or genre fiction within literature as a whole.
Although Himes was the first black writer to write genre detective novels, Taibo was certainly not the first Mexican. From the 1940s on, many Mexican writers attempted the form, although few achieved critical or commercial success.
“Who cares who murdered Roger Ackroyd … if no one knows (officially) who was responsible for the massacre at Tlateleolco or who ordered the Falcons to attack on the 10th of June?”
Alter, Nora. “Chester Himes: Black Guns and Words.” Alteratives. Ed. Warren Motte and Gerald Prince. Lexington, KY: French Forum, 1993.
Berman, Marshall. All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. London: Verson, 1983.
Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.
Cawelti, John. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976.
Chesterton, G. K. “A Defence of Detective Stories.” The Defendant. 4th ed. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1914. 118-23.
———. “A Defence of Patriotism.” The Defendant. 4th ed. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1914. 124-31.
Denning, Michael. “Topographies of Violence: Chester Himes' Harlem Domestic Novels.” Critical Texts 5.1 (1988): 10-18.
Himes, Chester. My Life of Absurdity. 1976. New York: Paragon House, 1990.
———. A Rage in Harlem. [For Love of Imabelle 1957] New York: Vintage, 1985.
———. The Real Cool Killers. 1959. New York: Vintage, 1988.
———. All Shot Up. 1960. Chatham, NJ: The Chatham Bookseller, 1973.
———. The Big Gold Dream. 1960. London: W. H. Allen & Co., 1988.
———. The Heat's On. 1966. Chatham, NJ: The Chatham Bookseller, 1975.
———. Plan B. Ed. Michel Fabre and Robert E. Skinner. Jackson: U of Missippi P, 1993.
Hühn, Peter. “The Detective as Reader: Narrativity and Reading Concepts in Detective Fiction.” Modern Fiction Studies 33.3 (1987): 451-66.
Jameson, Fredric R. “On Raymond Chandler.” The Poetics of Murder. Ed. Glen W. Most and William W. Stowe. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1983.
Mercado, Angel. “Pistas de PIT II.” Web article.
Monsiváis, Carlos. “Ustedes que jamás han sido asesinados.” Revista de la Universidad de México (Mar. 1973): 1-11.
———. “De las relaciones literarias entre ‘alta cultura’ y ‘cultura popular.’” Texto Crítico 11.33 (1985): 46-61.
———. “Los Viajeros y La Invención de México.” Aztlan 15.2 (1984): 201-29.
———. Escenas de pudor y liviandad. México: Grijalbo, 1981.
Muller, Gilbert H. Chester Himes. Boston: Twayne, 1989.
Prendergast, Christopher. Paris and the Nineteenth Century. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992.
Rabonowitz, Peter J. “Chandler Comes to Harlem: Racial Politics in the Thrillers of Chester Himes.” The Sleuth and the Scholar: Origins, Evolution, and Current Trends in Detective Fiction. Ed. Barbara A. Radar and Howard G. Zettler. New York: Greenwood P, 1988.
Ramírez, Juan Carlos. “Paco Ignacio Taibo II: La lógica de la terquedad o la variante mexicana de una locura.” Mester 21.1 (1992): 41-50.
Sherman, Scott. “Democratic Detective.” The Boston Review 21.2 (1996): n.p.
Skinner, Robert E. Two Guns from Harlem: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1989.
Sklodowska, Elzbieta. “Transgresión paródica de la formula policial en la novela hispanoamericana.” Hispánica Posnaniensia 1 (1990): 171-83.
Stavans, Ilán. Antihéroes: México y su novela policial. Benito Juárez, D. F.: J. Mortiz, 1993.
———. “An Appointment with Hector Belascoaran Shayne, Mexican Private Eye: A Profile of Paco Ignacio Taibo II.” Review 42 (1990): 5-9.
Taibo II, Paco Ignacio. Días de combate. Barcelona: Grijalbo, 1976.
———. Cosa fácil. 1977. 2a ed. México: Promexa, 1992.
———. No habrá final feliz. México: Planeta, 1981.
———. Algunas nubes. 1985. 5th ed. Madrid: Júcar, 1987.
———. Sueños de frontera. México: Promexa, 1990.
———. Amorosos fantasmas. México: Promexa, 1990.
———. Adiós Madrid. México: Promexa, 1993.
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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 Soul, that the establishment was going to start a war between black men and black women. Himes was right. And so, unlike in the 1960s, when a vague entity known as the “white power structure” was blamed for the continuing problems of many African Americans, by the late 1980s, African Americans, or more specifically, black men, were blamed for these problems.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the appointed leader of the Talented Tenth, says that the problems of black Americans are “structural,” and “behavioral,” not racial. In his standard speech, he never fails to mention the “38-year-old grandmothers living in the projects,” without neglecting to cite the dramatic decline in out-of-wedlock births among black women since the middle 1990s, just as he announced that black anti-Semitism was on the rise in a Times op-ed, published during a time when the Anti-Defamation League had released a report indicating that black anti-Semitism had declined 8 percent since the 1970s; while anti-Semite Pat Robertson and his millions of white followers were seizing the Republican Party, Gates was saying that anti-Semitism, “generally” was “on the wane.”
Though the charge of misogyny was used as the excuse to indict black men, it was clear that the feminist movement evaluated black and white misogyny differently. Even Senator Packwood boasted, at the height of his problems over sexual harassment, that the leading feminists were reluctant to criticize him, while Clarence Thomas and other black men have had their reputations ruined and the full weight of feminist wrath brought down upon them. Regardless of what one might think of Thomas's politics, his conflict with Anita Hill still remains at the level of “He said, she said.”
The proof of the double standard by which black men and white men are judged, a standard noticed by Joyce Ann Joyce and bell hooks, is the outpouring of support for President Clinton, despite the allegations of sexual misconduct by some of the same black and white feminists who denounced Clarence Thomas. So glaring is this disparity that Maureen Dowd, a New York Times columnist, publicly apologized to Thomas.
Though living in exile, Chester Himes had a better grip on what lay in the future for African Americans than many writers and intellectuals who resided in the U.S. They did not see the crisis for black men coming.
When Clarence Major, Steve Cannon, Quincy Troupe, Joe Johnson, and I met with Chester and Lesley Himes at New York's Park Lane hotel in 1972, we were able to discuss Chester's insights into this coming crisis, as well as other issues. But by the time Himes returned to the U.S. in 1980, he had sustained such brain damage from a stroke, that he was barely able to communicate and was wheel chair bound. Recently, Larry Jordan, a literary agent, complained about the paucity of African American male fiction writers who have been able, unlike numbers of black women, to create a “crossover” fiction, that is, tap into a large readership of white women. Academic revisionists justify this picture by claiming that at one time black male writers were “valued.” Whenever I hear this, I think of Chester Himes, whose shortage of funds was evident during that final trip home. I also think of John O. Killens, who wrote the best novel about World War II, And Then We Heard the Thunder. The editors of the feminist Norton Anthology of African American Literature didn't even think that this great writer was worthy of inclusion. I think of Richard Wright, who was scrambling for funds toward the end of his life. So was Langston Hughes. I think of John A. Williams, the purest novelist among African American writers who, because of his impudence, has been exiled from big time publishing.
What we have now is an apolitical “Fourth Renaissance,” defined by the Time-Warner conglomerate and designed to avoid making the plastic card crossover consumers uncomfortable. A “Fourth Renaissance” that lacks the fire and guts of the traditional African American artists who saw racism and injustice as the chief impediments to black progress, not Hip Hop music, or Mister [a character in Alice Walker's The Color Purple—eds.] This is still the case. When the Talented Tenth argue that joblessness is the problem of the 1990s and not racism, they ignore the fact that the two are connected. Recently, black farmers complained to the Clinton administration about the difference between the way banks treat them and white farmers. They are denied loans because of racism, not because of defects in their behavior.
In 1932 the Nazis set up something called the Cultural League which decided which Jewish actors could work. One of the requirements was that the Jewish actors avoid work of a political nature. Despite this discrimination, Jewish feminists formed alliances with Aryan feminists, only to be abandoned by their allies as the government became more right-wing. They ended up in the same concentration camps as Jewish men.
Wright, Hughes, and Williams were always political. So was Himes. And even though his health had failed, and he was a dying man, through the efforts of West Coast African American Writers, his last visit to the United States was one during which he was honored.
In my correspondence with Himes, I had told him that he had many fans on the West Coast. Before I knew it, Himes was planning a trip to San Francisco. He and Lesley arrived in May of 1980. Hispanic writer Floyd Salas and I met them at the airport. I installed the couple in an apartment at 1446 6th Street in Berkeley. This was one of two apartments rented by The Before Columbus Foundation and a small press owned by Steve Cannon and me. Among those who had lived there were poet Ted Joans and playwright Adrienne Kennedy while they fulfilled short-term teaching engagements at Berkeley. But the apartment was not adequate for Himes, who, because of his bad back, needed a special bed and other equipment. It was then that Maya Angelou intervened and invited Chester and Lesley to live in her house in the Oakland hills.
Though very ill, Himes still showed flashes of his famous wit. While we were dining at the Caribbean restaurant at Oakland's Bret Harte Walk, named for the western author and one-time Oakland resident, he talked about some of the famous people whom he had known. He had turned down Picasso, his friend, who had offered him some paintings, because he thought that the paintings were absurd. He characterized the movies based upon his novels as “minstrel shows.” When I asked him about his report that John A. Williams had cashed a money order belonging to him, Lesley indicated that he had made it up. Himes had a mischievous glint in his eye as Lesley told about this fib. John A. Williams didn't think it was funny, though. He stopped speaking to Himes after this story was published, but, upon my urging, Williams sent Himes a note when Himes lay dying. But even a debilitated Himes was capable of raising hell. At the time of his California visit, Himes was in trouble at home, in Spain, because he had engaged members of the Spanish Army in a firefight. He had mistaken them for burglars. Lesley said that the type of gun that Himes used during this encounter would fell an elephant. Himes smiled as Lesley told the story with the appropriate gentle scolding in her voice.
When I left for Dartmouth to teach during the summer session, Chester and Lesley moved to my house and lived there for the duration of their visit. A number of people in the Oakland area entertained Chester and Lesley. The highlight of the celebration was a party hosted by the Black Scholar magazine. Lesley Himes, who was devoted to Chester, still remembers the kindness that Californians showed toward Chester during his visit to the country that was often hostile toward his outspokenness, and his refusal to compromise, his courage to express what he called “the unthinkable.” He said openly what others only whispered about.
Himes, Killens and Williams saved me and other younger writers from much pain and disillusionment. A writer like Amiri Baraka, for example, has reached far beyond the conservative experiments of the late Ralph Ellison, who has been awarded literary sainthood by the New York literary Establishment, the folks who manipulate trends in American literature. Yet, Baraka is still treated as a kind of enfant terrible of American literature.
Himes is treated in the same manner. The experience of Himes, Williams, Baraka, and others proves that, in the American literary game, acceptance by the Establishment is based not on how you say it, but what you say.
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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 1970, when asked about the strange mixture of bitterness and comedy in his writing, Himes have the following response, “I see things as a writer, and I write about crimes in a black ghetto. I'm a kind of reporter who offers solutions to the problems in a ghetto where crime just happens to play a pat. The humor in my stories is the dark humor of the ghetto. I did not invent it, because it was there already, I used it.” (Fabre and Skinner, 1995).
Himes chose Harlem (mid-1950 to late 1960), as the setting for his entire mystery series. His fictional Harlem captured the experience of black like in most urban American cities. Himes reported that he first came in contact with ghetto life in Cleveland, Ohio, one of the most violent cities he had ever seen. When he came to Harlem, he did not see anything that he was not used to. It was more picturesque, and there were distinct social classes among the people there. Himes considered his fictional Harlem “The black capital of the world”; a black universe, isolated in the center of a major metropolis, with incredible poverty on the one hand, and large mounts of cash on the other. In Himes' first mystery novel, For the Love of Imabelle, he did not introduce the infamous detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones until the eighth chapter, taking great care to describe the intricacies of the conditions and inhabitants of his Harlem (Muller, 1989).
In their mission to solve crimes, Grave Digger and Coffin Ed were prone to relentlessly pursue their suspects with no regard for the safety of others, capture their suspects with maximal force, preside over them as judge and jury, and carry out sentencing on the spot. Their extreme and unconventional behavior exemplified some aspect of every major social psychological theory of violence, from the Frustration Aggression hypothesis to the Identification with the Aggressor theory. Himes' detectives were portrayed with ridiculous excitement, foolishness and laughable exaggeration that defied social reason. Himes had fun with his Harlem, leaving no aspect unscathed by his critical appraisal, yet with such an ability to make humorous the most grotesque and often violent absurd encounters.
The use of humor as a coping and survival mechanism in the face of oppression is not new to black life in the United States. It no doubt goes back to the survival strategies used by blacks during slavery. Yet, Himes took humor to new heights. In his mystery novels, he made us laugh at the transparent manipulations of the charismatic Afro-centric minister's attempts to rob and exploit his flock (Himes, 1965). Fun was made of the seductive powers that black women used to control men, both black and white, husbands and lovers (Himes, 1957). We were forced to laugh irreverently at the elder Christians, “busy bodies” and nuns, as well as, the ingenuous ways in which the community “out smarted” the white police establishment (Himes, 1957, 1965 & 1976). We sometimes dared to laugh at the debacles of Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. Our last laughs often came at the end of the mystery; the unexpected twists of chance, fate or luck that often brought great delight or triumph to the most insignificant inhabitant of his black universe.
We can only imagine what Himes would write of the mysteries and absurd events of today. He would no doubt observe that the American experiment of democracy had not ended in wars between the races as he predicted in Plan B, published a year before his death in 1983. Himes would not be surprised by the deconstruction of affirmative action and the resurgence of racial and sexual oppression of the late 1990s. The ebonics controversy would surely amuse him. And perhaps, Himes would expand his black universe to Northern California and address the absurd attempts to commit the great armored truck heist, in another mystery novel.
Fabre, Michel and Skinner, Robert E., Conversations with Chester Himes, (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995).
Himes, Chester, If He Hollers Let Him Go, (New York: Doubleday, 1945).
———. Lonely Crusade, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947).
———. Cast the First Stone, (New York: Coward-McCann, 1952).
———. The Third Generation, (Cleveland: World Publishers, 1954).
———. The Primitive, (New York: New American Library Signet Books, 1956)
———. For the Love of Imabelle, (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett World Library, Gold Medal Book, 1957).
———. Cotton Comes to Harlem, (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1965).
———. The Quality of Hurt: The Autobiography of Chester Himes, Vol. 1, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972).
———. My Life of Absurdity: The Autobiography of Chester Himes, Vol. 2, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976).
Muller, Gilbert, Chester Himes, (Boston: Twayne Publishers G. K. Hall & Company, 1989).
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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 illuminating and important of the eighteen “interviews” in Michel Fabre's and Robert E. Skinner's Conversations with Chester Himes. The most frequently recurring themes in these interviews and paraphrased, journalistic conversations that range chronologically from 1955 to 1985 are the deep-rooted violence of American culture; the absurdity of American racism; the schizophrenic, sensual lives of petty black criminals and their victims in Harlem; the need for organized revolution in the struggle for social justice and equality; and the exploitation of black American writers. Even though several of these conversations and interviews are rather short and sketchy, they offer useful complements to the story of Himes's life as a black American man and artist that he more passionately and provocatively reveals in his eighteen semi-autobiographical novels, numerous short stories and essays, film script, and two-volume autobiography. “The reappearance of nearly all of his fiction in the recent past,” the editors write, “suggests we are very close to a major reappraisal of Chester Himes, and this collection will help in that process.”
How does this collection help readers to reconstruct and reappraise Chester Bomar Himes as a black American man and artist? Because most of the selections were translated from French or German into English (seven) or conducted by Michel Fabre (four), the interviews and conversations are primarily European vignettes, reconstructed by the French, of Himes's national, racial, gender, and class identity formations as they were orally constructed over time by Himes himself. The translator of a French volume of Himes's short stories in 1982 and a French edition of his Plan B in 1983, the co-author with Edward Margolies of The Several Lives of Chester Himes, and the former Director of the Center for African American Studies and New Literatures in English at the New Sorbonne, Fabre is apparently the senior editor of this collection. Fabre's co-editor for this project is Robert E. Skinner, a librarian at Xavier University who, with Fabre, co-edited the English edition of Himes's unfinished apocalyptic novel of racial conflict, Plan B (1993). Although the editors helpfully tell us that “the picture is sometimes confusing because Himes occasionally contradicts himself and other times gives out information that is incomplete or erroneous,” they provide inadequate corrections and clarifications in the introduction and footnotes to selections by some of the ostensibly more naïve and less critical European interviewers.
For example, contrary to the two interviews by Annie Brierre and Francois Bott, Chester's mother, as the editors note, was not white. In fact, according to Himes's autobiography and admittedly autobiographical The Third Generation (1954), Estelle Bomar Himes was a light-complexioned, educated, color- and class-conscious, ambitious, neurotic mother who frequently humiliated and abused her dark-complected, humble husband, Joseph Sandy. Lacking his wife's determination and defiance, Sandy was a professor of blacksmithing and wheel-wrighting, as well as the head of mechanical departments at several predominantly black Southern agricultural and mechanical colleges. Although Himes was “advocating Negro revolution back in the 1940s,” he was not, as Philip Oakes fallaciously declares, “a founding father of the Black Power movement.” In addition, the harsh criticism by Communists of Lonely Crusade, which Himes tells interviewers appeared in The Daily Worker, actually appeared in a review in New Masses. And even though he told several interviewers that If He Hollers Let Him Go was a bestseller, according to the editors, “there is no evidence to support this claim.” On the other hand, Himes reveals the fallibility of his memory by telling one interviewer that the models for Coffin Ed and Grave Digger were two lieutenant cops in Chicago and by telling another that they were inspired by a captain and a lieutenant in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, his explanation to Michael Mok that “the two cops, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, are roughly based on a black lieutenant and his sergeant partner who worked the Central Avenue ghetto in L.A. back in the 1940s” is not found in either volume of his autobiography.
Born in Jefferson City, Missouri, in 1909, young Chester Himes was educated mainly by a mother who doted on him and by petty criminal acquaintances before being expelled from college during his freshman year. He grew into manhood as a hustler and writer in the Ohio State Penitentiary, to which at nineteen years old he was sentenced in 1928 to twenty years for armed robbery. But he was released on parole in 1936 and married Jean Johnson in 1937. Ambivalently representing himself as agent and victim in the construction of his racial identity, Himes tells an interviewer: “My wife was black and beautiful, with the same shade of skin as Josephine Baker. We stayed together for fourteen years, but I could never provide the kind of life for her I wanted because we were Negroes. In the end we separated.” Concerning his writing, he was bitterly disappointed by the mixed critical reception of his first three novels: If He Hollers, Let Him Go (1945), Lonely Crusade (1947), and Cast the First Stone (1952), which Himes tells Fabre is one of his “most autobiographical novels” and which I believe is the most realistic novel of prison life in American literature. In part because of frustrations with the critical reception of his books and because of anxieties about an abusive love affair with a white woman, he emigrated to France in 1953, where he published The Primitive (1956) and became an international literary success with his Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones Harlem detective series. In declining health after a couple of strokes, he died in the care of his British wife Lesley Packard in Benissa, Spain, in 1984.
What, then, to paraphrase cultural studies critic Stuart Hall, are the names that Himes gives to the different ways in which he was positioned by, within, and against the narratives of the past, and in which he positioned himself? “America hurt me terribly, whether rightly or wrongly is not the point,” Himes writes in The Quality of Hurt. “When I fought back through writing, it decided to kill me, whether because I was a degenerate ex-convict who refused to wear sackcloth and ashes, a Negro who refused to accept the Negro Problem as my own, a ‘nigger’ who would not conform to the existence prescribed for niggers, or a black man who pitied white women, I will never know.” An intelligent, proud, angry, violent, light-complexioned black man, Himes also confesses in his autobiography and suggests in some of the interviews to having “always been something of a snob” and hurting, sometimes viciously, others, especially women. These others included Maud, a pregnant black lover whom he abandoned; Jean, the black wife he deserted; Vandi, the white lover he nearly beat to death; and Marlene, the twenty-two-year-old German lover that his abuse helped drive to attempted suicide. But his relationship with Alva, apparently the major love of his life, was different. “No white man has ever felt more protective toward his wife than I toward Alva,” Himes tells us in The Quality of Hurt. “And yet I felt an enormous, moving pity for her that she had given up her place in the white world for me.”
We also learn in his autobiography, four early novels, and fragments of the most significant interviews that he was scarred primarily by four traumatic events. These include the racism of his mother as well as whites, the guilt of his role in the accidental blinding of his brother, the broken back he suffered from falling down a hotel elevator shaft, and the seven-and-a-half years that he served in prison, especially the tragic fire and riot in which more than 300 prisoners were killed. The twin passions in Himes's life for survival that are implicit in the interviews are explicit in My Life of Absurdity: “It struck me that sex and writing were my two obsessions: writing because it was my profession, my ambition, my goal and my salvation, and sex because it was my sword and shield against the hurts and frustrations of the other.”
For his black admirers of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Julius Lester, Charles Wright, Ishmael Reed, and even John A. Williams—whose admiration for Himes began after reading If He Hollers Let Him Go in 1945—Himes overcame adversity by courage and determination, as well as by the naturalistic power of his early protest novels and by the creativity of his Coffin Ed and Grave Digger novels. But except for the Jenkins, Fabre, and Williams interviews, inadequate attention is given to the nihilistic attitude and violent male-chauvinistic behavior that he acquired and developed primarily in the streets and prison, including shooting at people in fits of rage as a teenager, viciously abusing women, and fictionalizing a homosexual affair between the protagonist/author Jimmy and Dido in Cast the First Stone. He is candid about these traits in his strongly autobiographical novels and about their culmination in his posthumously published Plan B, which he first boldly outlined in the Williams interview. Several times Himes explains that the graphic mix of realism and surrealism in his fiction, especially the Harlem narratives, is the authentic product of his memories, which, as I am attempting to demonstrate, were not so infallible as his interviewers apparently believed of actual experiences.
First published in 1970, John A. Williams's “My Man Himes: An Interview with Chester Himes” is the center piece of Conversations with Chester Himes. It is as outstanding for the sociocultural sensitivity, insightfulness, and authority of Williams's frame story as it is for the illuminating depth, range, and candor of the mutually respectful dialogue with Himes. Before meeting Himes in Carl Van Vechten's apartment in 1962, Williams tells us in framing the interview, he had already read and was impressed by If He Hollers Let Him Go and The Third Generation. Van Vechten told Williams: “Chester doesn't like many people. He likes you.” The feeling was mutual. “We corresponded regularly after our meeting,” Williams writes; “we exchanged books and he gave me a quote for Sissie.” At the time of the interview Williams believed that Himes was “perhaps the single greatest naturalistic American writer living today.” Their friendship obviously contributed to the candor and range of important topics discussed at length, including the publishing business, personal worksheets, the Harlem Renaissance, Hollywood, black and white writers, black anti-Semitism, and Richard Wright.
Commenting on his advocacy of Affirmative Action in the 1940s and on the racial scene of the late 1960s, for example, Himes tells Williams that, while writing Lonely Crusade, he believed that his protagonist and “the black man in America must have, for an interim period of time, special consideration.” But in the last twenty-five years, he declares,
My opinions have changed, because I don't believe the whites have any desire, any intention whatsoever, of accepting the Negro as an equal. I think the only way a Negro will ever get accepted as an equal is if he kills whites; to launch a violent uprising to the point where the people will become absolutely sickened, disgusted; to the place where they will realize that they have to do something. … I think that if he has to take the choice between giving the black man his rights or destroying the entire economic system in America, he'll give the black man equality.
This political belief, he also tells Williams, was imaginatively developed in his nihilistic novel of black rage, revenge, and revolution, Plan B. At the end of this novel, which was written mainly in the late 1960s, Coffin Ed is killed by a nihilistically black-conscious Grave Digger, who, in turn, is ironically killed by the black revolutionary protagonist Tomsson Black. “Now, in my book all of these blacks who shoot are destroyed,” says Himes. “They not only are destroyed, they're blown apart; even the buildings they're shooting from are destroyed, and quite often the white community suffers fifty or more deaths itself by destroying this one black man. What I'm trying to do is depict the violence that is necessary so that the white community will also give it a little thought, because you know, they're going around playing these games. They haven't given any thought to what would happen if the black people would seriously uprise.”
Himes apparently shared Frantz Fanon's view in The Wretched of the Earth (1968) that the “exploited man sees that his liberation implies the use of all means, and that of force first and foremost.” Fanon, according to the Williams interview, “wrote a long article on my Treatment of Violence which his wife still has, and which I've thought I might get and have published. Because he had the same feeling, of course, that I have.” Although both men believed in revolution as organized violence, a close reading of their books reveals that their politics are radically different. Himes also anticipated Rap Brown's declaration as leader of SNCC that violence was as American as apple pie. He tells Williams, “There is no way that one can evaluate the American scene and avoid violence, because any country that was born in violence and has lived in violence always knows about violence. Anything can be initiated, enforced, contained or destroyed on the American scene through violence.”
For black writers of detective stories this is more of a blessing than a curse. “There's no reason,” he says, “why the black American, who is also an American, like all other Americans, and brought up in this sphere of violence which is the main sphere of American detective stories, there's no reason why he shouldn't write them. It's just plain and simple violence in narrative form, you know. ‘Cause no one, no one, writes about violence the way that Americans do.” For future reappraisals of Himes, then, such as The Several Lives of Chester Himes (1997) by Michel Fabre and Edward Margolies, Conversations with Chester Himes should be a valuable resource for scholars and students. The book provides compelling vignettes of Himes's ambivalence about his shifting identities and double consciousness that should foster more respect in the United States for him as a proud, combative, intelligent, provocative, internationally celebrated black American naturalistic writer. But it will probably foster less respect and sympathy in the 1990s for his politics and male chauvinism as a black American man.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3999
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). <http://artsweb.bham.ac.uk/49thparallel>
[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 standards of the thriller genre, in order to debate the meaning of jazz. In each example, the music assumes a racial significance, conveying—or attempting to convey—a message that cannot be spoken in English. Thus, in the first:
The horns were talking and the saxes talking back.
“Listen to that,” Grave Digger said when the horns took eight on a frenetic solo. “Talking under their clothes, ain't it?”
Then the two saxes started swapping fours with the rhythm always in the back. “Somewhere in that jungle is the solution to the world,” Coffin Ed said. “If only we could find it.”
“Yeah, it's like the sidewalks trying to speak in a language never heard. But they can't spell it either.”
“Naw,” Coffin Ed said. “Unless there's an alphabet for emotion.”
“The emotion that comes out of experience. If we could read that language, man, we would solve all the crimes in the world.”
“Let's split,” Coffin Ed said. “Jazz talks too much to me.”
“It ain't so much what it says,” Grave Digger agreed. “It's what you can't do about it.”1
What commences as an examination of the sexual overtones of the music—in this case, in a bar “filled with the flashily dressed people of many colors” representing the one genuine site of equal inter-racial activity in the novel—quickly develops into a suggestion that jazz expresses both the history of and, potentially, the solution to the problems of African American urban experience. For Coffin Ed and Grave Digger, jazz provides both the utopian hope of “solv[ing] all the crimes in the world” and an example of the undecipherability of a complex modern world in which their inability to arrive at satisfactory solutions is a constant source of anxiety.
The second example occurs when the detectives visit Mammy Louise's “fancy all-night barbecue joint”:
Suddenly they were listening.
“Pres,” Grave Digger recognized, cocking his ear. “And Sweets.”
“Roy Eldridge too,” Coffin Ed added. “Who's on the bass?”
“I don't know him or the guitar either,” Grave Digger confessed. “I guess I'm an old pappy.”
“What's the platter?” Coffin Ed asked the youth standing by the jukebox who had played the number.
His girl looked at them through wide dark eyes, as though they'd escaped from the zoo, but the boy replied self-consciously,
“Laughing to Keep from Crying.’ It's foreign.”
“No, it ain't,” Coffin Ed said.
No one contradicted him.
In some ways, this exchange echoes the first: once more, the detectives appear to hear some kind of deep, collective meaning in the track which, for them, represents both a telling of racial history and an instance of recognizable, distinctive voices within that history. And yet, this sense is clearly undermined by the revelation that the record is “foreign,” and by the silence that follows Coffin Ed's denial of this fact. The suggestion of foreignness transforms the music into a kind of aural simulacrum, threatening to reduce it to a standardized example of popular culture, and it is only the terrifying appearance of Coffin Ed and Grave Digger that precludes debate on the matter. Where they insist on a jazz being a distinctively urban African American cultural form, involving conversation between idiosyncratic voices collectively exploring an essentialized racial identity, the implication is that their view of Bebop as jazz's modernist moment is out of touch with a postmodern world of subjective and cultural mobility.2
These discussions of jazz offer a productive entry to Cotton Comes to Harlem. They embody a wider tension within the novel between the desire to protect what Grave Digger calls “my own black people” (122) against what is almost always represented in highly stereotypical forms of the white oppressor (such as the leader of the Back-To-The-Southland Movement Colonel Calhoun, or the puritanically repressed cop sent to guard Deke O'Malley's wife, Iris), and the counter-sense that emerges of a culture finding self-identity in ways other than via encounters with white racism. In this essay, I will first briefly outline some examples of how such a seemingly straightforward binary logic of centre and margin or self and other is constructed. I will go on to illustrate the extent to which both the form of the novel and the implications of its ending render such binary divisions over-simplistic, and insist upon a reading taking into account the relationship between the United States' internal racial struggles and international power relations.
The novel's plot both establishes and problematizes the sense of Harlem and of “African American culture” being products of white oppression. The detailed descriptions of Harlem slums and the bale of cotton which is the novel's central symbol are constant reminders of an economic history of exploitation of blacks by whites. Likewise, the book repeatedly highlights its protagonists' sense of a world overdetermined by such encounters: the opening chapter depicts a “sea of dark faces” concentrating on the Reverend Deke O'Malley's “flaming denouncements of the injustice and hypocrisy of white people” (5); the “Back To Africa” meeting is violently robbed by white southerners; the white cops who witness the scene exchange “white looks” with the escaping criminals, crash through the crowd, “siren screaming, as though black folks were invisible” (10) and do “nothing” but look “mean and dangerous” until the arrival of Coffin Ed and Grave Digger (23); Grave Digger himself tells his (white) lieutenant that the reasons for Harlem's high crime rate are white indifference to the pervasive violence and a refusal to “‘pay the people enough to live decently’” (14).
Likewise, the almost exclusively white police force functions as an example of what Henry Louis Gates has called (in a different context) the centre's attempts to “preserve … alterity,” which “result in the homogenization of the other as, simply other.”3 The process ranges from the linguistically inscribed racism of utterances such as Lieutenant Anderson's “‘There's always one black bean,’” (15) through to the reaction when two white officers are killed when Deke “escapes” from custody. In contrast to the indifference to the deaths of the African Americans in the opening chapter, this incident brings the whole police hierarchy into the precinct station which looks “like headquarters for the invasion of Harlem.” The extent of the process is illustrated by the response when Coffin Ed and Grave Digger enter the office, and are “stared at as if they were criminals themselves” (118-119). Any sense of differentiation within the African American community is denied at this moment of crisis, a point exemplified by Captain Brice's angry threat (made in front of Ed and Digger) to “arrest every black son of a bitch in Harlem” (120).
Nevertheless, such attempts to sustain an absolute distinction between self and other—whether in Coffin Ed and Grave Digger's efforts to protect their “own black people” and to provide racialized definitions of jazz, or in such examples of white racism as that above—fail to account for what Gates has called the “complex social dynamism of marginalized cultures,” and “the relation between marginality and centrality.”4 In the remainder of this essay, I hope to illustrate some of the ways in which this complexity functions: first, through a brief examination of the links between Himes's novel and the hard-boiled fictions of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler; second, via a reading of the hybridity of Harlem's community; and, finally, by assessing the dangers associated with Himes's chosen form of closure.
Himes's debt to the preceding generation of detective story writers has been well documented and needs little attention here. Stephen Milliken has argued that many of Himes's novels retell the basic plot of The Maltese Falcon5, a claim fully supported by Cotton Comes to Harlem, in which several groups of criminals chase an object (here, the bale of cotton) which finally proves worthless. Likewise, many of Himes's descriptions, particularly of women, echo the tone of Chandler's prose. For example, the narrator tells how a “buxom yellow whore … clad in a tight red dress … smelled like unwashed armpits bathed in dime-store perfume and overpowering bed-odor” (36). Later, utterances such as, “The captain wanted Deke as bad as people in hell want ice water” (69), “A cop without a memory is like meat without potatoes” (113) and “Her hips were pitching like a rowboat on a stormy sea” (135) confirm the similarity. Himes himself acknowledged the genealogy, claiming, “I was just imitating all the other American detective story writers. … I just made the faces black, that's all.”6
Of course, the relationship is much more complex: as Peter J. Rabinowitz has argued, “you cannot take the genre and simply ‘make the faces black,’”7 and Rabinowitz's own work maps out the degree to which Marlowe's kind of individualism is not an option to Himes's racially aware cops. First, it is clear that it is only possible to survive as a cop in this violent setting through teamwork, and the novel is packed with examples of tail-jobs (plus the climactic church scene) in which a Chandleresque loner coild not operate. More importantly, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger may live in Queens, but still identify with the community in which they work, and don't have the option of detaching themselves from their environment because, as illustrated above, they are defined as black by a white power with which, as cops, they are also inextricably linked. Indeed, Rabinowitz proposes that Coffin Ed and Grave Digger's own situation as at once black and part of the system of oppression helps to explain their anger and their often brutal behaviour. Although I will finally qualify Rabinowitz's argument, since I believe that it is an overly reductive account of black cultural identity which insufficiently thinks through the trope of marginality in Himes's fiction and beyond, I cite it now since it also points to my own conclusions.8
What quickly becomes clear in Cotton Comes to Harlem (as well as in Himes's other detective novels) is that the restrictive definitions of Harlem life offered, for example, by the police, simply won't suffice. Where Captain Brice seeks to discipline a community “made up” of whores, murderers and thieves, and Coffin Ed and Grave Digger imagine some kind of essentialized black identity in need of protection, the novel's less formal settings, such as bars, churches, restaurants, and the opening barbecue illustrate the diversity of the city. Thus, feelings of powerlessness and imprisonment, and of vibrant sexuality (that is, the representative mythologized visions of the ghetto) are juxtaposed with challenges to the status quo, such as Deke's fraudulent Back-To-Africa scheme. Although Deke is condemned by Ed and Digger for exploiting the desperation of the local community, he also provides an example of how the lawbreaker can, in Manthia Diawara's words, “draw black people into the informal sector by keeping alive the dream of becoming rich promptly, and circumventing the colonizing systems.”9 Although finally unsuccessful, Deke initially does this and more—to the “starry-eyed black people … putting their chips on hope,” he promises a return to Africa, “our native land” (7). In other words, he offers what seems to them to be a means of rewriting the self outside American history. Himes's urban space is irreducible to (un)comfortable static definitions, with the representation of Deke emerging from the scene of Iris Hill's brutal murder into a crowded 135th Street epitomising the multiplicity of possible worlds in what Himes calls “that big turbulent sea of black humanity which is Harlem” (81).
This description of Harlem life brings us closer to understanding why jazz is so significant to the Coffin Ed and Grave Digger, and their inability to understand what it says is perhaps indicative of why they never fully comprehend the world they patrol. As Deke steps out, we are told that:
Colored people were out in numbers, walking about in their summertime rags. Two men were eating a watermelon from a wagon. In the wagon the melons were kept on ice to keep them cool. Children were gathered around a small pushcart, eating cones of shaved ice flavored with colored syrups from bottles. Others were playing stickball in the street. Women were conversing in loud voices; a drunken man weaved down the sidewalk, cursing the world; a blind beggar tapped the path with his white stick, rattling a penny in his tin cup; a dog was messing on the sidewalk; a line of men was sitting on the shade on the steps of a church, talking about the white folks and the Negro problem.
What is most striking about this paragraph, apart from the startlingly Whitmanesque quality of its attempt to contain multitudes by listing them, is the manner in which it also echoes Ralph Ellison's near-contemporaneous reading of jazz. For Ellison, the effectiveness of the music depends upon its being “an art of individual assertion within and against the group.” Thus,
Each true jazz moment … springs from a contest in which each artist challenges all the rest, each solo flight or improvisation, represents … a definition of his identity: as individual, as a member of a collectivity and as link in the chain of tradition. Thus, because jazz finds its very life in an endless improvisation upon traditional materials, the jazzman must lose his identity even as he finds it.10
In this light, Cotton Comes to Harlem can be read as a “jazz novel” offering multitudinous explorations of African American history. Coffin Ed and Grave Digger compete with Deke and with numerous other and different characters in attempts to define both their own and an eternally elusive collective identity. Rather than the first person narrative of, say, The Big Sleep, in which Marlowe is present to interpret every scene, or The Maltese Falcon, in which Spade's vernacular emerges as a privileged discourse, contrasted with the less powerful voices of foreigners and homosexuals, Cotton Comes to Harlem allows different individuals to solo in each chapter. Thus, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger's scenes relate to but are not reducible to the other aspects of Harlem life we witness in those sections where Deke, or Iris, or Uncle Bud, or Billie the Cotton Club dancer take centre stage. Each protagonist has a story that marks them as an individual, but as with Ellison's account of jazz, that story also intertwines with a collective history and with a shared but fragmented present.
Finally, however, this attempt to conflate jazz with African American cultural identity raises a number of problems unresolved within the novel. Although Ellison shares (albeit from a different angle) Coffin Ed and Grave Digger's belief that jazz is a distinctively black art form, this is a view at odds with the history of the music. It is a position called into question not only by Peter Brooker's reminders about the racial constitution of “the hierarchies of management and ownership in the entertainment business and music industry,” (of which we are made aware here by the presence of the Cotton Club in the novel), but also by jazz's origins in a diversity of African and European instruments and forms11. In Cotton Comes to Harlem, such an understanding is suggested by Coffin Ed's association of jazz with the sidewalks and modern life more generally, in which it is contrasted with a rural Southern culture associated with the blues, by the multi-racial listeners and dancers, and by the hybridity of the novel's own form. Once again, therefore, the belief that jazz can provide an expression of racial integrity is undermined by a wider American history. The presence of sections in the novel devoted to white activity in Harlem—for example, the police, Colonel Calhoun's Back-To-The-Southland movement and the presence of the Jewish junkyard owner, Mr Goodman—further illustrates the multi-racial constituency of the community and the genre.
Such theorising about the internal dynamics of the detective genre and of American society might at first glance appear to be merely an examination of a localized engagement, in which the very real results of white racism are obfuscated by an overly close reading of a single novel. To conclude, I would like to extend my argument in two directions to indicate that this is not the case. Following a short assessment of critical reactions to Himes's chosen form of closure, I will suggest why the resolution to Cotton Comes to Harlem both confirms the arguments mapped out here and problematizes any sense that the ending offers a kind of utopian compensation for the realities of African American daily life in Harlem.
At first glance, it is very tempting to share the views of, among others, Ralph Willett and Peter Rabinowitz, who see the end of the novel as “satisfying” and “surprisingly genial” respectively12. In a manner closer to the classical than to the hard-boiled thriller, the investors in the Back-To-Africa movement have their money returned as a result of the efforts of Coffin Ed and Grave Digger, and the junk collector, Uncle Bud, moves to Africa with the ＄87,000 he removed secretly from the bale of cotton near the start of the novel. Although this closure depends upon another feature borrowed from The Maltese Falcon, with Ed and Digger (like Sam Spade) needing to invent a plausible narrative to explain their own questionable role in the violent search for the cotton, it does have the virtue of rewarding the dispossessed, in a departure from the self-absorbed despair that marks the conclusions of so many hard-boiled fictions.
The satisfying nature of such closure does, however, need to be qualified by an awareness of what it involves. First, although Ed and Digger do force Colonel Calhoun to repay the families their lost money, in a scene that inverts Southern power relations, they can only do so by allowing him the time to flee a murder charge by returning to Alabama, which refuses to extradite him “on the grounds that killing a Negro did not constitute murder under Alabama law” (157). The detectives' desire to protect their community is still, of course, no match for the institutional legitimization of the killing of blacks by whites. The second strand of the book's resolution is more complex: although Uncle Bud's move to Africa to purchase as many wives as Solomon provides a humorous exchange of telegrams in which Grave Digger instructs the prefecture in Dakar to, “STOP HIM QUICK … HE WILL DROP DEAD BEFORE SAMPLING” (159), it too raises several questions. First, the humour is surely only the logical end product of a whole series of fantasies of (often violent) sexual exploitation of women throughout the novel—the multiple repetition of the expression “mother-raper” on almost every page is a constant reminder of the double discrimination experienced by many African American women in the 1960s.
In addition, the ending places the African American in the position of colonizer, with the emphasis now firmly placed on the American aspect of Uncle Bud's ethnic marker. Earlier in the novel, Coffin Ed observes, “‘Too bad there isn't any make-up to disguise us as white’” (128), but “whiting-up” is uncomfortably close to what happens to Uncle Bud here. Rather like Langston Hughes who, on journeying to Africa in 1923, found it to be “the only place in the world where I've ever been called a white man,”13 Uncle Bud illustrates the degree to which the diasporan subject is always from elsewhere. Throughout the novel, the appeal of Africa has functioned retrospectively for the displaced people of Harlem, acting as, in Kenneth Warren's words, “the place one has come from” or “the home one is going to.” But, as Warren continues, in either case, “the contemporary ‘reality’ of Africa and Africans is largely occluded by retrospective and prospective visions.”14 Uncle Bud's purchase of the women also echoes what African men told Hughes about white men coming “to buy our women,” and provides a further example of what Warren calls “a trade in African flesh that has not ended even in the twentieth century.”15
What emerges from this reading of Cotton Comes to Harlem is a sense both of the boldness of Himes's project and finally of its limitations. It is clear is that his novel (like the others in the series) provides a sustained assessment of the internal conflicts and multi-cultural diversity of American life, at a time in American history when American Studies was still dominated by narratives of consensus. In their focus on the multivocality of ethnic, racial, geographic and gendered relations—a focus that I have here attempted to read through Cotton Comes to Harlem's links with jazz—Himes's fictions prefigure the critical dominant of the 1970s and beyond, when a new, pluralistic model redefined the internal cultural dynamics of the nation16. In the tensions surrounding Uncle Bud's African adventure, however, we also become aware of the difficulties surrounding such efforts to subvert American national metanarratives, since what is projected as resistance to American colonization also serves as an example of it. What remains is to think of Himes's novels in relation to recent attempts to view what Amy Kaplan has usefully summarized as “the crucible of international power relations.”17 Only then will it be possible to understand his representation of internal struggle within a global narrative, in which local examples of triumph over cultural oppression (such as Uncle Bud's) often depend on gender and class exploitation in Africa or other “Third World” regions.18
Chester Himes, Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965; reprint, London: Allison and Busby, 1988), 33-34. Subsequent page references are provided in parentheses in the text.
In this paragraph, I am indebted to Peter Brooker for his discussion of jazz in New York Fictions: Modernity, Postmodernism, The New Modern (London and New York: Longman, 1996), 184-188.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr, “African American Criticism,” in Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies, ed. Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1992), 303-319, 315. Think, too, of Ishmael Reed's assertion that magazines such as Newsweek constantly print “articles about ‘black’ America, as though this lazy metonymy referred to an actual territory with its own economy, and political, and cultural hegemony.” Ishmael Reed, Shawn Wong, Bob Callahan, and Andrew Hope, “Is Ethnicity Obsolete?” in The Invention of Ethnicity, ed. Werner Sollors (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 226-235, 226.
Cited in Peter J. Rabinowitz, “Chandler Comes to Harlem: Racial Politics in the Thrillers of Chester Himes,” in The Sleuth and the Scholar: Origins, Evolution, and Current Trends in Detective Fiction, ed. Barbara A. Rader and Howard G. Zettler (Westport, VA: Greenwood Press, 1988), 19-29, 19. Marcel Duhamel recommended The Maltese Falcon to Himes when he commissioned the series of novels for “La Série Noire.”
Quoted by Rabinowitz in Rader and Zettler, 19.
Ibid., 22-24. A similar argument is proposed by Ralph Willett in The Naked City: Urban Crime Fiction in the USA (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1996), 61-62.
Quoted by Willett, 65. I am indebted to Willett's more general assessment of Himes's fiction in my discussion of Cotton Comes to Harlem in this paragraph.
Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act (London: Secker and Warburg, 1967), 234.
Willett, 66; Rader and Zettler, 26.
Quoted in Kenneth W. Warren, “Appeals for (Mis)Recognition: Theorizing the Diaspora,” in Cultures of United States Imperialism, ed. Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 1993), 392-406, 393.
Kaplan and Pease, 395.
Kaplan and Pease, 403.
I am drawing here on the ideas of Amy Kaplan in “‘Left Alone with America’: The Absence of Empire in the Study of American Culture,” in Kaplan and Pease, 3-21, esp. 14-15.
Kaplan and Pease, 16.
My conclusion is informed, in part, by Donald E. Pease's “New Perspectives on U.S. Culture and Imperialism,” in Pease and Kaplan, 22-37, esp. 25.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3368
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 money from friends even for stamps and cigarettes. Marcel Duhamel, an editor who had translated one of Himes's early works into French, suggested that he write a detective novel for La Serie Noire, a line of “policieres” issued by the prestigious Gallimard house. Himes protested that he didn't know how to write a detective story, but Duhamel talked him into giving it a try. “Get an idea,” he said. “Start with action … Make pictures. … Don't worry about it making sense.”
The forty-six-year-old Himes thought the assignment demeaning, a hustle required by his penury. Yet the violent, convoluted, hilarious, grotesque books about two Harlem detectives that he would create, including Cotton Comes to Harlem, would contain some of his best writing and make him famous.
Himes knew crime from the inside. One snowy night in November 1928, when he was nineteen, he robbed a rich white couple in their Cleveland home, using a Colt.44 that could “shoot hard enough to kill a stone.” He fled with their jewelry in their Cadillac coupe. “I remember it being exceedingly pleasant in the softly purring car moving swiftly through the virgin blanket of snow and the white translucent falling curtain,” Himes recalled in The Quality of Hurt, the first volume of his autobiography. “I had the illusion of hurtling silently through an endless cloud.” His penalty, though, sobered him: twenty to twenty-five years at hard labor. “I grew to manhood in the Ohio State Penitentiary,” he remembered. “I learned all the behavior patterns necessary for survival.” He also began to write. From his cell he sold stories to magazines aimed at black audiences, such as Abbott's Monthly and the Atlanta Daily World. In 1934 his story “Crazy in the Stir” appeared in Esquire, which was then publishing works by writers such as E Scott Fitzgerald.
Life in prison was violent and inane. Two black convicts “cut each other to death over a dispute as to whether Paris was in France or France in Paris.” A fire that swept through the overcrowded prison on Easter Monday, 1930, killed more than three hundred inmates. His writing success and the intervention of his mother, Himes biographers Edward Margolies and Michel Fabre assert, won him a parole in his eighth year of incarceration. When he re-entered the world in 1936, he was becoming committed to a career as a writer. But years of struggle lay ahead.
In several of his stories Himes hid his racial identity, but race would soon become the overriding concern of his work. It was an issue that tore at his own family. His mother was a cultured, lightskinned woman, as snobbish about her Caucasian ancestors as she was prickly about the condescension of whites. She instilled in her son a pride bordering on arrogance and an acute sensitivity to racial distinctions. His darker father had risen from poverty and retained what Chester saw as a “slave mentality.” The tension in the marriage led to fights, “emotional shocks,” and eventually a bitter divorce. The family's circumstances were comfortable at first. Chester was born in Jefferson City, Missouri, in 1909. His father taught blacksmithing and industrial arts at the prestigious Lincoln Institute there and later at Negro land grant colleges around the South. Mrs. Himes tutored Chester and his older brother Joseph at home, bestowing on them a love of music and reading.
The family began to disintegrate after 1923, when Joseph was blinded during a school chemistry demonstration. They moved to St. Louis, then to Cleveland, to seek care for the boy. Unable to find steady work as a teacher, Chester's father suffered, in his son's words, “from the frustrations of unemployment and Jim Crow.” After graduating from high school Chester landed a job as a busboy in a Cleveland hotel to earn money for college. While at work, he stepped into an open elevator shaft and fell thirty feet, breaking his back, jaw, and an arm, and spent most of four months in a cast. Leaving the hospital, he entered Ohio State University, intending to become a doctor.
“Even in the South, up until then I had been sheltered from the impact of race prejudice,” he told an interviewer. “Ohio State changed that.” Blacks were not allowed to live in the school's dormitories, use the student union, or eat at local cafes. Depressed, angry, and disoriented, Himes failed to apply himself to his studies and was asked to withdraw after barely a semester.
He plunged into the seamy world of Cleveland's lowlifes, working in a gambling den, selling bootleg liquor, carrying a gun. He associated with hoodlums called Bunch Boy, Four-Four, and Red Johnny, whose names and personalities would later populate his crime novels. Arrested for passing bad checks, then for stealing guns from an armory, he was paroled to his father, who now worked odd jobs around Cleveland. Sharing a double bed in a rented room, Chester resolved to escape the place “that stank of my father's fear and defeat.” While at a local club, he overheard a chauffeur boasting about his employer's wealth and about the spot where the man kept his money and jewelry. Chester decided to chance it. After the robbery he ditched the Cadillac, but he was caught trying to pawn the jewelry in Chicago. The police hung him upside down by his ankles and beat a confession out of him.
In 1937, more than a year after his release from prison, Himes finally landed a steady job, with the Works Progress Administration, first digging ditches, then writing a history of Ohio. He soon married Jean Johnson, with whom he had lived before his prison years. His mother refused to attend the wedding, considering the bride too dark skinned for her son. Himes would remain a nomad most of his life. He and Jean wandered from New York to California and back several times over the next decade; during their travels he came to know other young writers such as Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison. In the war years he worked, by his account, twenty-three different jobs in Los Angeles shipyards and factories, and Jean found a good position with the USO. The always insecure Himes felt like “her pimp” because she earned more than he did—and that was the beginning of the end of their marriage.
All this time Himes was writing. “No matter what I did or where I was, or how I lived, I had considered myself a writer ever since I'd published my first story,” he recorded in his autobiography.”—Foremost a writer. Above all else a writer. It was my salvation.” In 1944 he managed to obtain a foundation grant to finish his first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, an account of four painful days in the life of a black shipyard worker.
Published in 1945, the book was written, Himes said, “from the accumulation of my racial hurts. I meant for it to be a shock treatment.” Although the reviews were generally favorable, Himes felt that his publisher had sabotaged the book by failing to publicize and distribute it.
Two years later Himes published Lonely Crusade, a complex novel about the race problem. The story of a union organizer in an aircraft plant who fights the treachery of his Communist allies as well as that of the bosses, it is, like many of Himes's works, autobiographical and uneven. Himes was never a meticulous craftsman, and he mixed passages of persuasive writing with paragraphs of leaden prose. Some reviews were vitriolic: Ebony magazine called it “a virulent, malicious book full of rancor and venom.” Many scheduled author appearances and radio interviews were canceled.
Both these early “protest” novels were the type of books expected from black writers who, in the 1940s, were working in the shadow of Richard Wright. The reactions to the books profoundly disappointed Himes. In 1948 he was thirty-nine years old, directionless, and thinking of leaving the United States.
He spent about five years writing and holding menial jobs around New York and New England, often as a caretaker or bellhop. He found work as a clerk in the mailroom at Reader's Digest and as a YMCA porter in a New York suburb. A version of a prison novel that he had labored over for years came out as Cast the First Stone. It was largely ignored.
In 1953, separated from his wife, Himes left for Europe. On board the Ile de France he began one of several lengthy relationships with white women. He wrote of such a liaison in a scalding book called The End of a Primitive (first published in 1956 as The Primitive). In Paris he fell in with a group of black expatriates including Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and the cartoonist Ollie Harrington. He would live abroad for the rest of his life. He savored the racial tolerance he found in Europe, but he would never feel at home there. “I have been a misfit all my life,” he would write.
Although Himes published a few more books and short stories, he was becoming increasingly desperate for cash. He decided to take Duhamel's advice and begin working on a series of police thrillers.
He created his two most distinctive literary characters as an afterthought. He had no great respect for cops, but Duhamel suggested that “you can't have a policiere without police.” So the author dutifully provided a pair of detectives, introducing them in chapter eight of For Love of lmabelle, the first book in the series (later reissued as A Rage in Harlem).
Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson were “tall, loose-jointed, sloppily dressed, ordinary-looking dark-brown colored men,” who “had always looked like two hog farmers on a weekend in the Big Town.” They stalked through all eight of Himes's Harlem novels, shooting and pistolwhipping criminals, eating prodigious amounts of soul food, and investigating a phantasmagoria of crimes.
Although he claimed to be “imitating all the other American detective story writers. … I just made the faces black, that's all,” Himes did something very different. He not only changed the color of the faces; he transformed the themes, settings, language, and essential concerns of the detective novel.
He was familiar with pulp literature. He had read Black Mask magazine and had taken Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon as one of his early writing models. Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the patriarchs of modern detective fiction, wrote with a style and level of insight that often surpassed the limitations of the genre. Himes took a different tack, turning up the volume of violence and action until the books roared with surreal music.
Himes has been hailed as the dean of black detective novelists, but he had predecessors such as Rudolph Fisher, whose 1932 book The Conjure Man Dies was probably among the first examples of the genre by an African-American. In Himes's own mind, his Harlem series evolved as much from Faulkner and Dostoyevsky as from popular crime novels. He put his own stamp on the form. He discarded well-oiled plots for loose, improvisational narratives as his heroes traveled the twisted byways of a racist society. He called his Harlem books “domestic novels,” featuring in them the gambling, confidence games, prostitution, and narcotics that were the difficult home truths of the ghetto.
Living in a world without a moral center, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger resort to messy compromises between the white power structure they work for and the black community they are a part of. We learn little about their lives, but they strike us as real because they are flawed. They can be brutal, beating and shooting suspects with abandon, yet they claim they are “never rough on anybody in the right.”
“This is Harlem,” Grave Digger remarks in The Crazy Kill. “Ain't no other place like it in the world. You've got to start from scratch here, because these folks in Harlem do things for reasons nobody else in the world would think of.”
The core of Himes's detective novels is the portrait he paints of New York City's black ghetto. Possessed of a Dickensian love of detail, he is at his best describing the pulse of urban life. We flash past the landmarks: the Apollo Theater, the Hotel Theresa, Smalls' Paradise, the Brown Bomber Bar. He shows us “the bookie joints, the barbecue stands, the barbershops, professional offices, undertakers', flea-heaven hotels, grocery stores, meat markets called ‘The Hog Maw,’ Chitterling Country, ‘Pig Foot Heaven.’” Above all, he give us Harlem as “a city of black people who are convulsed in desperate living.”
Himes admitted that he “really did not know what it was like to be a citizen of Harlem.” He had lived there only sporadically over the years. The Harlem of his books is an existential fun house created by racism, a Hieronymus Bosch landscape in which a man whose arm is sliced off in a bar brawl gropes drunkenly on the floor, searching for the severed limb. “It got my knife in his hand,” he yells. “I thought I was writing realism,” Himes declared. “It never occurred to me that I was writing absurdity. Realism and absurdity are so similar in the lives of American blacks one cannot tell the difference.”
Absurdity, Albert Camus said, grows out of the confrontation between the irrationality of the world and “the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.” It was a natural theme for Himes, who had long battered his head against the irrational brick wall of racism. He called the second volume of his autobiography My Life of Absurdity. “If one lives in a country where racism is held valid and practiced in all ways of life,” he wrote, “eventually, no matter whether one is a racist or a victim, one comes to feel the absurdity of life.” Some thought Himes's racial lampoons went too far. Ernest Kaiser, a bibliographer at New York City's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, told Himes biographers that his images degraded Harlem and its citizens. The Saturday Review referred to his “minstrel-like caricature” and “Amos ‘n’ Andy dialogue.” His intention was to show how racism reduces humanity to a sinister burlesque; critics sometimes saw only the stereotypes.
Himes at his best could make the language wail. Wild action scenes, broad humor, neon description, and firecracker dialogue tumble across the page. Like the blues, his writing turns heartache into laughter; like bebop it comes at us with machine-gun velocity:
The jukebox was giving out with a stomp version of “Big-Legged Woman.” Saxophones were pleading; the horns were teasing; the bass was patting; the drums were chatting; the piano was catting, laying and playing the jive, and a husky female voice was shouting: “… you can feel my thigh / But don't you feel up high.” Happy-tail women were bouncing out of their dresses on the high bar stools.
The detective novels—The Real Cool Killers, The Heat's On, All Shot Up, and the rest—were without question a breakthrough for Himes. For decades he had been laboring to produce “literature,” replete with big themes and elegant writing. Released from such constraints, he was like a philharmonic musician sitting in on an uptown jazz jam. Himes himself felt the difference. “The only time I was happy,” he would declare, “was while writing these strange, violent, unreal stories.” Although at first he dismissed the detective novels as hackwork, Himes later began to recognize that he had achieved something unique. He would call the books “my biggest contribution to literature” and assert that they “contain the best of my writing and the best of my thinking.”
In addition to liberating his style, the series released him from the constraints of “message.” He had come of age when social meaning was often seen as a prerequisite of serious literature. The detective novels freed the satirist in him. Following the tradition of Rabelais and Swift, he disguised his rage as high comedy. He exchanged the hammer of polemic for the switchblade of wit; he stopped preaching and became a prophet.
Both the money and the acclaim that accompanied the books temporarily lifted Himes's spirits. “I became a person comparable to Richard Wright,” he said. In 1958 he was the first American to win the Grand Prix de la Litterature Policiere, for the preceding year's best French detective novel. He was interviewed by Time magazine. “Now I was a French writer, and the United States of America could kiss my ass,” he later wrote with characteristic spleen.
He bought a car and a dog. He basked in the praise of French intellectuals such as Jean Cocteau, who called Himes's first Harlem novel a “prodigious masterpiece.” According to biographers, Malcolm X climbed the stairs of his Paris apartment to visit him. But the money was not plentiful, and he was too accustomed to self-doubt to be cheered for long by minor celebrity. “As my fame increases,” he wrote to a friend, “my fate remains the same—broke, desperate.” He was a perpetual outsider. “I am a stranger and will always be a stranger,” he stated. In all the years he lived in France, he never learned more than a few words of French.
In 1963 he settled down for good with Lesley Packard, an Englishwoman whom he would eventually marry. About this time he published Pinktoes, an erotic spoof that traced the “aphrodisiacal compulsions of the ‘Negro Problem.’” Its ribald appeal made it a commercial success. The last of the Harlem series, Blind Man with a Pistol (1969), was his most radical departure from the detective genre. If Cotton was a Charlie Parker riff, Blind Man was the honking free jazz of Ornette Coleman. Plot vanishes, apocalypse looms. The armed blind man appears from nowhere at the end of the novel, opening a pool of panic as he shoots up a subway car. This was a book, Himes said, “where no one would know who was guilty.” It was no longer a detective novel, or even a novel in the usual sense. Chester Himes, who had begun his career as a traditional realist, had entered modernism through the back door.
By the 1970s he had found financial, if not psychic, security. Cotton Comes to Harlem and The Heat's On (Come Back, Charleston Blue) were made into feature films. A few American publishers began reprinting his books. Fed up with France, he and Lesley built a house in Spain. He came to hate that country too. Late in life, exaggerating as usual, he described himself as a “detestable person,” recognizing only that “the good thing is that I wrote.” In fact, despite a wrenching moodiness, he could be a charming, witty companion.
When he died in 1984 after a series of debilitating illnesses, none of his works remained in print in the United States. But in recent years his reputation has enjoyed a renaissance. Publishers have reissued many of his books. A biography, The Several Lives of Chester Himes, appeared in 1997; another is planned. His lasting contribution to literature is now receiving belated recognition. “I was limited by a formula,” he said of his detective novels, “but this didn't prevent me from saying whatever I wanted to say.” Nothing ever did.
For all his bitterness and sense of hurt, Himes possessed a rare integrity that kept him writing on his own terms through years of mishap. Integrity compelled him to inject his own raw pain into his writing and made all of his books, even those that trafficked in slapstick and parody, “serious.” His work remains both an acid portrayal of the damage that racism inflicts on society and an exuberant sketch of the human comedy drawn by a master of prose improvisation.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8206
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 contracts and spending for the “Arsenal of Democracy” opened up employment prospects.1 However, they soon were disabused of their expectations—not only did the California to which they migrated promise much more than it delivered, but it also featured racial animosity and rampant discrimination.
Among black Americans who moved to California during this period was Chester B. Himes,2 a significant twentieth-century African-American novelist. He and his wife, Jean, arrived in California in the fall of 1940 filled with optimism and the assumption that his life and work would take a pronounced turn for the better. Among reasons for going to California, Himes wanted to publish his manuscript novel Black Sheep and to seek work in the burgeoning film industry.3 Unfortunately, he encountered continual ostracism in his artistic efforts (Jack Warner would allow “no niggers on this lot”4), and to survive in this ostensible Eden he labored in at least twenty-three jobs around Los Angeles and San Francisco.5 As Edward Margolies and Michel Fabre point out in The Several Lives of Chester Himes, Himes' California sojourn was one of many episodes that evoked his feelings of “constant restlessness.”6 Recalling his search for employment in Los Angeles, in his early autobiography, The Quality of Hurt, he notes:
[I]t wasn't being refused in plants so much. … It was the look on people's faces when you asked them about a job. Most of them didn't say outright they wouldn't hire me. They first looked goddamned startled that I asked. It shook me. … Los Angeles hurt me racially as much as any city I have ever known. … It was the lying hypocrisy that hurt me.7
This disappointment mirrored that of thousands of Afro-Californians during the second World War.
To make matters worse, from Himes' perspective, his wife gained a high profile position that paid more than he was able to earn. His inability to earn as much as his wife made Himes feel as if “I was no longer a husband to my wife; I was her pimp. She didn't mind, and that hurt all the more” (Quality 75). In many ways, the racism that prevented Himes from gaining successful employment also threatened his masculinity.8 This threat became a vital issue in his California fiction.
Himes and other African Americans who journeyed West to seek opportunity encountered fierce hostility from white Californians—many of whom were arriving for work or as soldiers from Southern states (and bringing with them virulent racial prejudice). The dire consequences of overt protest during these years also served as very visible reminders of racism to black Californians, and Himes understood and pointed out their significance. Himes' California essays and fiction dramatically depict racism, prejudice, and segregation to expose the lure of the West as an unfulfilled dream for blacks. Himes exposes this flawed California dream in a series of journalistic and fictional works that culminate in his novels If He Hollers Let Him Go and Lonely Crusade.
Himes depicts World War II California in many of his short stories and journalistic essays, in which he reveals racism both as it affects African Americans and as it is directed at other minorities. Because these works concern the war years, many of them address racism as it relates to the military. For example, Himes demonstrates the irony of blacks who fight for a racist country. In “So Softly Smiling” (1943), Lieutenant Roy Johnny Squires returns from the war and concludes, “Let the white people fight their own war—I've got nothing to win.”9 Blacks fighting against international persecution while becoming victims of national racism is demonstrated with poetic justice in “Two Soldiers” (1943), where seven soldiers are chased by Nazis. Private Crabtree, who is upset because the only black soldier sits beside him in a bomb gully, becomes so obsessed with racial prejudice that he fails to see a Nazi aiming at him.
Similarly, “Let Me at the Enemy—An George Brown” (1944) reveals a character who transposes the level of the enemy from national to personal status. After conning him into leaving Los Angeles to pick cotton in Bakersfield, George plans to marry High C's girlfriend. When High C gets drafted into the Army, he is stationed at the same army base as George. He becomes eager to fight George, now his personal enemy, but remains apathetic about fighting a national enemy. In an exaggerated tone, Himes describes the job High C performs and implies that even when industry jobs are plentiful, blacks are still picking cotton for white foremen. Ironically, High C discovers that his search for an “elusive Eden” represents regression, not progression, in terms of the status of blacks in California.
For African-American soldiers, defeat prompted by racism frequently superseded military successes. Johnny Jones, the protagonist of “Make with the Shape” (1945), returns from the Army to surprise his wife in Los Angeles. When a dog approaches them while walking along the sidewalk, his wife attacks it. Jones feels inadequate as a male protector because his wife protects him from danger, so he throws his military medals in the trash. He feels so unempowered that he disregards his own accomplishments. The overall result, Phyllis Klotman reminds us, is that “there is only one role forbidden the black male—that of man.”10
Himes points out through his fiction that during the war, black and white men were encouraged to stand together against a common enemy, yet America was still segregated in practice. With a slight tongue-in-cheek tone, “Lunching at the Ritzmore” (1942) concerns two white men who bet the price of their meals and a black man's meal whether or not the black man will be served in a restaurant. The black man pauses and says, “They're liable to serve me around here. And then your're gonna think it's like that all over the city. And I know it ain't” (19). In classic Himes sarcasm, the black man is served, and the story concludes that “it was thus proved by the gentleman of Pershing Square that no discrimination exists in the beautiful city of Los Angeles” (21). However, Himes adds that the man who won the bet is the only one with money, so he has to pay for lunch; therefore, for all practical purposes he lost the bet. That the man essentially loses the bet parallels the idea that although the black man is served at the Ritzmore, he would not be served at all restaurants in Los Angeles. That Los Angeles restaurants do not practice Jim Crow is an illusion much like the lure of the West was for blacks.
The allegory “Heaven Has Changed” (1943) also illustrates Jim Crow. A black soldier who is killed in action walks down a dusty road and is told that Uncle Tom is dead. African Americans are prevented by a monster from attending Uncle Tom's funeral. Uncle Tom's children want to elect a new god who will better protect them and attempt to usurp Old Jim Crow. When they accomplish both goals, they desegregate heaven. The soldier returns to Earth and tells the other soldiers not to fear death because even though they are forced to accept segregation in the military, they can at least anticipate a desgregated heaven. Perhaps “Heaven Has Changed” demonstrates that the snake in the garden disrupts the “elusive Eden” for blacks: the benefits of the lure of the West are only realized through death and subsequent entrance into spiritual paradise.
To demonstrate the devastating consequences of racism that resulted in the alienation that blacks experienced, Himes frequently places characters in surreal-like situations, sometimes mixed with grotesque humor.11 These illustrations reflect the alienation that Himes experienced; as he notes, “in the lives of black people, there are so many absurd situations, made that way by racism, that black life could sometimes be described as surrealistic.”12 Three of his California stories, “The Something in a Colored Man” (1946), “One More Way to Die” (1946), and “He Seen It in the Stars” (1944) are packed with absurdity and set in a world where nothing makes sense. In “The Something in a Colored Man,” Mac wanders from bar to bar and admits that he has killed a man. He is sentenced to San Quentin's death row, where he contemplates why a man would admit to a crime for which he would be executed. In “One More Way to Die,” the first-person narrator describes in the present tense how he is killed by transplanted Texas cops, who take him to a dark alley and shoot him; thus bringing “one more way to die” from the white South to blacks in California.
Similarly, in “He Seen It in the Stars,” Accidental Brown has worked at Cal Ship as a boiler-maker's helper for fifteen years. His wife persuades him to accompany her to see the film Hitler's Children, and he falls asleep during the movie. He dreams that a Nazi submarine saves him from drowning in the Atlantic ocean. Beaten and tortured, he feigns insanity. When he awakens, his shouting both terrifies and embarrasses his wife, who asks him what he has dreamt. The wife's question poses the depth of the terror that Brown's dream signifies. In Brown's dream, the actual horror of racism becomes Nazi torture. Racial oppression frightens Brown both in his dreams and in real life.
Himes also wrote journalistic essays that depicted the frightening aspects of racism in the military and in California society. The dire conditions led him to make suggestions for black actions during World War II that are prescribed in his essay “Now Is the Time! Here Is the Place!” He proclaims that blacks should fight for freedoms within their own country while the fight against tyranny continues abroad. He asserts that more than a battle for racial equality, the war for blacks in America is a struggle for justice in a broader sense and a “form of government in which people will be bound together … by common objectives and aims for the benefit of all.”13 Himes' petition for blacks to take action against racism parallels his belief that equality can be achieved only through revolution. He outlines a three-step movement for equality that includes such revolution in his essay “Negro Martyrs Are Needed”: (1) progress can be brought about only by revolution, (2) incidents are needed for revolutions, and (3) martyrs are necessary to evoke incidents. He adds that black martyrs are needed “to create the incident which will mobilize the forces of justice and carry us forward from the pivot of change to a way of existence wherein everyone is free.”14 Himes even promoted violence as a means for blacks to achieve equality. Along with the violence he illustrates in much of his work, he says, “The only way the American Negro will ever be able to participate in the American way of life is by a series of acts of violence. It's tragic, but it's true.”15
It was also tragic that America's leaders, from Himes' perspective, supported accommodation rather than prescribing a more direct approach to end oppression. Himes does not support accommodation tactics as remedies for racism and takes issue with those, like Eleanor Roosevelt, who asserted, “If I were a Negro today … I would not do too much demanding. I would take every chance that came my way to prove my quality and my ability … knowing in the end good performance has to be acknowledged.”16 Himes often mocks those who conform to ideas that promote passive acceptance of racial oppression. The consequences of accommodation frequently play roles in Himes fiction, especially his California novels.17
Himes comprehensively and compassionately points out that during the war years racism was directed not only at blacks but at other California minorities as well. Noting the increase of racist actions which ensued after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Himes introduced and promoted the publication of a sketch in The War Worker by a Japanese American who had been placed in a West Coast concentration camp. Perceptively, Himes also noted the “crazy, wild-eyed unleashed hatred” in white people's faces after the bombing of Pearl harbor.18 In the essay published for The War Worker, he printed pages from a Nisei's diary to inspire in his readers “a better understanding of the problems confronting these Japanese-Americans” (7). It also served as a warning: if this incarceration can happen to one minority group, it can happen to another. He also wrote the most penetrating analysis of the Zoot Suit Riots (the violent attacks by white soldiers on Mexican Americans in the Los Angeles area) and correctly and forcefully blamed the attacks on racism. In “Zoot Suit Riots Are Race Riots,” he describes the horrors of the infamous June 1943 Zoot Suit Riots and blames them on racism manifested as white soldiers and sailors indiscriminately beating Mexican youths (or other people of color) who wore Zoot Suits—not for any particular reason, but as Himes notes, simply because “the South has won Los Angeles.”19
In another essay, “Democracy Is for the Unafraid,” Himes discusses the situation of blacks who fought in World War II. He argues that “the cowardice of a relatively small percentage of white Americans is seeping into the consciousness of the majority and making them afraid of the darker races.”20 He contrasts America's hatred of blacks with its fight against Germany and points out that true democracy is incompatible with prejudice, the very attitude the United States embraces yet professes to fight. Perhaps prophetically, Lee Gordon, the protagonist of Lonely Crusade, reflects, “Give them a General in the army … and you'd have them eating out of your hand while you Jim Crowed the other hundreds of thousands in uniform.”21
Of all of Himes' essays and stories, “The Snake” (1956), a short story based on his experience while staying at his brother-in-law's ranch, most powerfully demonstrates the drastic physical and mental effects of racism. Himes encountered six-foot-long timber rattlesnakes that apparently intrigued yet bothered him, and the snakes became perplexing yet welcome adversaries compared to humans. In the story a snake virtually signifies how difficult it is to abrogate racism. Himes' description of a snake threatening a woman includes its hiss, hatred, despisement, and contempt. Similar to many of Himes' protagonists' responses to racism, “the woman shuddered as if her blood was chilled.” After she kills the snake, its mate returns the next day and bites the woman seven times, signifying the infinite degree of her death. Whereas by killing the first snake the woman symbolically evades racism momentarily, it returns to kill her absolutely. Himes seems to suggest that attempts to conquer racism may bring it back more violently. Like the snake in the garden, this snake's “sinister poison seemed to emanate from its cold gleaming skin” (333). Because Himes suggests that racism is a far more dangerous poison than a snake's venom, one can conclude that oppressors of African Americans are even more adversarial than the snake the woman in the story encounters.
Himes most vividly illustrates the hardening racial climate wrought by the war in his California novels—If He Hollers Let Him Go, set in 1944, and Lonely Crusade, set in 1943.22 Unfair hiring practices and unsuitable working situations added to the disillusionment of the lure of the West for blacks during World War II, a time when the war-related industries created numerous jobs. Although not always providing solutions, Himes' novels illustrate cogently the problems blacks experienced in the work force during the war years. Frequently, as Himes shows, blacks were given jobs only as unskilled laborers, which prevented them from learning any skills they might use to gain higher positions. When they achieved responsible positions, they incurred white wrath and obstructions. They lost senority when making lateral moves and were unable to make upward moves. As Robert E. Skinner asserts, “these barriers prevented blacks from taking any real advantage of the shipbuilding war boom.”23 Racism was a powerful force that corrupted job opportunities for blacks, even if some were initially successful in their employment searches. In addition to creating economic disadvantages, racism aroused multifaceted psychological consequences. It is therefore not surprising that fear is a dominant subject in both novels—Bob Jones, the primary character of If He Hollers, fears the coming racial crisis precipitated by Pearl Harbor, and Lee Gordon, the protagonist of Lonely Crusade, is both psychologically and physically frightened of whites.
Like many African Americans during World War II, Jones experiences conflicting emotions because he feels obligated to support a country that oppresses blacks. If He Hollers ends with Jones' awareness of the irony of the war. As his friend says, “Every time a colored man gets in the Army he's fighting against himself. Of course there isn't anything else he can do. If he refuses to go they send him to the pen” (115).
Jones is a shipyard crew foreman in a department where working conditions are confining both physically and emotionally. He describes the physical structure of the building in which he works as “a cramped quarters aft, a labyrinth of narrow, hard-angled companionways, jammed with staging, and workers who had to be contortionists first of all” (22). The following verbs are used to describe efforts he must make even to reach his department: “climb,” “crawl,” “duck,” “jerk,” “punch,” “crouch,” and “bump” (22-23). The “stifling hot” building (23), obviously physically uncomfortable, also serves as a metaphor for psychological conditions the black workers experience. Rather than becoming the Eden-like environment blacks had hoped to find, Jones' workplace is described as a living hell—not only was the dream of many blacks unfulfilled, but it became the very opposite of what they sought.
The dream-turned-nightmare embodied as racism provokes Jones to criticize Los Angeles: “Los Angeles is the most overrated, lousiest, countriest, phoniest city I've ever been in” (42). Similar to Jones's comment, in the sarcastic tone Himes uses throughout his fiction a character from the short story “Prison Mass” sums up his assessment of the West: “Go west, young man, where prisons are tough and sentences are long” (174). Obviously, Himes uses Jones and other characters to vent some of his views of urban California's racial antagonisms during World War II. As contemporary black California author Ishmael Reed asserts in Airing Dirty Laundry, “Himes's America is alive and well, and racism, that ugly social parasite, has found a host in parts other than the South.”24 Due to these racist attitudes, Jones' white peers refuse to cooperate with him. For example, Jones' supervisor is late submitting blueprints he needs to complete his job. Later, a supervisor refuses to ask crew members who are not busy to help Jones complete a job.
The incident that precipitates Jones' downfall involves Madge, a white woman who refuses to work with Jones and calls him a “nigger.” Ironically, he is physically attracted to her and they have a romantic affair. “Madge, the Texas cracker,” Phyllis Klotman points out, “thrives on the notion that blacks are savage and sexually aggressive. Armed with a Southern psyche and a blowzy body, she insults Jones.”25 When he retaliates by calling her a “cracker bitch,” he is demoted. Although she is not a physical beauty, Madge's attraction to Jones is similar to that of blacks for California. Madge, like California, is seductive, ornamental, and superficial; but little substance is found under the glitter. The attraction to the West was as devastating to blacks as Madge was to Jones. As Stephen F. Milliken astutely iterates, Madge, the big blonde from Texas, who is “an object both of aversion and desire,” leads Jones “to the semilynching that is his fate.”26
One example which clearly portrays this fateful attraction involves Madge's sister-in law. She tells Jones he should only associate with other blacks and leave white women alone. He asks if her comment insinuates that she does not want his company, and she responds,
I declare, you colored folks from California is so sensitive. Colored boys in Texas know better'n to sit beside a white woman. Not that I mind if Madge don't. It's just that most colored folks like to stay to themselves. That' why we ain't never had no trouble in Texas. … We love colored folks in Texas, and I bet you a silver dollar colored folks love us too.
Madge personifies the search for the “elusive Eden” as experienced by blacks. “She sees herself as inordinately desirable to Robert Jones, … in spite of her obvious lack of charm, beauty, intelligence and … rejection by her white husband.27 Madge tantalizes and tempts Jones, only to become the source of his downfall. Her racism causes her to become the snake in the garden that destroys Jones' hope of paradise and creates in him feelings of inferiority.
Madge's relationship with Jones is a sort of master trope of false promises faced by blacks in California—the depth of the promise parallels the extent of the deceipt. Worse than becoming merely an unfulfilled promise, it was wrought with negative experiences. An example of ways the promise becomes a curse is that instead of reaping benefits from the war economy, Jones is victimized by underlying racist attitudes that cause him to feel “scared, powerless, unprotected” (37), “ridiculous,” “ignored,” “despised” (69), “cold scared … weak and black and powerless” (74), “tense” and “jerky” (75), “conspicuous, ill at ease, out of place” (76), and “flustered, caught, guilty” (113).
This continual and omnipresent fear is frequently depicted as dreams that illustrate the psychological depth of the effects of racism. Throughout If He Hollers descriptions of Jones' dreams represent the psychological depth of his distress. In his dreams, whites manipulate and oppress him and other blacks, who are consistently victims of racism. The theme of racial inequity emerges as a powerful characteristic that perpetuates Jones' anger and despair.
Jones' psychological reactions to racism are further developed in “A Night of New Roses” (1945; Original title “A Night of Neurosis”), a story that continues If He Hollers. In the short story, Jones aimlessly drives along the Los Angeles highway, considers his recent situation, and realizes that his reaction to racism has led to his having joined the Army:
[M]y thoughts kept burning into me, lacerating me, until I wanted to die. It was stupid, I thought. Nonsensical. Futile. Bewildering. It didn't make any sense, but yet it drove you. Nothing but race. White and black. Nothing to do to get away from it. Nothing to think about. No escape. I spent half my time thinking about murdering white men. The other half taking my spite out in having white women. And in between, protesting, bellyaching, crying. It sat on top of me like a weight, pressed down through my skull, smothered my reason. Always! Was it always gonna be this goddamned race business grinding a dull aching frustration through me?
Although driven to thoughts of suicide because of these frustrations, Jones decides that he will not let whites have the satisfaction of promoting his death. He recalls the “cracker bitch” who cost him his job, ponders the army, and expresses bitterness because he must fight and support a Jim Crow country. He goes to a bar, where he begins to cry; but no one seems to notice. As he leaves, a man opens the door for him and says, “Hurry back” (130), as if Jones' emotions have become truly invisible. Himes points out that the needs of the oppressed are ignored by most of the empowered and that even some of the victims do not recognize the extent or consequences of oppression.
As in his other California works, racial segregation during the war is demonstrated in If He Hollers as yet another means of racial oppression. When Jones takes Alice Harrison, his upper-class, light-skinned African-American girlfriend, to an uptown restaurant, they are served, but seated in the back of the restaurant at a small table. They are unable to enjoy the meal because of the hostile environment.
Jones' accommodationist girlfriend is unwilling to challenge whites, and because of his refusal to cooperate with racist whites, she tells him:
Bob, I've been thinking seriously that perhaps I'm not the type of woman for you. I'm ambitious and demanding. I want to be important in the world. I want a husband who is important and respected and wealthy enough so that I can avoid a major part of the discriminatory practices which I am sensible enough to know I cannot change. I don't want to be pulled down by a person who can't adjust himself to the limitations of his race—a person who feels he has to make a fist fight out of every issue—a person who'd jeopardize his entire future because of some slight, or say, because some ignorant white person should call him a nigger—
At the end of the novel, Jones assumes that if he marries Alice and returns to college, people will consider him an important black man. Describing his working-class background, he says,
All I had when I came to the Coast was my height and weight and the fact I believed that being born in America gave everybody a certain importance. … In the three years in L.A. I'd worked up to a good job in a shipyard, bought a new Buick car, and cornered off the finest colored chick west of Chicago—to my way of thinking. All I had to do was marry her and my future was in the bag. If a black boy couldn't be satisfied with that he couldn't be satisfied with anything. … But I knew I'd wake up someday and say the hell with it, I didn't want to be the biggest Negro who ever lived. …
Accommodation to either white society or upper-middle-class black society was a compromise that Jones, like Himes, was unwilling to make.
Jones' desire to be accepted without distinction of color poses other complex dilemmas throughout the novel. He recognizes that whites use empowerment based on color to demean and degrade blacks. He views racism as the instigator of actions such as blacks having to wait for change during business transactions, blacks having to wait behind whites for streetcar transfers, and blacks given the worst possible seat when white ushers seat them in theaters. The tantalizing (Madge-like), superficial glitter of California was tarnished.
The California dream also remains unfulfilling for Lee Gordon, the main character of Lonely Crusade. Gordon works as a labor organizer and tries to persuade the employees of Comstock Aircraft to join a labor union.28 As Robert E. Skinner points out in “The Black Man in the Literature of Labor,” Gordon ultimately recognizes that the union will not help blacks find equality because they will face racial discrimination after the plant is organized. Because the basis of the union is seniority, eventually the union will betray them. Blacks will continue to be the last hired and the first fired. Lack of experience perpetuated by hiring practices that exclude blacks prevents black workers from achieving success beyond entry level positions.29 Gordon recognizes that “under the company merit system Negroes could at least hope that by application and hard work, superior acumen and Uncle-Toming, they might get a better job than they would by process of seniority” (Lonely Crusade 139). His hope for more opportunity shattered, Gordon recalls unhappy memories of his childhood in Pasadena: “He had no pleasant memories of Pasadena; he had been born in the backyard and in his unhappiness had known only the back door. He and his parents had been driven away like thieves in the night” (167).
Blacks struggled with the difficulty of how to act in response to racial oppression. Should they pretend? If so, what should they pretend? Gordon wonders if in Foster's presence he should act
like the timid Negro son of domestic servant parents; or the reserved and quiet Negro college graduate, picking his chances to speak, weighing his words for the impression they might make; or as the blustering unioneer, walking hard and talking loud and trying to give the appearance of being unafraid. … And with this thought all of his senses tightened and panic overwhelmed him. It was as if the unseen gatekeepers of the white overlords demanded of him a toll to enter—an incredible toll in disquiet, anxiety, trepidation, and greatest of all, in fear. He could not help his fear, he knew, and waited for it to strike.
Such fear on another occasion turns to “a stricture of the soul, the torture of the damned, a shriveling up inside, an actual diminution of his organs and the stoppage of their functions” (18). Gordon recognizes his fears as those shared by African Californians and experiences an identity crisis that makes him feel as if he is
looking into a mirror and seeing his own fear, suspicion, resentments, frustrations, inadequacies, and the insidious anguish of his days reflected on the faces of other Negroes. It frightened him all the more because he could not divide himself from the sum total of them all. What they were, he was; and what they had been, he also had been. Their traditions were his traditions; and their identities described him too. What life held for them, it also held for him—there was no escaping.
Internal peace for Gordon did not arrive even though he recognized that others shared his fears.
Even more devastating, segregation for Gordon spirals into a sense of rejection that goes beyond feeling ill at ease. When refused service at a restaurant, he becomes enraged because Ruth witnesses his subservience, an event that leads to domestic violence, “marking his manhood through violence” as Eileen Boris puts it.30 Gordon recalls that the “first time he slapped [Ruth] was not for anything she did, but for what he did not do” (39). Later, in a theater, Ruth asks a white man sitting in front of her to remove his hat so she can see, and he tells her to sit somewhere else. Gordon displaces his anger towards whites with resentment towards Ruth because he is frustrated that he cannot make white men treat her respectfully. Whites have denied Gordon his masculinity.31
Consequently, Gordon fears that he cannot offer to his wife benefits equal to those of white men. His fear creates insecurities that prompt him to try harder to support and protect Ruth. Ironically, in Gordon's case the very fear of not being able to satisfy Ruth leads to domestic violence and threatens his relationship with her, the very relationship he wishes to maintain. The part of him that fears he will lose Ruth is attracted to a white woman with whom he has an affair that severely damages and perhaps destroys his marriage. He is lured to the woman for similar reasons that Jones is attracted to Madge, and again, as with Jones, the attraction signifies the false promises of the lure of the West.
Himes personally experienced this false lure of the West. When he left California four years after his arrival, he felt embittered, crushed, and hateful. He had neither published his book nor found meaningful employment nor received support from the movie industry. Rather, he discovered intense segregation and racism, accepted unskilled labor, and unsuccessfully traversed the state seeking opportunities during the hectic years of World War II. As he sums up in his autobiography The Quality of Hurt, “I was thirty-one and whole when I went to Los Angeles and thirty-five and shattered when I left to go to New York.” Furthermore, he noted, “Under the mental corrosion of race prejudice … I had become bitter and saturated with hate” (76). Since Himes, along with so many other black Americans, had arrived in this apparent land of Eden with hopes for a promising future, California's brand of racism seemed worse and hurt them more than the racism they encountered in the Midwest and the South. Chester Himes confronted California, learned from California, wrote about California, and escaped from California; but he could not persuade World War II California to relent.
In the summer of 1946, Himes visited his brother-in-law's ranch in northern California to work on his novel Lonely Crusade. In route from New York to California, he “bought a 303 Savage rifle in New York because I had read that the Ku Klux Klan was active in the region of northern California where we were headed; but I found race hatred so frightening that I kept it loaded and within easy reach from the time I entered Illinois.” “California itself,” he wrote, “was certainly no ‘land of the free’” (Quality 78). Fortunately for Himes, for the most part his final confrontation with California seemed uneventful: he did not need his rifle except to shoot rattlesnakes, he completed his novel, and he soon left the state for good. As he later acknowledged, “I remember that summer as one of the most pleasant of our life” (Quality 93). And it might well be viewed that way. The war was over, he lived sheltered from segregated and prejudiced California society, and he was working at a task which consumed his considerable talents and skills. But he remembered World War II California, and California should remember him. Chester Himes' explosive works served to accomplish what he was unable to do in World War II California. While as an individual Himes unsuccessfully challenged California, as an author he poignantly exposed California's false Eden.
For an excellent review of the background of California history see Richard B. Rice, William A. Bullough, and Richard J. Orsi, The Elusive Eden: A New History of California (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988). On race relations during World War II, see Sally Jane Sandoval, “Ghetto Growing Pains: The Impact of Negro Migration on the City of Los Angeles, 1940-1960,” master's thesis, California State U., Fullerton, 1974; Alonzo Nelson Smith, “Black Employment in the Los Angeles Area, 1938-1948,” diss., U of California, Los Angeles, 1978; Albert S. Broussard, Black San Francisco: The Struggle for Racial Equality in the West, 1900-1954 (Lawrence: U of Kansas, 1993); Lawrence B. de Graaf, Negro Migration to Los Angeles, 1930-1950 (San Francisco: R. and E. Research Associates, 1974); Edward E. France, “Some Aspects of the Migration of the Negro to the San Francisco Bay area since 1940,” diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1962); Bernice Anita Reed, “Accommodation Between Negro and White Employees in a West Coast Aircraft Industry, 1942-1944,” Social Forces 26 (1947): 77-82.
For a list of Himes' works, see “Works By.” Himes published eighteen novels, a two-volume autobiography, and a collection of short stories. Posthumously his entire output of short stories was collected into a single, lengthy volume; some of his less numerous essays are included in our account. Himes is held with affectionate esteem by many: Stephen F. Milliken refers to him as “sui generis”; Ishmael Reed dedicated 19 Necromancers from Now to “The Great Mojo Bojo,” Chester Himes; and John A. Williams called his Himes interview “My Man Himes.”
For scholarly investigations of Himes' life and career, see “Studies Of.” By the time Himes arrived in California in the fall of 1940, he already had experienced a full life, albeit at the youthful age of thirty-one. Born in Missouri, his family moved often before settling in Cleveland, Ohio. Himes attended and was expelled from Ohio State University and served time for armed robbery in the Ohio State Penitentiary. While in prison he wrote about his experiences, published short stories and essays, and was paroled after serving seven and one half years of his twenty-year sentence. He also wrote a novel that vividly explicates black prison life but could not get it published. This novel, the first written by Himes, was the third published. However, to gain a publisher, Himes reduced the length by at least one third, eliminated some strident comments, and whitewashed the characters. No longer a novel of black prison life, it became a story of prisoners. The title was changed from Black Sheep to Cast the First Stone.
Michel Fabre and Robert E. Skinner, eds., Conversations with Chester Himes (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1995) 56.
On Himes in California, see Gilbert H. Muller, “California on Parade: If He Hollers Let Him Go and Lonely Crusade, Chester Himes,” by Muller (Boston: Twayne, 1989) 20-38; Robert E. Skinner, “The Black Man in the Literature of Labor: The Early Novels of Chester Himes,” Labor's Heritage 1 (1989): 51-65; Robert E. Skinner, “Streets of Fear: The Los Angeles Novels of Chester Himes,” Los Angeles in Fiction: A Collection of Essays, ed. David Fine (Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1995) 227-38; Eileen Boris, “‘You Wouldn't Want One of 'Em Dancing with Your Wife’: Racialized Bodies on the Job in World War II,” American Quarterly 50 (March 1998): 77-108.
Edward Margolies and Michael Fabre, The Several Lives of Chester Himes (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1997) xi.
Chester Himes, The Quality of Hurt (New York: Doubleday, 1972) 73, Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.
A common theme in Himes' writings, masculinity among African Americans, has been an increasingly discussed topic, especially since Louis Farrakhan's preparation and implementation of the Million Man March on Washington, D.C., in the mid 1990s. Scholars began studying the historical and literary origins; see for example Andrew Shin and Barbara Judson, “Beneath the Black Aesthetic: James Baldwin's Primer of Black American Masculinity,” African American Review 32.2 (1998): 247-61; Cynthia Griffin Wolff, “‘Masculinity’ in Uncle Tom's Cabin,” American Quarterly 47 (December 1995): 595-618; Maurice Walker, “‘Are We Men?’: Prince Hall, Martin Delany, and the Masculine Ideal in Black Freemasonry, 1775-1865,” American Literary History 9 (Fall 1997): 396-424. However, to this date, no one seems to have explicated the many and complicated aspects of black masculinity that authors such as Chester Himes, Eldridge Cleaver, and Ishmael Reed have developed in their fiction and in their essays. Such a study must begin with, in addition to the Himes works listed at the end of this paper, Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968); Ishmael Reed, Airing Dirty Laundry (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1993); Nathan Hare, “Will the Real Black Man Please Stand Up?” Black Scholar 2 (June 1971): 32-35; Rebecca Carroll, ed., Swing Low: Black Men Writing (New York: Crown Publishers, 1995); and Marcellus Blount and George P. Cunningham, eds., Representing Black Men (New York: Routledge, 1996). Two black psychiatrists raised some of the issues in William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs, Black Rage (New York: Basic Books, 1968); see also Robert Staples, Black Masculinity: The Black Male's Role in American Society (San Francisco: Black Scholar Press, 1982).
Chester Himes The Collected Stories of Chester Himes (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1991) 68. Unless otherwise noted the short stories are from this collection and will be cited parenthetically in the text.
Phyllis R. Klotman “The White Bitch Archetype in Contemporary Black Fiction,” Midwest Modern Language Association Bulletin 6 (1973): 101.
For more on Himes' utilization of the grotesque, see A. Robert Lee, “Hurts, Absurdities and Violence: The Contrary Dimensions of Chester Himes,” Journal of American Studies 12 (1978): 99-114.
Fabre and Skinner 140.
Chester Himes, “Now Is the Time! Here Is the Place,” Opportunity 20 (1942): 273.
Chester Himes, “Negro Martyrs Are Needed,” The Crisis 51 (1944): 159.
Fabre and Skinner 21-22.
Chester Himes, “The People We Know,” The War Worker (November, 1943): 6.
Accommodation is also the theme of one of his California short stories: “The Song Says ‘Keep on Smiling’.” The story involves a young woman who refuses to sit quietly and wait for the pretense of equality. Jean Delaney sings with the shipyard orchestra and works on shipway as a shipfitter helper. She suggests that women organize a club so they will have something to do besides pine for boyfriends in service. The white women organize such a club, but exclude Jean. On a bus, Jean gets invited to sing for the Sweethearts Club. She goes to a club and meets a man who tells her that when he was white he believed in justice, but because he is black, he is just an opportunist. She is frustrated and confused and goes home and goes to bed. The lady she lives with tells her after thirty years of working for a white family, the family gave her money to buy a house. Not wanting to wait thirty years to find her place in the world, Jean recognizes that although the song says “keep on smiling,” smiles and acquiescence to unequal treatment will not advance her or her race.
Chester Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran, 1945) 7. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.
Chester Himes, “Zoot Suit Riots Are Race Riots,” The Crisis 50 (1943): 222. The beatings were fomented by Los Angeles newspapers, applauded and encouraged by white citizens, and allowed to continue by Los Angeles police. Finally, the military, fearing a major mutiny, halted the beatings. Information on these “riots” can be found in Mauricio Mazon, “The Zoot-Suit Riots: The Psychology of Symbolic Annihilation (Austin: U of Texas P, 1984); and Marily Domer, “The Zoot-Suit Riot: A Culmination of Social Tensions in Los Angeles,” master's thesis, Claremont Graduate School, 1955. However, none is as clear and forthright as Himes' initial response.
Chester Himes, “Democracy Is for the Unafraid,” Common Ground 4 (1944): 53-54.
Chester Himes, Lonely Crusade (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947) 364. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.
Himes' vivid and stark portrayal of California's World War II race relations caused these novels to be referred to as “protest” novels in the tradition of James Baldwin and Richard Wright. Although they are protest novels, this nomenclature trivializes the magnitude of Himes' (as well as Baldwin's and Wright's) skilled representation of United States society.
Robert E. Skinner, “The Black Man in the Literature of Labor: The Early Novels of Chester Himes,” Labor's Heritage 1 (1989): 54-55.
Ishmael Reed, “Chester Himes: Writer,” Airing Dirty Laundry (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1993) 155.
Stephen F. Millican, Chester Himes: A Critical Appraisal (Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1976) 92-93.
The ideas related to labor found in Lonely Crusade are also developed in “In the Night,” a story that involves three communists, one black, two white. When Sonny had studied at the NYA defense school, the communists did not encourage him to seek employment because they did not want the responsibility of promising him a job. He passed the exams, but received a letter from the defense plant saying it would not support his employment at the aircraft company now or at any time in the future. Unable to find a solution for discrimination, all the characters stand at a sort of frightened stance, not knowing where to turn for answers. To Himes, racism is more powerful than ideology.
Skinner, “The Black Man” 62.
Eileen Boris “‘You Wouldn't Want One of 'Em Dancing with Your Wife’: Racialized Bodies on the Job in World War II,” American Quarterly 50 (1998): 78.
Boris also discusses ways that Jones is denied masculinity: “Obsessed with manhood and color, protagonist Bob Jones chafes under cultural notions of gender and race” (77). Additional studies on black masculinity include Herb Boyd and Robert L. Allen, eds., Brotherman: The Odyssey of Black Men in America (New York: Ballantine Books, 1995), which includes a selection from Lonely Crusade; Charles Johnson and John McCluskey, Jr., eds., Black Men Speaking (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1997); Robert Staples, “Masculinity and Race: The Dual Dilemma of Black Men,” Journal of Social Issues 34 (1978): 69-183; Clemmont E. Vontress, “The Black Male Personality,” Black Scholar 2 (June 1971): 10-17; and Doris Y. Wilkinson and Ronald L. Taylor, eds., The Black Male in America: Perspectives on His Status in Contemporary Society (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1977).
A Selected Bibliography
Works by Chester Himes
If He Hollers Let Him Go. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. Doran, 1945.
Lonely Crusade. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947.
Cast the First Stone. New York: Coward-McCann, 1952.
The Third Generation. Cleveland: World Publishers, 1954.
The End of the Primitive. New York: New American Library, 1956.
For Love of Imabelle. Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett, 1957; revised as A Rage in Harlem. New York: Avon, 1965.
The Real Cool Killers. New York: Avon, 1959.
The Crazy Kill. New York: Avon, 1959.
The Big Gold Dream. New York: Avon, 1960.
All Shot Up. New York: Avon, 1960.
Pinktoes. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1965.
Cotton Comes to Harlem. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1965.
The Heat's On. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1966.
Run Man, Run. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1966.
Blind Man with a Pistol. New York: William Morrow, 1969.
A Case of Rape. New York: Targ, 1980.
Plan B. Edited by Michel Fabre and Robert E. Skinner. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1994.
Un Joli coup de lune [The Lunatic Fringe]. Trans. Hélène Devauz-Minié. Paris: Lieu Commun, 1988.
Black on Black: Baby Sister and Selected Writings. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973.
The Collected Stories of Chester Himes. Foreword Calvin Hernton. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1991.
The Quality of Hurt. New York: Doubleday, 1972.
My Life of Absurdity: The Autobiography of Chester Himes. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976.
Studies of Chester Himes
Alter, Nora M. “Chester Himes: Black Guns and Words.” Alternatives. Ed. Warren Motte and Gerald Prince. Lexington, KY: French Forum Publishers, 1993. 11-24.
Bennett, Stephen B., and William W. Nichols. “Violence in Afro-American Fiction: An Hypothesis.” Modern Fiction Studies 17 (1971): 221-28.
Berry, Jay R., Jr. “Chester Himes and the Hard-Boiled Tradition.” Armchair Detective 15.1 (1982): 38-43.
Boris, Eileen. “‘You Wouldn't Want One of 'Em Dancing with Your Wife’: Racialized Bodies on the Job in World War II.” American Quarterly 50 (March 1998): 77-108.
Braham, Persephone. “Violence and Patriotism: La Novela Negra from Chester Himes to Paco Ignacio Taibo II.” Journal of American Culture 20 (1997): 159-69.
Cochran, David. “So Much Nonsense Must Make Sense: The Black Vision of Chester Himes.” Midwest Quarterly 38 (1996): 1-30.
Crooks, Robert. “From the Far Side of the Urban Frontier: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes and Walter Moseley.” College Literature 22 (1995): 68-90.
Davis, Ursula Broschke. “Chester Himes.” Paris without Regret: James Baldwin, Kenny Clarke, Chester Himes, and Donald Byrd. Iowa CIty: U of Iowa P, 1986. 65-96.
Denning, Michael. “Topographies of Violence: Chester Himes' Harlem Domestic Novels.” Critical Texts 5:1 (1988): 10-18.
Evans, Veichal Jerome. “Chester Himes: Chronicler of the Black Experience.” Diss. Oklahoma State U, 1980.
Fabre, Michel. “Chester Himes's Ambivalent Triumph.” From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840-1980. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1991. 215-37.
Fabre, Michel, Robert E. Skinner, and Lester Sullivan, comps. Chester Himes: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1992.
Fabre, Michel, and Robert E. Skinner, eds. Conversations with Chester Himes. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1995.
Feuser, Wilfried. “Prophet of Violence: Chester Himes.” African Literature Today. Ed. Eldred Durosimi Jones. New York: Africana Publishing, 1978. 59-76.
Freese, Peter. “Chester Himes's Cotton Comes to Harlem: Black Tough Guys in the Urban Ghetto.” The Ethnic Detective: Chester Himes, Harry Kemelman, Tony Hillerman. Essen: Verl. Die Blaue Eule, 1992. 15-90.
Glasrud, Bruce A., and Laurie Champion. “Chester Himes.” Contemporary African American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999.
Hairston, Loyle. “Chester Himes—‘Alien’ in Exile.” Freedomways 17.1 (1977): 14-18.
Lee, A. Robert. “Hurts, Absurdities and Violence: The Contrary Dimensions of Chester Himes.” Journal of American Studies 12 (1978): 99-114.
Lundquist, James. Chester Himes. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1976.
Margolies, Edward. “Chester Himes's Black Comedy: The Genre Is the Message.” Which Way Did He Go? The Private Eye in Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, and Ross MacDonald. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1982. 53-70.
———. “Experiences of the Black Expatriate Writer: Chester Himes.” CLA Journal 15 (1972): 421-27.
———. “The Thrillers of Chester Himes.” Studies in Black Literature 1 (1970): 1-11.
Margolies, Edward, and Michel Fabre. The Several Lives of Chester Himes. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1997.
Milliken, Stephen F. Chester Himes: A Critical Appraisal. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1976.
Muller, Gilbert H. Chester Himes. Boston: Twayne, 1989.
Nelson, Raymond. “Domestic Harlem: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes.” Virginia Quarterly Review 48 (1972): 260-72.
Peters, Melvin Troy. “Too Close to the Truth: The American Fiction of Chester Himes.” Diss. Michigan State U, 1978.
Rabinowitz, Peter J. “Chandler Comes to Harlem: Racial Politics in the Thrillers of Chester Himes.” The Sleuth and the Scholar: Origins, Evolution, and Current Trends in Detective Fiction. Ed. Barbara A. Rader and Howard G. Zettler. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1988. 19-29.
Reed, Ishmael. “Chester Himes: Writer.” Black World 21 (1972): 23-38, 83-86.
———. “Chester Himes: Writer.” Airing Dirty Laundry. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1993. 152-56.
Reilly, John M. “Chester Himes' Harlem Tough Guys.” Journal of Popular Culture 9 (1976): 935-47.
Sallis, James. “Chester Himes: America's Black Heartland.” Difficult Lives: Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Chester Himes. Brooklyn: Gryphon Publications, 1993. 72-98.
———. “In America's Black Heartland: The Achievement of Chester Himes.” Western Humanities Review 37.3 (1983): 191-206.
Saunders, Archie D. “The Image of the Negro in Five Major Novels by Chester Himes.” Master's thesis, Howard U, 1965.
Skinner, Robert E. “The Black Man in the Literature of Labor: The Early Novels of Chester Himes.” Labor's Heritage 1 (1989): 51-65.
———. “Streets of Fear: The Los Angeles Novels of Chester Himes.” Los Angeles in Fiction: A Collection of Essays. Ed. David Fine. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1995. 227-38.
———. Two Guns from Harlem: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes. Bowling Green, OH: Popular Press, 1989.
Soitos, Stephen F. “City within a City: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes.” The Blues Detective: A Study of African American Detective Fiction. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1996. 125-78, 243-44.
Walters, Wendy W. “Limited Options: Strategic Manueverings in Himes's Harlem.” African American Review 28 (1994): 615-31.
Wilson, M. L. Chester Himes. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.
Wilson, Ruth Ann. “The Black Sheep: The Novels of Chester Himes.” Master's thesis, Stephen F. Austin State U, 1972.
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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 hardship.1 Pizer's first statement, a defense of female naturalistic writers, also seems to invite exploration of other previously marginalized groups of writers such as African Americans, a group historically subject to chronic economic and social hardship. Such an exploration could then trace naturalistic techniques and influences through mainstream American and African-American literary tradition to Chester Himes, a post-World War II African-American writer whose work bears further study.
A comparison of examples of African-American literature to some accepted standard of naturalistic literature would tend to support a hypothesis of naturalistic writing by African-American authors. Any evidence of the literary use by African-Americans of naturalistic and deterministic techniques should become apparent through a comparison of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy to both Richard Wright's Native Son and Chester Himes's If He Hollers Let Him Go.
Theodore Dreiser's influence on African-American writers seems a good place to begin a study of African-American naturalistic writing because Dreiser is more or less the accepted godfather of the naturalistic novel, and his most studied protagonist, Clyde Griffiths, is likewise the prime example of the deterministic character. Support for the premise of influence from Dreiser to Wright to Himes is easily traced. Wright was a self-educated man who definitely read Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and Edgar Allan Poe, among others.2 Although Himes describes Wright as more friend than influence, he admits to reading Black Boy, Native Son, Uncle Tom's Children, and The Outsider as a young man,3 and Himes's frank admiration for Wright shows through in several of his interviews. From any writer's perspective, such extensive reading and admiration would have to result in some degree of influence of the admired writer upon the younger. Such influence carries Dreiser's readings of Spencer and Darwin through Wright to Chester Himes, who wrote If He Hollers Let Him Go in 1945.
Dreiser opens An American Tragedy with a commonly used and quite effective naturalistic trap: poverty. Through the introduction of the Mission and Clyde's poor family, ignored on the street by an indifferent society, Dreiser begins the inevitable development of Clyde's socioeconomic determinism. Clyde's deterministic nature is formed through the interaction of his family's poverty and his experiences at the soda fountain and the Green-Davidson Hotel; however, his so-called development actually presents a plot of decline. As Philip Fisher notes, “Behind the plot of decline is the Darwinian description of struggle, survival, and extinction. … Species sometimes survive, individuals never.”4 To reach the higher level of prosperity he seeks, Clyde must, within the confines of an indifferent or hostile world, survive both his poverty and his deterministic nature. He can survive neither. Neither can Bigger Thomas, Wright's protagonist in Native Son.
Wright also opens his novel with a description of the trap of poverty. Bigger lives in a tenement—a parallel to the Mission in Dreiser's novel—and his first duty of the morning is to kill a large rat that threatens his family. As the rat tries to flee and survive, so do both Bigger and Clyde later in their lives. In fact, the brutal hunter-prey nature of the scene mirrors one of the bases of Darwin's theories of evolution. Individuals that cannot adapt die off, frequently as prey to those that can adapt. The rat, then, foreshadows the later situation of Bigger (as well as Clyde, in the parallel situation) as he struggles in vain against a hostile society, represented ironically in Wright's opening scene by Bigger's family.
Dreiser also uses space to symbolize the nature of the naturalistic trap in An American Tragedy. Both the Mission and Esta's small room so function symbolically. The pregnancy seals the trap for Esta, and Clyde realizes it finally: “Yet now he sensed quite clearly that she was not married. She was deserted, left in this miserable room here alone. He saw it, felt it, understood it.”5 Dreiser's influence is clearly seen here. Esta's situation foreshadows Roberta Alden's pregnancy with Clyde, just as the rat's flight foreshadows Bigger's later flight.
Wright's similar use of space occurs in the first scene of Native Son. The single, shabby room in which Bigger, his mother, sister, and brother live illustrates the trap of their poverty. Wright describes their morning ritual:
A brown-skinned girl in a cotton gown got up and stretched her arms above her head and yawned. Sleepily, she sat on a chair and fumbled with her stockings. The two boys kept their faces averted while their mother and sister put on enough clothes to keep them from feeling ashamed; and the mother and sister did the same while the boys dressed.6
Chester Himes also uses space to introduce the concept of the socioeconomic trap in If He Hollers Let Him Go. His protagonist, Bob Jones, awakens in his small room rented from a poor family, where he can hear the family awaken through the thin partition.7
Himes adds another variable to the theme of entrapment, however, a reflection of his times: traffic. As Bob Jones and his work crew car pool to the shipyard, Himes sets a scene of rush-hour isolation and fierce Darwinian competition for space. The scene presents a social manifestation of what Darwin considers the fiercest natural struggle. In The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin says, “It is the most closely allied forms … which, from having nearly the same structure, constitution, and habits, generally come into the severest competition with each other.”8 In addition, instead of poverty as the oppressive element, Himes uses racism which is directed toward Jones and his crew even by pedestrians:
I sat there looking at the white couple until they had crossed the sidewalk, giving them stare for stare, hate for hate. Horns blasted me from behind, guys in the middle lanes looked at me as they passed. … After that everything got under my skin. I was coming up fast in the middle lane and some white guy in a Nash coupé cut out in front of me without signaling. I had to burn rubber to keep from taking off his fender; and the car behind me tapped my bumper.9
Of course, Hime's scene is not without precedent in An American Tragedy. At the end of Book One, Dreiser also uses automobiles in a chase, the archetypical fight for survival. After Sparser hits the girl, the car in which Clyde is riding becomes the rat pursued by a suddenly awakened and enraged society:
And the policeman at the next corner seeing the car speed by and realizing what it meant, blew on his whistle, then stopped, and springing on the running board of a passing touring car ordered it to give chase. And at this, seeing what was amiss or awind, three other cars … joined in the chase, all honking loudly as they came.
The device or scenario changes slightly, but in all three novels, the themes of chase and survival of the fittest repeat. In all three novels, therefore, the naturalistic writer presents like creatures in a social struggle for limited resources, be they prosperity, power, or simple social acceptance. Nowhere does Dreiser interpret Charles Darwin's “Extinction Caused by Natural Selection” theory better than through Cowperwood's Chicago battles in The Titan, and nowhere does Himes continue the technique better in If He Hollers Let Him Go than with Bob Jones's struggles in the shipyard to keep his position as Leaderman.
These themes of Darwinian struggle are always joined in some way with the naturalistic concept of entrapment. Pizer says that Dresier seeks to “depict some of the limitations placed on human freedom by the social and moral nature of late nineteenth-century American life.”10 In An American Tragedy, Clyde faces economic and moral limitations or constraints; in Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, Archer faces social limitations;11 Wright and Himes present characters facing the same limitations generated most often (but not always) by racism.
William A. Proefriedt says, “Wright perceived the deception and despotism at the heart of the laws and institutions of the white society, and its cynical purposes in assigning demeaning roles to blacks.”12 Following Wright's lead, Himes continues the Dreiserian form of naturalism within the African-American context. Stephen F. Milliken says, “Himes had undertaken to demonstrate how a particular set of social circumstances can break a man, and he assembled the assorted disasters that demolish Bob Jones with the skill of a Grand Inquisitor.”13 Generally, African-American writers such as Wright and Himes seem to use racism to define naturalistic entrapment; the technique clearly evolves from Dreiser's use of poverty for the same purpose. However, of the two—Wright and Himes—Wright may be the more subtle and, paradoxically, the more powerful writer in his use of racism as entrapment.
Wright's novel Native Son actually comes closer to the naturalistic ideal developed by Dreiser. White characters rarely enter the everyday lives of blacks; when they do, they are typically benevolent in intent and sympathetic in authorial design. In Native Son, the Dalton family and Jan Erlone genuinely want to help Bigger to improve himself, just as Oscar Hegglund, Clyde's mother, and Samuel Griffiths genuinely want to help Clyde. In both novels, the intended help is actually damaging because none of the characters involved is aware of the depth and breadth of racism and poverty in society.
Here is the tragedy presented respectively and so well by both writers: racism and poverty have become social traditions. According to James A. Robinson, “Tradition rules, just as in primitive societies, and determines social behavior.”14 By extension, social behavior guides both the indifferent society and the deterministic individual in the naturalistic novels of Wharton—Robinson's subject—Dreiser, Wright, and Himes. Dreiser and Wright, in their masterpiece novels, have shown the destructive power of insidious traditions so deeply laid into the culture of society as to be as invisible as a virus.
Both Wright and Himes also follow Dreiser in the creation of deterministic characters. Dreiser himself defines the nature of his deterministic characters from his perceptions of life: “[M]an responds quite mechanically, and only so, to all such stimuli as he is prepared, or rather constructed, to receive—and no more and no less.15 Such is Clyde's life, each of his responses emanating from his innate desire for prosperity combined with his street education at the soda fountain and the Green-Davidson Hotel. Clyde does not know why he responds in the way he does to any given situation, and if he has no ready mechanical response, he becomes confused, angry, frustrated. According to Dreiser, “[i]n such instances the will and the courage confronted by some great difficulty which it can neither master nor endure, appears in some to recede in precipitate flight, leaving only panic and temporary unreason in its wake” (Dreiser, Tragedy 463).
Bigger Thomas, in Wright's novel, and Bob Jones, in Himes's novel, act in the same limited, mechanistic way. In Book One of Native Son, we learn of Bigger: “He was sick of his life at home. Day in and day out there was nothing but shouts and bickering. But what could he do? Each time he asked himself that question his mind hit a blank wall and he stopped thinking” (11). Bigger sounds like Clyde mentally debating the Roberta question. Bigger's life, in fact, mirrors Clyde's from the accidental murder to the chase to the trial and conviction, and finally to the heightened degree of awareness at the end. Like Clyde, Bigger reacts mechanically to stimuli as per his street education and nature.
Bob Jones behaves similarly. In If He Hollers Let Him Go, Bob is subject to an upbringing and life within a social tradition of racism and poverty. Like Clyde, he wants something more. He wants the dignity and social equality that he sees others enjoying as much as Clyde wants the wealth and social position he sees others enjoying. Neither realizes that to have those things is impossible for them. Milliken describes Bob as “a black man who stubbornly refused, for reasons he himself could not quite understand, to acknowledge the existence of the plainly marked lines of discrimination.”16 Like Clyde, Bob finds no help among those who care for him but cannot understand him because they themselves are also deterministic characters reacting mechanically. Alice's mother, for instance, who is a black woman, says, “You know yourself, Bob, a lot of our people are just not worthy, they don't deserve any more than they're getting. And they make it so hard for the rest of us” (52). She is a part of the social tradition and is unable to break away as is Archer in The Age of Innocence. The tragedy is that Alice's mother lacks even Archer's awareness of the entrapment.
Clearly, then, characters such as May and Lawrence Lefferts in The Age of Innocence, Elvira Griffiths, Oscar Hegglund, and Samuel Griffiths in An American Tragedy, Mrs. Thomas and Buddy Thomas in Native Son, and Alice, her mother and Homer in If He Hollers Let Him Go have all managed to adapt and live within the confines of accepted social behavior. The deterministic characters Newland Archer, Clyde Griffiths, Bigger Thomas, and Bob Jones are what Darwin would label variations—in their case harmful to the social order. According to Darwin, “we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed.”17 In the aforementioned novels, the only characters to survive—Newland Archer and Bob Jones—do so by recognizing themselves as products of society and accepting its conventions.18 One may, however, view it as a sign of progress that whereas Archer's capitulation is permanent, Bob Jones's seems temporary with his entry into the Army.
Despite what Wharton may have defined as necessary social and cultural progress, however, the naturalistic novel seems to have survived the years from Dreiser's turn-of-the-century writing to Himes's post-World War II novels as well as the shift from mainstream to African-American literature.
Donald Pizer, “American Naturalism in Its ‘Perfected’ State: The Age of Innocence and An American Tragedy,” Edith Wharton: New Critical Essays, ed. Alfred Bendixen and Annette Zilversmit (New York: Garland 1992) 131, 128.
Michel Fabre, The World of Richard Wright (Jackson, MI: UP of Mississippi, 1985) 27.
Michael J. Bandler, “Portrait of a Man Reading,” Conversations with Chester Himes, ed. Michel Fabre and Robert E. Skinner (Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1995) 108.
Philip Fisher, Hard Facts: Setting and Form in the American Novel (New York: Oxford UP, 1985) 171.
Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy (New York: New American Library, 1981) 96. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.
Richard Wright, Native Son (New York: Harper, 1940) 3-4. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.
Chester Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go (New York: Thunder's Mouth P, 1945) 4. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.
Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (New York: New American Library, 1958) 110.
Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (New York: Barnes, 1996).
William A. Proefriedt, “The Immigrant or ‘Outsider’ Experience as Metaphor for Becoming an Educated Person in the Modern World: Mary Antin, Richard Wright, and Eva Hoffman,” MELUS 16.2 (1989-90): 83.
Stephen F. Milliken, Chester Himes: A Critical Appraisal (Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1976) 77.
James A. Robinson, “Psychological Determinism in the Age of Innocence,” Markam Review 5 Fall (1975): 1.
Theodore Dreiser, “What I Believe,” Forum 82 (1929): 319.
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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 Harlem. As a youth I wasn't much concerned with the author of the original 1965 novel adapted for Ossie Davis's screen directorial debut, starring Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques. Back then, like many young male filmgoers, I was simply thrilled by the humor and action of the movie. It wasn't until years later at a used bookstore that I came across a tattered copy of the text and began my admiration of Himes's own work and writing.
The characters in the novel left an even stronger impression on me. Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones were smart, mean, funny, and they cared about the people of Harlem. They were black detectives in the 1940s—black men with badges, assured black men accustomed to out-thinking their white bosses downtown. Although working for a racist, culturally uninformed New York City police department, these black men wielded power and kept a lid on their always simmering, volatile urban black neighborhood. Himes gave Coffin Ed and Grave Digger a say in the justice that was served upon Harlem's residents. These two officers were harsh protectors of the poor and oppressed citizens of Harlem. They decided who would be brought from Harlem streets to jail. They brutally enforced not The Man's law, but their laws. They cracked heads to get information on those who threatened Harlem's peace and presence. Riots were stopped and injustices corrected. As a writer with a conscience, Himes recognized how rare black characters of power were in the literature of his time, so he created them.
Himes developed memorable characters like Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones contending against racism in their own way. He used his characters as a mirror on society and what he reflected was not always pretty, but more than worthy of seeing and understanding. His characters are never wholly good or totally evil, neither completely subservient nor entirely ignorant.
It is not merely the creation of such anchored-in-reality characters that speak to the genius of Himes, but also his imaginative exploration of various themes. In the 1961 novel Pink Toes, the character Mamie Mason, a married white woman, genuinely feels the race problem could be solved by interracial copulation and does her best to promote her belief. The satirical with Himes displays in this work is not to be missed. Pink Toes offers an unforgettable perspective on black and white race relations and an original story.
Although satire and humor is clearly visible in much of Himes's work, he did not rely solely on levity. The 1952 novel Cast the First Stone has little to laugh about. The rawness, devastation and inhumanity of convict life is told in a voice strong enough to instill a wise fear of incarceration. James Monroe expresses misguided love, perverse emotion, bartered affection and unpredictable violence. Himes's graphic images and wordplay remain with me a decade after first reading the work.
Few writers can pen social satire, mysteries, protest novels and short stories with Himes's skill. He wrote under circumstances many people couldn't survive. The son of a conflicted and disintegrating Midwestern, middle-class black family (he was born in Jefferson City, Missouri, but lived in Cleveland during his critical coming-of-age years), he ended up in prison for armed robbery, and turned to writing while serving time. He wrote while working demeaning jobs. Even as he suffered from illness, he wrote. While living in poverty and exile in Europe, he wrote. He left America for good in 1953, and died in Spain in 1984.
Chester Himes was a writer's writer. He did what a writer should do: He created images and memorable characters with his words that caused society to look at itself. Himes was a prolific writer who kept his eyes on the prize of provoking social change. He was a master craftsman who should be read by any aspiring writer. I suggest beginning with his 1957 crime caper A Rage in Harlem, which was also adapted into a 1991 feature film directed by Bill Duke and starred Forrest Whitaker and Robin Givens. But readers, be warned: Himes's writing is addictive.