Chester Himes Himes, Chester (Vol. 7)

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Himes, Chester (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Himes, Chester 1909–

Himes, a Black American author of successfully violent, humorous short stories and novels, lives in Spain. (See also, Chester Himes Criticism and CLC volumes 2, 4, 18 and 108.)

Although [Chester Himes has published over a dozen books]—a number of these have been popular thrillers—it is still the first, If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), that warrants attention. It is set in a southern California shipyard in wartime (war projects, because of the need for workers, were one of the first large-scale instances in America of unsegregated hiring); the hero is race-mad almost to the point of hysteria, packed with dry high explosive, waiting for the match. (p. 142)

Himes' subsequent novels play cruder variations on the race-war theme. In Lonely Crusade (1947) he mixed in heavy doses of a communism that made the novel more attractive to European than American tastes. The Third Generation (1954) is the sordid, late-naturalist chronicle of the utter decay of an entire Negro family, under the pressure of a light-colored, cannibalistic mother who despises her black husband and his race. The book's harrowing frenzy suggests that Himes may have been settling some long-rankling childhood scores…. [In] Pinktoes (1965), Himes … turned to the newly profitable genre of Olympia/Grove Press comic pornography, asserting his status as a highly commercial writer. The book is an interracial sex fantasy that reviewers will call "wildly funny." It is the kind of thing, in Dr. Johnson's phrase, that anyone could go on writing indefinitely, "if he would but abandon his mind to it." (pp. 142-43)

David Littlejohn, in his Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing by American Negroes (copyright © 1966 by David Littlejohn; reprinted by permission of Grossman Publishers), Viking, 1966.

Cotton Comes to Harlem, a highly successful comic detective novel of the Sixties, reflects [the ambience of] a genre that resists serious contemplation of human nature. The title suggests Himes's irreverent approach to his material. His black detective heroes descend from the tough and able detectives created by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Iris resembles the woman-as-temptress figure in a novel like The Maltese Falcon, but she manages to survive without being defeated by male authority figures…. Despite the comic mode with all its exaggeration, Cotton Comes to Harlem contains its own reading of a black woman who refuses to accept defeat and transcends the potentially crippling identity her situation invites. (p. 103)

Patricia Kane and Doris Y. Wilkinson, in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1974), Vol. XVI, No. 1, 1974.

For some reason I found it rather difficult to be moved by [The Quality of Hurt and Black on Black], and I suspect the reason is that the material in both cases is old hat. The one is the first part of an autobiography, and the other is a collection of short stories, essays, and one screenplay, all written between 1937 and 1969. Given the span of years covered by the latter, it is natural that it should be concerned mainly with the oppression of the black man in America. (There is something distressing in that assumption, but it seems to be the rule that black writers in America express themselves almost exclusively and predictably in a racial context.) But Himes has not managed any really original or really useful statement, and one can be excused for feeling some ennui in reading the same old racial banalities. This is not to say that there are not some flashes of humor in some of the stories. I think, for example, that "Cotton Gonna Kill Me Yet" is full of humor, but Himes too often tries to get serious. (p. 365)

More distressing is the visionary quality of Himes's political (or social) instincts as revealed in some of the pieces. "In the Night" is embarrassingly self-pitying in trying to make professional white radicals suffer for the "hurt" the white race has inflicted on the black man. "Now Is the Time" naively asks the...

(The entire section is 1,245 words.)