Chester Himes 1909–1984
(Born Chester Bonar Himes) American novelist, short story writer, autobiographer, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Himes's career. See also, Chester Himes Criticism and CLC volumes 2, 4, 7 and 18.
Himes was misunderstood or ignored by American reviewers during the time he wrote, and he consequently fled to Europe to seek the acceptance he failed to receive in his own country. Critics are only recently discovering the value of Himes's work and the significance of his contribution to American literature. Originally tagged as a protest writer, Himes overcame the label by tackling an unexpected genre, the detective novel. Although some considered writing in such a popular medium to be selling out, Himes overcame the criticism by infusing his crime novels with the same powerful themes and insights as his more politically oriented work. At the end of his prolific career, Himes turned to the autobiography to put his political and social observations about the absurdity of racism and race relations in a personal context.
Himes was born on July 29, 1909, in Jefferson City, Missouri. His mother came from a middle-class background and had only one black grandparent. Her ancestors were house slaves and white slave owners. His father, on the other hand, was a very dark man whose ancestors had been field slaves. His father worked as a professor of mechanical arts at several black colleges in the Midwest and the South. The intraracial differences caused tension in his parents' marriage and became the basis of his semiautobiographical novel The Third Generation (1954). Himes had a middle-class upbringing marred by tragedy: his older brother was blinded in an accident at school, and the emotional and financial costs put a strain on the family. He himself was hurt in an elevator accident while working in a Cleveland hotel. The injury caused him back trouble for the rest of his life. Himes attended Ohio State University, but was expelled after bringing a group of students to a party at a whorehouse. He returned to his family's home in Cleveland, where he became involved in a criminal lifestyle. He was arrested three times, once for his involvement in a robbery of guns and once for passing bad checks. Both of those convictions resulted in suspended sentences. His third arrest in 1929, for robbing a rich, white couple in their home, resulted in jail time. He was sentenced to twenty to twenty-five years in the Ohio State Penitentiary, and served seven and a half years. Himes first began writing during his time in prison. He published his first stories in African-American periodicals like Crisis and Abbott's Monthly, but his breakthrough came when Esquire published his "Crazy in the Stir" and "To What Red Hell." After getting out of prison, Himes married his first wife, Jean Johnson, an African-American woman whom he had known in Cleveland. After his parole was terminated in the late-1930s, Himes and his wife moved to California where he worked a series of jobs as an unskilled laborer. His first two novels are set in Los Angeles during this time period. From 1947 to 1953 Himes lived in New York City working another series of low-paying jobs. He became disillusioned at the racism and lack of opportunities in America, and at the cold reception he was receiving from American critics. His marriage dissolved and he decided to settle in Paris in 1953, with other African-American expatriates including Richard Wright. He became involved in a series of affairs with white women, finally marrying Lesley Packard, an Anglo-Irish woman. Himes then wrote two more novels focusing on his experiences in America, The Third Generation and The Primitive (1955). In 1956, Marcel Duhamel, the creator of the popular Serie Noire series of crime novels, approached Himes about writing a detective novel set in Harlem. The result was For Love of Imabelle (1957). Himes's crime novels became best sellers in France, and in 1958 he was awarded the Grand Prix de la littérature policière for For Love of Imabelle. Himes suffered strokes in 1963 and 1964, which spurred him on to record the events of his life. He moved to Spain in 1969 and began to work on his autobiography. The result was a two volume work: The Quality of Hurt (1972) and My Life of Absurdity (1977). Himes left an unfinished manuscript which was published posthumously as Plan B (1983).
Himes's career had three phases: his earlier short stories and what has been termed his protest novels; his detective fiction; and his autobiography. Himes's If He Hollers, Let Him Go (1945) tells the story of Bob Jones, a foreman in a shipyard in Los Angeles. Jones is the victim of racism. He is demoted from a position for which he is overqualified to make room for a white man, and he barely escapes lynching when a white woman lures him into a room and accuses him of rape. Himes's Lonely Crusade (1947) is set in 1943 and follows the efforts of Lee Gordon to organize local workers into a union. His efforts are thwarted by the corporation and by Communist forces which have infiltrated the union for their own purposes. Cast the First Stone (1952) is another of Himes's semi-autobiographical novels. The main character, Jim Monroe, is a white man, but seems to represent Himes as is evidenced by their similarities: both attended college, suffered a serious back injury, and were sentenced to 25 years for armed robbery. The novel focuses on the growth that Monroe experiences while in prison, and is notable for its direct treatment of homosexual relationships in prison. The Third Generation is about Charles Taylor, the third son of a third generation African-American family. The novel focuses on intraracial conflict resulting from color differences rather than interracial relations. Professor Taylor, Charles's father, comes from a fieldhand ancestry, and Lillian, his mother, has descended from servants. There is some white ancestry in Lillian's family, but she exaggerates her white heritage and looks down on her husband for his blackness. The novel traces the effects that the Taylors' marital troubles and Lillian's unusual obsession with her son have on Charles. The Primitive was Himes's last semi-autobiographical novel. It tells the story of Jesse Robinson, a struggling African-American novelist who becomes involved in an interracial relationship with a white socialite. The novel traces the stereotypes and tensions which drive such relationships to failure. For Love of Imabelle was the first in his detective series set in a fictional Harlem that was based on the Cleveland of Himes's youth. All of Himes's detective fiction had similar elements, including the recurring characters Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. Unlike their white prototypes, Himes's detectives get hurt for real and the violence portrayed is vivid. Their role in the novels is to mediate between the white world of law enforcement and the African-American community of Harlem. As a result, they are left alienated from both worlds. The detectives' position slowly degenerates throughout the novels until they are prohibited from doing their jobs by the white detectives and their authority is threatened by a Harlem mob in the last book of the series, Blind Man with a Pistol (1969). Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson meet their demise in the novel Plan B, which Himes left incomplete and was published after his death. In his two-volume autobiography, Himes returned to his examination of American racism on his life. Only instead of filtering his observations through the medium of fiction, Himes wrote about the actual events of his life. He traces the effects of Jim Crowe laws and racism on his life, and the absurdity of his situation. The first volume, The Quality of Hurt, covers his life from birth to his departure for Europe. My Life of Absurdity details his experiences in Europe.
Critics have only recently begun to give serious attention to Himes's work. His first novel If He Hollers Let Him Go received positive critical response, but Lonely Crusade was vilified in America. Common complaints with Lonely Crusade included that it was filled with hate, anti-Semitism, and smut. In France, however, Lonely Crusade was extremely popular, as was his detective series. Most critics see a distinct difference in what they term Himes's "serious" writing (his early novels and his autobiography) and his "popular" novels (his detective fiction), but Nora M. Alter disagrees. She asserts that, "despite the superficial genre change … a clear continuity can be seen in all of Himes's writing. His detective fiction does not break with his earlier politically committed works; rather, it channels the same protest in another form." As critics are beginning to re-evaluate the value of Himes's work, several positive assessments have emerged, including Himes's use of dialect and his ability to display complex interior emotions. James A. Miller says that "Himes's rendition of black vernacular is one of the best in the business." One of the most interesting comments about Himes's talent, given the sometimes dark and violent subject matter of his fiction, is his use of humor and satire. Himes's Plan B is generally considered inferior to his other work, and most reviewers posit that the novel is too incomplete to have been published.