Chester Himes Himes, Chester (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Himes, Chester 1909–

Himes is a black American author of short stories and novels which are often violent, yet humorous. He has called his work "admittedly chauvinistic. You will conclude … that black protest and black heterosexuality are my chief obsessions. And you will be right." (See also, Chester Himes Criticism and CLC volumes 2, 4, 7, and 108.)

Edward Margolies

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Himes in [his detective fiction] sees Harlem as the intensification, the logical absurdity, the comic horror of the black experience in America. And not naturally, Himes draws on his own violent American years as being symptomatic of that experience. (p. 1)

What Himes seems to draw mainly from his American background—middle class, working class, lumpen lower class and criminal years—is that the one central fact of the black man's life in America is violence…. Himes, despite the slapstick and sometimes surreal quality of his work … speaks from the "inside". (p. 2)

[Himes' two black police detective heroes,] Grave Digger and Coffin Ed, tread their way through arabesques of venality, sin and corruption, official and otherwise, before they can get to the bottom of things. In the course of their investigations, they appear to take violence, cupidity, betrayals and brutality as norms of human behavior and they rarely delude themselves about the true nature of their jobs…. There exists, one feels, a peculiar sense of distance in [Himes' early potboilers], as if the author stands aside from his material and points to it with a long stick for the edification of his readers. Possibly it is this long range perspective, literary as well as literal, that allows Himes the freedom to laugh at the violence of his vision. For it is humor—resigned, bitter, earthy, slapstick, macabre—that protects author, readers and detectives from the gloom of omnipresent evil.

From one point of view Himes' humor derives from the pop, campy, pulp magazine character of his stories. What Himes does in effect is carry the dime detective format to its logical absurdity—the genre then becoming its own moral, metaphysical and social comment…. [For Himes, the significance of pulp fiction] lies in the...

(The entire section is 759 words.)

John M. Reilly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Chester Himes began writing Tough-Guy fiction in 1957,… and the most striking of his "new angles" is the fact that his stories take place almost entirely in Black America. The detectives, the setting, the themes, the plots, and the viewpoint are all Black. (p. 936)

In several ways Himes' nine Harlem novels constitute a cycle. Characters reappear, predominantly his two police detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, similar events occur, and incidents and persons in one novel are referred to in others. Fundamentally, however, the stories form a cycle because they are controlled by Himes' perception of Black American life, a perception that can be readily outlined by a brief examination of the works making up the cycle. (p. 937)

Details of character behavior in combination with the wild sequence of events convey Himes' essentially violent view of Harlem reality. Grave Digger and Coffin Ed are a basic part of the scene, using violence themselves to get information and to catalyze events. Their Tough behavior encourages the belief among Harlem's citizens that they would "shoot a man stone dead for not standing straight in line."… Whenever they want to control people they draw their long barreled nickel plated guns while Grave Digger shouts "straighten up!" and Coffin Ed adds "Count Off!" Their complicity in violence is undeniable, but their use of it contrasts with others' in that their purpose is to introduce order. From that perspective the organized underworld is not their problem, since it functions in a predictable fashion most of the time, but small time hoodlums and strangers working a con game disrupt people's lives excessively. In such circumstances morality is situational, and the Good often becomes a matter of choosing lesser evil, because the environment of Harlem determines people to live on an elemental level…. (p. 938)

Even though Harlemites prey on each other, their elementally violent life connects with life elsewhere. The fraud of the bill "raising" and other cons are images of capitalist business and a version of the American dream of quick riches. Likewise, physical murder is the overt complement of the social violence that maintains a cramped ghetto where human misery, denied a salutary assault upon its cause, turns in frustration upon the nearest vulnerable people. In conjunction with these points of theme Himes' prolific use of visually comic scenes becomes very serious business. Those scenes depend upon exaggerated action and unexpected slapstick, and with their violent content they appear to be almost sur-real. But they are in no way incongruous, for actual life in Harlem, as Himes describes it, has the significance of profound absurdity. (p. 939)

By the time of his third Harlem Tough-Guy novel, The Crazy Kill, Himes had his formulas well-established. An opening scene of violence rendered in predominantly visual terms depending upon the unexpected physical event, as in film comedy, involves a number of Harlem characters in a crime that is apparently inexplicable. The remainder of the novel then reveals the motives that explain the crime and relate the characters to each other. While the motives are often psychological in nature, they are intensified and complicated by their presence in residents of Harlem; therefore, they must be interpreted by Coffin Ed and Grave Digger who understand that the conditions of Black life give rise to unique social relationships. As they put it, people in Harlem do the same things other folk do—deceive, rob, and kill—but for different reasons and in different ways. (pp. 939-40)

Run Man Run, Himes' fourth Tough-Guy novel, omits Coffin Ed and Grave Digger from the cast of characters and transfers the crime to downtown New York, but despite that the story retains the characteristic viewpoint that links the novels in a cycle. In particular this novel underlines Himes' perception of the risky life led by Blacks in a white society. (p. 940)

Besides the tough guys themselves another notable omission in Run Man Run is the visual comedy. But Himes' intention cannot be taken as different on that count…. The story … takes place in the context of white society where the appearance of categorical reason is a chief value rather than in Black Harlem where unexpected slapstick physical action is the objective correlative of the disorder induced by racial oppression.

One of the intrinsic interests of Naturalistic fiction for the reader is the detail of workaday life. In Tough-Guy fiction the work is often illegal, and in Himes' contribution to the genre enormous ingenuity marks the big and little rackets that consume the energy of the characters. The Big Gold Dream, his fifth Tough-Guy novel, is especially full of such detail. (pp. 940-41)

The sixth Tough-Guy novel All Shot Up varies Himes' formula only with the introduction of a prominent national political figure into the cast of characters. There is an exploration of the Gay sub-culture and a series of complicated impersonations emphasizing the...

(The entire section is 2108 words.)

Stephen F. Milliken

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The bitter laugh of the dedicated satirist runs through much of Himes's work, but nowhere is there to be found the limpid moral certainty of the greatest satirists. And Himes's laughter is jubilant and gay as often as it is bitter.

His favorite subject was pain, and it screams in naked release on almost every page he has written, but justice, easily the most turgid and pompous of literary subjects, is invoked only slightly less often. (p. 4)

Himes's work is social, personal, symbolic, and frankly commercial. It is bleak tragedy, sophisticated parody, hearty folk humor, and storytelling for the sheer excitement of story itself. It operates on many levels, unleashing echoes from abysmal psychic depths, and the raffish charm of the huckster out to capture a popular audience, on his own terms. (p. 5)

Like Jesse Robinson [of The Primitive], Himes is determinedly "ungracious." If his humor does not always make his readers cry, it at least never fails to make them acutely uncomfortable, and he does routinely supply, for their further discomfort, "a vise of despair and bitterness." More important, he too rejected the narrow limitations he felt publishers tried to impose on the black writer, and their low horizon of expectations where black writers were concerned implied in their special use of the term protest. Like the stubbornly argumentative Jesse, Himes possessed the massive ego of the consciously talented and aspired to comparison with the greatest figures of Western literature. (p. 8)

The anger that Chester Himes's characters express is his own anger, and more often than not, it is aimed directly at the reader. Power, the shocking immediacy of personal confession, is purchased at the expense of aesthetic distance.

The black writer's "difficult" humor is also rooted directly in his special experience. This humor that merges in perfect harmony with the harshest and most despairing views of human life is closely related to a gut-level existentialism that the black man has no need to formulate in intellectual terms, an unshakable conviction that the world is indeed absurd based on a lifetime of absurd experience. (p. 11)

The Third Generation is perhaps Himes's least contrived work. It flows easily, irresistibly, organically, retracing the course of Himes's troubled childhood and youth, seemingly driven solely by its own internal forces, without apparent management or manipulation. The characters develop freely, moving toward fates that they must both invent and discover, and the novel is shaped by them….

His novel reduces the traumas generated within the black American community itself by the pressures of racism to the story of a single black family, rent by the conflict between a black-hating mother and a black-accepting father, and the sons caught in between—Himes's own story. (p. 139)

The characters of The Third Generation have a largeness of size that is without parallel in the rest of Chester Himes's fiction. They are creatures of epic, of romance, of allegory—and of life itself, remembered with love and anguish. (p. 140)

The novel's title, "The Third Generation," has, like almost all of Himes's titles, a hidden edge of irony. On the one hand, it refers to Charles and his brothers, the third generation from slavery, the grandsons of the freed slaves. But the novel's epigraph is a quotation from Exodus, "For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me."… Lillian's god, the chastiser of peoples, races, generations, is a very real presence in the novel. A kind of cosmic malevolence seems to stalk the Taylor family, inflicting crippling accidents upon them, blinding them to every possibility of tenderness, turning their loves to bitterness and hate. (pp. 144-45)

[Cast the First Stone] is the most selectively focused of Himes's three autobiographical novels. It explores one sharply defined segment of Himes's experience in great depth. (p. 159)

[In] making Jimmy Monroe white, Himes effected an even more drastic narrowing of scope. He eliminated the entire subject of racism, the central theme of his first two novels. It is the most radical change imaginable, a basic alteration in the nature of the reality portrayed. But racism is not an easy truth for an artist to handle. It is a lurid, obtrusive, noisy truth, usurping to itself all of the center stage. It distorts and obscures all lesser or subtler truths. The most obvious of these distortions—in evidence whenever a black writer accepts racism as his central subject—involves the depiction of white characters. In any account of a racist society seen from the victim's viewpoint, the white characters, as oppressors, are automatically reduced in stature, diminished, to the point that they appear scarcely human. (p. 160)


(The entire section is 2054 words.)

A. Robert Lee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Just as [his] earlier fiction was neither as solemn nor monotone as had casually been supposed so Himes's use of the thriller genre, ostensibly all pantomime and knock-about, could be seen to mask serious and long-held preoccupations. In changing from high to popular form Himes hadn't altered his basic sense of direction.

But if his themes have arguably been of a piece, Himes's overall achievement presents more difficult problems. His very best writing can give way to weaknesses of a quite blatant kind. He can sound clumsy, flat-footed, too strident. His style has often been uneven and the pressure of his own feelings has shown through. Yet within writing which exhibits all of these deficiencies, as...

(The entire section is 1350 words.)