Chester Himes

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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

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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 unconscious assumptions it makes about existence (violent), power (malevolent), and sex (eroticless), the full implications of which are announced in Himes' thrillers. That these assumptions conform more or less to Himes' view of the black experience suggests that his authorship of these thrillers is something more than expedient. The message is of course basically comic in the way Measure for Measure is comic; that is, Himes focuses on the venality of society and men's failings, baseness and depravity rather than their virtues. But comic in this sense does not necessarily mean funny, and it is the burlesquable aspects of the pulp thriller that give these books their particular bite….

Similarly Himes draws on the feverish violent action of pulp thrillers to announce grim jokes in the kind of grotesque slapstick one associates with Keystone Cops and animated cartoons…. (p. 5)

Some of Himes' humor is verbal, burlesquing old fashioned American shibboleths that pulp writers occasionally throw in as a sop to readers who may feel they have been wallowing too long in gore and sex…. Quite as often though Himes' humor reflects the hard cynical wit of the urban poor who know how to cheat and lie to the white world to survive physically, and cheat and lie to themselves to survive psychologically. (p. 6)

On occasion Himes' humor turns in on itself as if the suffocating squalor of Harlem has indeed pressed its inhabitants into molds of dehumanized darkies. From the darkened squares of tenement windows "… crescent-shaped whites of eyes and quarter moons of yellow...

(This entire section contains 759 words.)

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teeth bloomed like Halloween pumpkins." Himes even manages to draw some acid humor from his descriptions of the Harlem poor being fleeced by unscrupulous charlatans. (Some of the hustles he describes—especially those of "men of God"—are, in their own fashion, highly imaginative.) But generally Himes' portrayal of Harlemites lies somewhere between open-mouthed gullibility and tough minded sophistication. They usually possess bawdy, earthy, down home qualities mixed with a kind of urban hipness. (p. 7)

One cannot … be certain that Himes will be able to continue to pursue the humor of violent death…. For Himes, civilization has become so eroded that in … Blind Man With A Pistol, his detectives are unable to identify, let alone bring to heel, the true criminals…. Perhaps then this is Himes' last laugh. Who, after all, has ever heard of a detective novel where the detective could not find the killer? But if somewhere in Himes' consciousness there arises a phoenix of hope regarding the prospects of a just order, we may well yet be allowed to follow the continuing adventures of Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones in the Harlem lower depths. (pp. 8-9)

Edward Margolies, "The Thrillers of Chester Himes," in Studies in Black Literature (copyright 1970 by Raman K. Singh), Vol. 1, No. 2, Summer, 1970, pp. 1-11.

John M. Reilly

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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 dubiousness of reasonable order, but had Himes ended his Harlem cycle in 1960 with All Shot Up one might have thought he had lost interest in the Tough-Guy form. True, the possibilities for telling stories of people involved in fraud seem innumerable, but Himes has always been intensely concerned with conveying social themes and while the cumulative effect of the first six novels provides readers a strong commentary on the conditions of Harlem, the vehicle that carries those themes has become too formulaized…. The result of his continuation [with the cycle] has been the production of what are possibly the most interesting of his Harlem Tough-Guy stories…. [The] cause of their interest is their topicality. In a burst of social creativity Black Americans have built a liberation movement and invigorated a culture to carry its message. Himes could not fail to be affected by this, and in consequence his three most recent Tough-Guy novels have been devoted to commentary on issues of the sixties. (pp. 941-42)

Himes' characterization of his detectives [in The Heat's On] becomes fuller, because they are animated by broader moral convictions than in earlier novels. It's as if Ed and Digger had raised their intuitive loyalty to Black people and their commitment to order up to the level of a conception and begun to develop the general principles of their actions and commentary. (p. 942)

The events in [Cotton Comes to Harlem] are a projection of Himes' belief that Blacks must make their way in the culture in which they find themselves, that is to say, neither in Africa nor in the idealized past but in present-day Afro-America…. [In this novel both] the Back to Africa movement and the Back to the Southland chicanery are viewed by Coffin Ed and Grave Digger as frauds …, a social problem, as well as a police matter.

Satiric tone is the indicator of this view…. Comic physical scenes and irony in the earlier novels interpret, but they do not ridicule. In Cotton Comes to Harlem the pairing of a Back to Africa movement with a Back to the Southland movement makes it impossible to imagine a serious ideal behind the phoniness.

A further development in the character of Ed and Digger that accompanies Himes' introduction of specifically topical material is their appearance as appreciative commentators on Black culture. As defenders of Black people and interpreters of their ways, they have been appreciative of course, but in Cotton Comes to Harlem a reader begins to notice scenes with the purpose of involving Ed and Digger in Black cultural life. (pp. 942-43)

With the publication of his ninth Tough-Guy novel Blind Man With a Pistol Chester Himes fulfilled the internal logic of his Harlem cycle by bringing the American racial conflict that underlies each of the books into the story as the explicit principle of structure and theme. (p. 943)

[Blind Man with a Pistol contains Himes' fullest exploration of race politics.] The plot involves a collection of fools and charlatans offering the people of Harlem competing solutions to the "Negro Problem." (p. 944)

Himes' satiric description ridicules [their] non-revolutionary panaceas for American racism simply by describing them…. [Ed and Digger observe] that a younger generation of Blacks takes equality seriously whereas earlier generations, like their own, had been resigned to their condition. A talk with Michael X of the Black Muslims certifies this perception. The Muslims receive no ridicule from Himes or his detectives; they are genuinely committed to their people. So when Michael X says that what Whitey doesn't understand is "that there are Negroes who are not adapted to making white people feel good,"… it's an accurate analysis of the mood of the streets. (p. 945)

Himes tells a parable-like incident involving a blind man aggravated to try to kill at least one white man. Trapped as he is in blindness he shoots instead a Black minister who is admonishing the whites and Blacks to behave like brothers.

The parable relates to many other episodes in the Tough-Guy novels. The rapid sequence of unanticipated violence is on one level comic. On a more profound level the absurd actions are understandable consequences. Himes extends the significance of the parable further, though, by a brief preface to the novel in which he explains that an anecdote … about a blind man with a pistol made him think of "some of our loudmouthed leaders urging our vulnerable soul brothers on to getting themselves killed," and "further that all unorganized violence is like a blind man with a pistol."

The operative word in the preface is unorganized. The violence throughout Himes' Harlem cycle and the violence of riots is defensive. It has been forced upon Blacks. The Black community, after all, is where it takes place, and the instigation is clearly from the white community. In an interview with John A. Williams Himes makes clear his belief that a change to organized violence would be salutary:

It's just an absolute fact that if the blacks in America were to mount a revolution in force, with organized violence to the saturation point, that the entire black problem would be solved … So the point is that the white people are jiving the blacks in America … whites want the blacks to find a solution where the blacks will keep themselves in a secondary state.

In the light of these remarks Himes' Tough-Guy novels must be seen as an effort to describe necessity. Upon reflection one finds no reason for surprise at Himes' convictions about violent Black revolution. To resist the possibility that the books would be read for titillation (according to Williams this is Himes' favorite word to describe the usual white response to Blacks), he has included the full measure of the violence he perceives in America and tried to demonstrate that it is congenital. In the three most recent books he has become more explicit and increased the topicality, because like other Black Americans he grows justly impatient.

Perceiving the stories of the Harlem detectives as a cycle allows us to see that the commentary Himes intends in Blind Man With a Pistol is implicit throughout the cycle. Sometimes critics confuse a Naturalistic writer's credo with his technique and take his intention to describe things the way they really are, to him, as indication that his narrative will provide uncritical portrayal for its own sake. Truly, writers themselves will add to the confusion by their insistence upon their own dispassion or their bleak representation of helplessly determined characters, and it must be said that some of the earlier novels in the cycle independently appear to stress the detectives' coolness and the hopelessness of life in Harlem. Read as cycle, however, Himes' Tough-Guy novels demonstrate how every detail of Naturalistic writing can make an assertion. His descriptions of physical setting, the overcrowded decaying buildings, the rooms filled with the cast-off furnishings of white people or over-priced junk, and the paradoxical streets, emphasize the status of Harlem as an internal colony. The characters reduced to elemental living or channeling their virtues of loyalty and organization into a struggle for survival represent social relations determined by exclusion and oppression. The plots initiated by fraud or delusion and proceeding through a sequence of unanticipated violent events represent the experience of living in a contradictory world where, on the one hand the majority espouses equal social mobility, and on the other hand actually grants the power of self-determination according to the pattern of rigid castes. Together these essentials of his Tough-Guy novels add up to Chester Himes' assertion of the true nature, not just of Harlem but the entire American culture of which Black society is inextricably a part. (pp. 945-46)

John M. Reilly, "Chester Himes' Harlem Tough Guys," in Journal of Popular Culture (copyright © 1976 by Ray B. Browne), Vol. IX, No. 4, Spring, 1976, pp. 935-47.

Stephen F. Milliken

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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)

Although the narrative point of view in Cast the First Stone is first person, Himes, as usual, introduced a number of complex variations into the basic approach. Jimmy Monroe is both the narrator and the convict described, but the qualities that the first-person narrator unintentionally reveals in himself, the qualities implied by the narrative style itself, tend to differ slightly from the traits of character that are all too clearly implied by the recorded acts and statements of the young convict Jimmy Monroe. The single important trait that Jimmy Monroe's two avatars, narrator and protagonist, have in common is a confusing volatility. Both seem to be forever in a state of change. (p. 162)

The protagonist is too busy attempting to dodge the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, usually unsuccessfully, to betray any capacity for humor, but the narrator finds many subjects for dry, wry humor in the general prison scene, and even in various traits of the battered psyche of young Jimmy Monroe, his childlike vanity in particular…. (p. 163)

[The Primitive] is a very short novel, less than seventy thousand words, but it is as richly packed and complex a book as the sprawling Lonely Crusade. It is the most intricately patterned piece of fiction Himes ever produced. The narrative approach is officially third-person omniscient, but the anonymous, all-knowing narrator is far more than an expedient technical device, the most convenient way to bring a variety of facts before the reader…. The book is overflowing with "symbols"; the characters live surrounded by things, crowded on all sides by objects of every kind, objects that seem to exist solely for the sake of the resonances they create in the minds of the protagonists, their mysterious capacity to jar loose vagrant fragments of almost forgotten memories or to inspire vague premonitions of dread, a sense of malevolent forces at work beneath the surface of things. (pp. 184-85)

The characterization of Kriss in The Primitive is the most complete exposition [Himes] gave in his writing of his conviction that the hurts of the white woman are at least comparable to those of the black man, and that she endures a roughly similar, and equally pitiable, minority status…. Kriss epitomizes "the female condition," as Himes saw it, the unique quality of defeat a sadistic society has reserved for its women: "Not defeated like a man in battle, but like a woman who is defeated by her sex, by the outraged indignity of childbearing, menstrual periods, long hair and skirts." Kriss's minority status, the dues she has paid for a place in the foremost ranks of the outraged and insulted, is a prime factor in maintaining and insistently stressing the parallelism of the novel's two central characterizations. (p. 186)

In the novel's most patently surrealistic twist, the electronic pseudomiracle of a chimpanzee that talks is complemented by the authentic miracle of genuine, precise, detailed prophecy…. Himes's chatty and omniscient chimpanzee seems to have been created primarily to remind the reader, and perhaps the writer, that fictional worlds are at best only pale copies of an awesomely mysterious reality, and, again like Shakespeare's Fool, the chimpanzee, with his clear view through the fictional fabric to the greater outside, is totally unable to communicate with the other characters in the work, each one lost in his own private rut, surrounded by impenetrable walls. The chimpanzee is also, however, perhaps a bit too obviously, an element in Himes's satire of the highly "advanced" consumer culture that produced Kriss and all her lamentable sisters and stranded them in the meaningless void of a social order whose only positive value is material productivity. (pp. 188-89)

The Primitive is not an easy book to evaluate…. The book has evident faults—constant shifts in tone, an uncomfortable density of texture, a narrator who philosophizes, often gratuitously, and an organizational structure that is stiff and symmetrical to a point of obvious artificiality—but each of these, according to the reader's individual tastes, might equally well be regarded as virtues. The Primitive is, however, beyond question, the autobiographical novel in which Himes achieved the greatest degree of control over his material, perhaps because the events covered had hurt him less, marked him less profoundly, than the memories of childhood, adolescence, and prison he had dealt with in the two earlier novels. Himes did succeed, as he had not quite succeeded with Charles Taylor and Jimmy Monroe, in making Jesse Robinson a purely novelistic creation, an effective vehicle for the expression of his own deepest insights into the human condition in general. The Primitive is, of the three autobiographical novels, the least dependent on autobiographical interest. Its hold on the imagination is that of a novel, a product of the creative imagination, rather than that of an autobiography, a chronicle of facts, a simple act of self-revelation. Every reader is left free to find some aspect of the incredibly complex, multilayered Jesse Robinson, a compound of rage, despair, love, and hope, that he can personally identify with. (pp. 205-06)

The Quality of Hurt was a kind of summing up, a tying together of loose ends, more a casual "rap" about a few random segments of his past than a rigidly organized autobiography, primarily offering vivid sketches of the handful of characters and incidents important in his life that he had not already "used" in his three autobiographical novels. (p. 270)

Himes was determined to show that hurt, like mercy, has an almost inexhaustible variety of forms, all of which are rooted deep in the human heart. If mercy is a human quality that it behooves the race of masters to explore in depth—as Portia instructs her audience of Jew haters and unimaginatively legalistic bureaucrats—hurt is a quality that the oppressed, seldom through choice, invariably come to know in its full complexity. The autobiography of a talented man who is a member of an oppressed minority cannot help but be a valuable guide, a veritable textbook on the intricacies, the "quality," of this singularly unpleasant emotion. Himes was only too painfully aware that he was passing in review experiences and human relationships that had been damaged or destroyed, poisoned, embrued with a unique quality of hurt, by the racist pressures that had impinged at every point on his life. It is his unifying theme. (p. 272)

The ending of this passionate account of a passionate affair is singularly satisfying, both esthetically and emotionally, a kind of ending that life, and autobiographies, seldom afford. (p. 277)

Racism, the hurts it inflicts, and all the tangled hates, is the dominant subject of the literary works that Chester Himes actually did produce. He did not choose the subject. It was thrust upon him. He did not at first even choose the literary forms that he used. But he drove deeper into the subject than anyone ever had before. He recorded what happens to a man when his humanity is questioned, the rage that explodes within him, the doubts that follow, and the fears, and the awful temptation to yield, to embrace degradation…. [He] has produced, in the form of a long series of novels, both heavy and light, what was, arguably, the most complete and perfect statement of the nature of native American racism to be found in American literature, and one of the most profound statements about the nature of social oppression, and the rage and fear it generates in individuals, in all of modern literature. (pp. 306-07)

Stephen F. Milliken, in his Chester Himes: A Critical Appraisal (reprinted by permission of University of Missouri Press; copyright © 1976 by the Curators of the University of Missouri), University of Missouri Press, 1976, 312 p.

A. Robert Lee

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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 well as others, he has scored clear and attractive triumphs. (p. 100)

Himes's command of black argot and street idiom in the thrillers, in which some thought they heard traces of Hemingway and of Dashiell Hammett, together with the pace and sheer inventiveness of their violence, helped to establish a vision uniquely and utterly his own. Perhaps the violence, a pre-occupation which carries over from his earlier fiction, spoke directly to an age of assassination, black shoot-outs, riot, cities burnt and burning. Himes had turned to considerable imaginative profit his insights into the whole ecology of Harlem ghetto and underworld life: the soul talk, the dope, the food, the Jazz and Blues, the daily dramas of putting on the Man, the store-front prophets, the black crime perpetrated against other Blacks, the chippies and their pimps, the shysters of every type and sex. (pp. 102-03)

Himes's only other published novel, Une Affaire de Viol [A Case of Rape] (1963), remaindered immediately after publication (and now something of a collector's item), has never appeared in English, only in French translation. It has suffered almost total eclipse. A short and intriguing tale which views post-war Paris through a particularly caustic eye, it nevertheless lacks the general vitality of the Harlem scenarios—though more, one is bound to suspect, because of the slightly flat-sounding French of the translation than because of Himes's original style. (p. 104)

Une Affaire de Viol anticipates various of the formal hall-marks of Himes's thrillers—a crime wrongly construed, a syndrome of apparent black rape and arrest, the need to resift evidence, a cluster of contrasts in racial point of view—but Himes works these into a more seriously pitched effort than any of the Coffin Ed/Grave Digger volumes. The book takes the shape of a court transcript, fiction as written evidence or historical witness. In choosing this quasi-judicial or "detective" format, Himes moves easily between past and present, between a specific instance of racism now and the larger historical framework to which it belongs.

Though it perhaps promises more than it delivers, Une Affaire de Viol concerns two related kinds of disaffiliation, one that of the artist, the other racial…. Une Affaire de Viol thus tells a contemporary fable and acts as a theatre of racial memory. Garrison finds himself caught in a particularized racial web, and the larger web of America's racial past.

The human focus of Une Affaire de Viol falls upon the writers, painters, newsmen and intellectuals who, willingly or not, inherit custody of the image of the black American expatriate in Europe. The descendants of slaves are hosted uneasily by the descendants of old European slavers. Certainly, Himes displays few illusions in the novel about French racial enlightenment. Among other things, Une Affaire de Viol registers the guilty truce which allows selected black Americans, mainly jazzmen and writers, to fraternize with Paris intellectuals, but leaves unchecked French colonial racism and the exploitation of immigrant black and Arab workers…. Yet Himes refrains from turning his victims into simple models of virtue. He matches their frailties with those of their hosts. Just as it examines French racism, the novel dares to tackle black racism. If guiltless of murder, Himes's four expatriates aren't free of other taints. (pp. 105-06)

Black on Black (1973), makes available in one binding nineteen of Himes's stories written between 1937 and 1969, four of his angry war-time essays, and the scenario he wrote for a film montage on Harlem, "Baby Sister," which his French admirers not unfairly called "Greek Tragedy."… (p. 107)

Though funny, and in parts as quick-witted and surreal as the thrillers, "Baby Sister" tells essentially a black city lament over spoilt life…. The whole moves to a lively pace, stage cartoon almost, in the manner of Brecht's Arturo Ui. "Baby Sister" again shows Himes's authority in capturing the spirit of Harlem life: the tinsel amid the poverty, the contrary styles of a people crowded into an urban box.

The piece enacts the fall of a dynasty. The Louis family isn't a house brought down in classical Troy, however, or the Verona of Romeo and Juliet, but deep inside the city heat of black Manhattan. The route to collapse is firmly sign-posted: in Himes's racially-crossed lovers, the hints of destructive incest, the family's increasing failure to hold together and in the ritual shoot-outs with white cops. Similarly, "Baby Sister" offers not so much Homeric catalogues of high chivalric arms and errantry, but Harlem's own distinctive iconography, that of vice, poverty, switch-blades, guns, dilapidated houses, numbers, black matrons and street brothers, the Apollo Theatre and shiny big cars. (pp. 107-08)

[Like] the thrillers, "Baby Sister" amounts to far more than a few vivid pages of black spectacle. Himes blends into his "down-home" folk idiom just the right dash of kitsch to suggest the glittery vulnerability of his heroine and all she represents. "Baby Sister" tells a sermon and enacts a comedy of racial error….

If "Baby Sister" tells one version of Himes's comédie humaine, the short stories add considerably to the canvas. Given the thirty-year span of his selection, Himes might have been working to a single refrain, the old blues line he cites in his Foreword, "What did I do to be so black and blue?" Despite lapses, and some heavy-footedness in developing his ironies, Himes has kept his style muscular, trim, clear for the most part of unnecessary freight. (p. 108)

With the publication of his two-volume autobiography, The Quality of Hurt (1972) and My Life Of Absurdity (1976), Himes has made a formidable attempt to tell his contrary history. And he tells, rather than builds a disciplined interpretation, of his life. Together, the volumes add up to a retrospect more than a thousand pages long. Both titles, the first with its adaptation of Shakespeare's "The quality of mercy …," call attention to traits he believes decisive in his life. The prose remains in fine order, fluent, as closely particular as ever, the instrument of a writer whose vision, in all its contrary imaginings of violence and absurdity, has basically always been serious. (p. 109)

Two observations in particular mark out [The Quality of Hurt]. In the first, Himes offers his stand as a writer…. The other, a run of insights made while describing the circumstances in which he wrote The Primitive, gives further measure of Himes's intense personal contrariness, and also something of his estimate of what blackness in America has meant. (p. 110)

My Life Of Absurdity continues the momentum: the moves back and forth between Europe and America, the Paris café circles once more…. Himes hasn't written a life which comes to any final point of order. Perhaps he finds that impossible. "No American," he says, "has ever lived a life more absurd than mine." His comments on blackness and the ways of expatriation, as well on the writer's craft and psychology, work more as counterpoint to the adventures of being Chester Himes than self-diagnosis…. That Himes remains, by all accounts, his own included, cantankerous, easily angered, as hard on black brothers as white Americans and Europeans, in all as contrary as ever, doesn't make a final assessment, even if that were desirable, any easier.

Himes has pursued his craft against hurt, absurdity, indirections of every sort and price, on the move and at rest. (p. 111)

A. Robert Lee, "Hurts, Absurdities and Violence: The Contrary Dimensions of Chester Himes," in Journal of American Studies (© Cambridge University Press 1978), Vol. 12, No. 1, April, 1978, pp. 99-114.


Himes, Chester (Vol. 108)


Himes, Chester (Vol. 2)