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Chester Himes recounts in his autobiography The Quality of Hurt the four years that he spent in Los Angeles during World War II. Discuss the parallels between his life there and Bob Jones’s life in If He Hollers Let Him Go.

Himes considered himself a radical African American writer....

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Chester Himes recounts in his autobiography The Quality of Hurt the four years that he spent in Los Angeles during World War II. Discuss the parallels between his life there and Bob Jones’s life in If He Hollers Let Him Go.

Himes considered himself a radical African American writer. What elements of radicalism can be found in his detective novels?

Discuss changes in literary style, character development, and societal attitudes in Himes’s novels once he had lived for a while in Europe.

Himes wrote many short stories. Speculate on why he has received little recognition as a short-story writer.

Why do critics consider Cotton Comes to Harlem the best of Himes’s detective stories?

Which of Himes’s novels are the most humorous? To whom or what is the humor directed? What literary purpose does the humor serve?

Other Literary Forms

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Chester Himes wrote many novels, including If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), newspaper articles, and two autobiographies. His crime novels set in Harlem were the first to bring him international fame.

Achievements

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Best known for the series of detective stories called the Harlem Domestic, Chester Himes wrote in many genres and with an impressive variety of techniques and themes. Because throughout his career, even after he had emigrated abroad, he confronted without flinching the wrenching effects of racism in the United States, he is sometimes categorized into the group of protest writers. What distinguishes him is his humor, often necessarily grotesque in the grimmest of circumstances.

Upon the publication of The Collected Stories of Chester Himes, a brief review in the magazine Essence recommended his stories, written over a forty-year span, because he showed African Americans to themselves as they really are, in all facets of their lives. Such relevance suggests that he captured an essence of African American life, one that is often tragic and violent, and also passionate, tender, sensual. He was awarded the Rosenwald Fellowship in 1944 and the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in 1958.

Other literary forms

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Chester Himes was primarily a writer of long fiction, but near the end of his life he published a revealing two-volume autobiography, which, if not wholly accurate about his life, nevertheless is engaging as a testament of survival of a black artist struggling to make his voice heard. Like many writers of his generation, Himes began publishing short fiction in the many periodicals of the time. As his life and career progressed—and the number of publishers declined—Himes worked less in the field. A posthumous collection of his short fiction was published in 1990. Finally, Himes also turned his hand to dramatic writing, both plays and film scripts, the most accessible of which is “Baby Sister,” which was published in his book of miscellaneous writings, Black on Black: “Baby Sister” and Selected Writings (1973).

Achievements

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As the title of a biography of Chester Himes suggests, Himes led several lives during the seventy-five years of his troublesome career. He was the youngest son in a rising African American family, who worked his way into the middle class only to fall back again. Himes learned the craft of writing as an inmate in the Ohio correctional system, and after his release from prison he was a writer of angry and violent protest novels, which earned him a reputation as one of the more celebrated black writers in the United States.

Beginning in the mid-1950’s, Himes expatriated and became a tangential member of the community of black artists, which included Richard Wright and James Baldwin, who fled American racism to settle in Europe during the period after World War II. In his later years, he wrote a two-volume autobiography and a series of masterful crime novels, the “Harlem domestic” books. The second of the series, The Real Cool Killers, won in 1958 the prestigious Grand Prix de la Littérature Policiére for best crime novel published in France. In all of his “lives,” Himes struggled to come to grips with the racist American society into which he was born and to realize his place in that society as a black man and as an artist.

From the publication of his first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, Himes confounded the critics, and they rarely understood his work. Was his fiction too violent or was it merely revealing the realities of American racism? Was Himes sexist or just reflecting the tensions inherent in a community where African American males were desperately searching for a sense of self? Did he compromise his art for the publishing world dominated by white editors when he wrote his Harlem domestic series, or were these hard-hitting yet more mainstream crime novels an extension of his more “artistic” but less popular protest novels? Was his autobiography merely a self-serving complaint against the slights against him or an uncompromising portrait of one black man’s struggle for survival?

Perhaps it is because of the contradictions of his life that Himes remains fascinating, and it is through the mixed, often confused, responses to his work that he achieved his measure of importance, not just as a black writer but as an American writer, one who captured something of the truth of America and of its literature.

Contribution

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In his novels featuring Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, Chester Himes not only gave American literature its first team of African American detectives but also impressively imposed on it a unique and memorable image of the social, cultural, racial, political, and economic dynamics of Harlem at the midpoint of the twentieth century. In a style that reveals an ever-increasing control of generic conventions (ending at the threshold of parody), Himes’s work gradually moves away from the tradition of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler to make a trenchant commentary on the nature of American society as viewed through the joys and fears of black Americans. Mixing grotesque violence, comic exaggeration, and absurdity (what he later chose to identify as the quintessential element of American life) in a fast-paced, highly cinematic narrative, Himes created a distinctive brand of regionalism in the detective genre.

Bibliography

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Cochran, David. “So Much Nonsense Must Make Sense: The Black Vision of Chester Himes.” The Midwest Quarterly 38 (Autumn, 1996): 1-30. Examines Himes’s creation of the hard-boiled cop figure as a reflection of his own experience in Harlem. Argues that he presents Harlem as the underside of American capitalism.

Crooks, Robert. “From the Far Side of the Urban Frontier: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes and Walter Mosley.” College Literature 22 (October, 1995): 68-90. Analyzes the emergence of African American detective fiction in the works of Walter Mosley and Chester Himes. Shows how Himes develops a strategy for disrupting the frontier narrative in a way that lays it bare.

Fabre, Michel, Robert E. Skinner, and Lester Sullivan, comps. Chester Himes: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. This is a comprehensive annotated bibliography of writings by and about Himes.

Himes, Chester. Conversations with Chester Himes. Edited by Michel Fabre and Robert Skinner. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995. This collection of interviews with Himes provides information about his life and work.

Lundquist, James. Chester Himes. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1976. An introductory volume to Himes’s life and works, with chapters on the war novels, confessional novels, and detective novels. The first chapter, “November, 1928,” describes the armed robbery for which Himes was arrested and subsequent arrest and trial, in detail. Chronology, notes, bibliography of primary and secondary sources, index.

Margolies, Edward. “Race and Sex : The Novels of Chester Himes.” In Native Sons: A Critical Study of Twentieth-Century Negro American Authors. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1968. A discussion of the major novels. The author sees Himes as considerably different from the group of protest writers following Richard Wright and believes that his European sojourn weakened his writings about the United States. Bibliography and index.

Margolies, Edward, and Michel Fabre. The Several Lives of Chester Himes. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997. This full-length biography of Himes is indispensable for information about his life.

Milliken, Stephen F. Chester Himes: A Critical Appraisal. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1976. Contains an excellent chapter, “Take a Giant Step,” on Himes’s short stories. This study includes sections on the protest, autobiographical and detective novels. Chronology, bibliography of primary sources, and annotated bibliography of secondary sources.

Muller, Gilbert. Chester Himes. Boston: Twayne, 1989. An excellent introduction to Himes’s life and works. Traces the evolution of Himes’s grotesque, revolutionary view of life in the United States for African Americans, in several literary modes, culminating in his detective fiction. Chronology, appendix, index, and annotated bibliographies of primary and secondary works.

Pepper, Andrew. The Contemporary American Crime Novel: Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Class. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. Devotes a chapter to Himes, Walter Mosley, and social-protest detective fiction. Bibliographic references and index.

Rosen, Steven J. “African American Anti-Semitism and Himes’s Lonely Crusade.” MELUS 20 (Summer, 1995): 47-68. Discusses an anti-Semitic streak that runs through Himes’s work alongside an anxiety to assert masculinity. Shows how Himes used Jewish characters or formulated Jewish traits as a foil to black American masculinity.

Rosenblatt, Roger. “The Hero Vanishes.” In Black Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974. Briefly compares Himes’s hero to Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940). Particularly interesting is the introduction, which provides a broad-ranging discussion of the relationship of black literature to American literature as a whole. Index, bibliography.

Sallis, James. Chester Himes: A Life. New York: Walker & Co., 2001.

Silet, Charles L. P., ed. The Critical Response to Chester Himes. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Compilation of essays reading Himes through the lens of various schools of literary criticism. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Skinner, Robert E. Two Guns from Harlem: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1989. Skinner’s study of Himes’s crime writing presents a comprehensive examination of his crime novels.

Soitos, Stephen. “Black Detective Fiction.” In Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, edited by Robin W. Winks and Maureen Corrigan. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1998.

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