Chester Himes Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

ph_0111207087-Himes.jpg Chester Himes. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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...

(The entire section is 401 words.)


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

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.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 658 words.)