Until The Collected Stories of Chester Himes was published, Himes’s writings in this genre were largely unknown and difficult to find. Thus, his achievements in this field suffered the kind of neglect that plagued Himes throughout most of his life. It is difficult to account for this neglect. The market for the short story peaked in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and as his stories were picked up by leading magazines, he would seem a prime candidate for anthologizing and collecting. Yet he gained less exposure than most writers of the period, many of whom are still celebrated for limited production. Himes published thirty-four major stories between 1934 and 1948, but he was ignored. In comparison, J. D. Salinger had gained a national reputation by 1953 on the basis of nine stories.
The easy explanation for this disregard would be to conclude that it was racially motivated. Yet many other black writers found print during this time, and some, such as Countée Cullen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Gwendolyn Brooks, had national followings. Himes, of course, was sometimes strident, but he was certainly not alone in this. Still, the short story has been a form for which black writers in general have achieved little recognition, even during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s and the Black Power movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Even after Himes’s detective novels gained wide circulation, his stories remained unappreciated.
His distinctive qualities, however, appear from the beginning. “To What Red Hell” re-creates the scene of a prison fire so vividly that the reader almost feels the heat and certainly feels the panic of the trapped convicts and the desperation of those trying to rescue them. Himes reproduces the situation so apparently effortlessly that it is easy to overlook the degree of skill involved. Himes also refuses to flinch in the face of unsettling details. No one who reads this story will be able to forget the revulsion of the central character for the dead and dying, his inability to control his fear-ridden reactions to the unforeseen, or his instinctive release of petty prejudices even while reacting to emergency.
Other vivid prison and crime stories appeared in Esquire, including “The Visiting Hour” (1936), “Every Opportunity” (1937), “The Night’s for Crying” (1937), and “The Something in a Colored Man” (1943). “Headwaiter” (1937), first published in Opportunity, explores the necessarily repressed feelings of a black headwaiter who is forced to defer to an exclusively white clientele while overseeing an equally exclusively black waiting staff. In “Face in the Moonlight” (published in Coronet in 1941), Himes reproduces the awake-at-night reflections of an inmate, carrying off the neat trick of not revealing his race while including racist aspects of his thought patterns.
With the outbreak of World War II, Himes turned occasionally to depicting the democratizing effects of combat even while acknowledging the ineradicability of...
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