Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

When Chester Himes’s first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, was published in 1945, it received only brief attention. Although the novel was considered the outstanding book on a black theme published that year, it was rejected as the winner of the twenty-five-thousand-dollar Doubleday Doran-George Washington Carver Memorial Award. Himes did, however, receive a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation, but from that point on, a bitter battle started between Himes and the publishing industry and continued until it became one of the major factors that caused him to expatriate from the United States.

The novel received mixed reviews, although many were positive. Many critics, however, compared the novel to Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) and found it lacking in power, depth, and subtlety. These critical objections were to follow him throughout his later novels written in America: objections to the melodramatic turns of plot, the bitter tone, the uneven behavior of the protagonist, and the general unpleasantness of the narrative.

Himes’s vision in this first novel results in a severe indictment of American society, and this vision placed him firmly in the mainstream of African American literature. Although he is generally categorized as one of the Wright School of Urban Realists, descendants of the early literary naturalists, Chester Himes possesses a wider range and depth than the protest genre allowed.