If He Hollers Let Him Go was a commercial failure and drew a mixed response from critics. The critical reception was in marked contrast to that given to Richard Wright’s Native Son, published only five years earlier. Though Native Son, too, was by a black author and explored sensitive racial themes, it drew a surprisingly large readership and was widely applauded.
The reasons for the tepid response to Himes’s novel are unclear. To be sure, If He Hollers Let Him Go is far from flawless. The book seems contrived at times, and Himes sometimes repeats himself and belabors certain themes. On the other hand, Himes displays extraordinary narrative powers and clearly covers ground that Wright and other black authors had yet to explore. The explanation may lie in a combination of factors. Himes’s novel is more difficult to categorize than Wright’s; while Native Son is unabashedly violent and tragic, If He Hollers Let Him Go manages to end ambiguously—indeed, the ending is anticlimactic. Moreover, Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Native Son, is a kind of primitive innocent, highly identifiable by his dialect and lack of sophistication. Bob Jones, on the other hand, is very like the first-person narrators of contemporary “hardboiled” literature by such white authors as Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson.
The timing of the novel’s publication may also have worked against Himes....
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