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Himes, Chester 1909–1984

Chester Himes 19091984

Writer

At a Glance

Published From Prison

Found Critical Success Abroad

Movies Brought Fame

Selected writings

Sources

Best known as the creator of the fictional black detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, writer Chester Himes created a memorable body of work that vividly captured as well as satirized the life of blacks in a racist society. In the Western Humanities Review, James Sallis called Himes among Americas most powerful and original novelists and a marvelous observer and prodigious inventor. Virtually all of Himess writings addressed the problems of racism in American society and their consequences in human terms. Although often graphically violent and populated with unsavory characters, his novels were also filled with both dark and light-hearted humor, and his detective stories featured sequences of ingenious suspense.

The full range of black issues in the United States were addressed in Himess work, from Back-to-Africa and Back-to-the-South movements to the particular type of violence that blacks wield on each other in the nations ghettos. Himes used his fiction to condemn all role players in racism, including middle-class blacks who try to be more white to get ahead in white society and white liberals who felt guilty for having a racial advantage. He lamented the fact that many stories about blacks were vehicles for tawdry entertainment. According to the Nation, Himes said, Thats one of the saddest parts about the black man in Americathat he is being used to titillate the emotions of the white community. He went on to say that I want these people to take me seriously. I dont care if they think Im a barbarian, a savage, or what they think; just think Im a serious savage.

Himes held out little hope for the black man in a society where whites refused to accept him as an equal. This sense of futility is demonstrated in shocking fashion in one of his early short stories about a black man who has his feet soaked in gasoline and set ablaze because he didnt step off the sidewalk to let a white couple go by him. Later in the story this man is chastised because he wont stand up for the playing of the national anthem, even though it is obvious he has no feet. This juxtaposition of a patriotic symbol with a senseless humiliation of a black was no accident, and it was vintage Himes.

Himes was no stranger to the type of violence that filled his novels. As a young man he was a petty criminal, hustler, and gambler. He was raised in a middle-class family in Cleveland, where his father was a college instructor until he appeared to have lost his motivation and drifted into work as a roofer in his later years. His mother, Anna Bomar Himes, was obsessive in

At a Glance

Born Chester Hîmes, July 29, 1909, in Jefferson City, MO; died November 12, 1984, in Moraira, Spain; son of Joseph Sandy (a teacher) and Estelle (a teacher; maiden name, Bomar) Himes; married Jean Lucinda Johnson, August 13, 1937 (divorced); married Lesley Himes. Education: Attended Ohio State University, 1926-28.

Writer; worked as bellhop, day laborer, small-time hustler, gambler, and criminal; convicted and imprisoned for armed robbery, 1928 (released, 1935); joined Works Progress Administration (WPA) writers project, 1935; worked in shipyards and for aircraft companies in Los Angeles and San Francisco through World War II; moved to France, 1953; made film in Harlem for French television, 1967.

Awards: Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in creative writing, 1944-45; Grand Prix Policier (France), 1958.

her love and acutely aware of the color of her skin. She favored her son Chester for his light skin, and attempted to make him more white by brushing and oiling of his hair to straighten it. Anna Himes was particularly outraged when dark-skinned blacks inflicted her with what she considered racial slights. This attitude was transferred to her dark-skinned husband as well, whom she seemed to loathe. Himes would later draw on these undercurrents of tension in his Harlem novels, which portrayed sexist sadism and the effects of a pathological self-hatred caused by racism.

Published From Prison

Himes attended Ohio State University for almost two years before he was asked to leave for his involvement in a fight in a local speakeasy. Leaving college, he worked at odd jobs and soon became a heavy drinker. He had numerous run-ins with the police, receiving two suspended sentences for burglary and passing bad checks. After getting caught for armed robbery of over $50,000 at the age of 19, he was sentenced to 20 years hard labor in the Ohio State Penitentiary. While incarcerated, Himes began to write numerous stories about crime and prison life. He submitted some of them to black newspapers and magazines, finding almost immediate success. His first stories were published in the Atlanta World, Pittsburgh Courier, and Abbotts Monthly. Six of his stories were also printed in Esquire, starting in 1934, with Crazy in the Stir, which Himes signed only with his prison number.

Despite his initial writing successes, Himes had difficulty interesting a publisher in his work after he was paroled from prison in 1935. With jobs scarce during the Depression, he was forced to take a job with the WPA writers project, a New Deal government employment program. He wrote a history of the city of Cleveland, but the work was never published. Himes joined the great migration of blacks west during World War II, and ended up working in the shipyards and at aircraft companies in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Himes continued to write actively during this period, producing novels that were heavily naturalistic and demonstrated the hopelessness of rising above an environment circumscribed by racism. Often Himes made this point by pummeling the reader with a parade of victimizers and victims who live where law and order were corrupted by the very violence they were meant to contain.

Art imitated life in Himess novel 7/ He Hollers Let Him Go, which was set in the type of shipyard where he worked. The protagonist of the novel clearly states Himess opinion of the black mans status in America: If I couldnt live in America as an equal in the minds, hearts, and souls of all white people, if I couldnt know that I had a chance to do anything any other American could, to go as high as American citizenship would carry anybody, thered never be anything in the country for me anyway. In 1947 he published Lonely Crusade, the story of a black union organizer whose marriage falls apart and who seeks solace with a white mistress who makes his life even worse.

Himess novels in the 1940s were not well received. The response embittered him, and he became even more distraught over his failing marriage. Writing about this low point in the first volume of his two-volume autobiography, The Quality of Hurt, Himes said, I had convinced myself I was a failure as a writer, and poverty and loneliness and our enforced separation had convinced me I was a failure as a husband. Himes attempted to justify his artistic stance during a speech at the University of Chicago in 1948.

Addressing a primarily white audience, Himes said that any legitimate investigations of the black American psyche would have to acknowledge the rot at its core. He claimed that If this plumbing for the truth reveals within the Negro personality homicidal mania, lust for white women, a pathetic sense of inferiority, paradoxical anti-Semitism, arrogance, Uncle Tomism, hate and fear and self-hate, this then is the effects of oppression on the human personality. These are the daily horrors, the daily realities, the daily experiences of an oppressed minority. Apparently whites were not ready to hear this type of talk, because Himess declaration was met by hushed silence.

Found Critical Success Abroad

Depression about his personal life and doubts about his ability as a writer led Himes to excessive drinking during the late 1940s and early 1950s. He worked in menial jobs, and had an affair with an unstable white woman of the New York City literary circle. Two novels written during these years had no impact on his fading reputation. Then, like the black novelist Richard Wright in earlier years, he fled the country in 1953, for France and discovered that the French had a high regard for his work. While there, he was urged by his French publisher, Marcel Duhamel, to write detective fiction stories based in Harlem to generate some sales. Himes obliged by penning For Love of Imabelle, which was later published in the United States as A Rage in Harlem. The French critics loved it, and the work earned Himes the 1958 Grand Prix Policier.

A Rage in Harlem introduced two of Himes most memorable characters, the hard-boiled black detective duo of Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, who would appear in a series of novels. This duo represented a breed of policeman never before seen in fiction. They embodied a new strain of survival instinct for the urban environment that allowed them to sidestep standard police procedure and use their guns and fists to cut through red tape. As Fred Pfeil wrote in the Nation, Grave Digger and Coffin Ed are in fact not so much crime-solvers as priests of violence; the swirling, brutal action over which they preside and to which they contribute is a voodoo celebration of black America, a black mass indeed.

Frightening and intriguing at the same time, Grave Digger and Coffin Ed forage for criminals in a hostile environment of drug addicts, dealers, prostitutes, and pimps. They make their own rules of law as they go along, and are not averse to beating people senseless and making deals with known criminals for expediencys sake. This twosome reflected Himess view of a racist society, by displaying the realistic sense to know that little of what they do will have much effect on anything.

As Grave Digger says in one novel, Weve got the highest crime rate on earth among the colored people in Harlem. And there aint but three things to do about it: make the criminals pay for ityou dont want to do that; pay the people enough to live decentlyyou aint going to do that; so all thats left is let em eat one another up. The viewpoint of this protagonist reverberates through Himess many depictions of violence inflicted on blacks by blacks. As Sallis wrote, And just as Himes had discovered in his mythical Harlem a correlative for the absurdity of the urban blacks life, so he found a metaphor for the mindless ubiquity of violence against and within those same people.

Despite his popularity with the French, Himes found no such acceptance from American critics. They regarded the Harlem novels as potboilers and thought that Himes had sold out his talent by writing them. Because they were a mixed breed of writing, these novels also had a difficult time finding an audience. They failed to attract the interest of standard readers of detective fiction who demanded carefully constructed plots and resolutions. At the same time, more literate readers tended to dismiss this type of writing altogether as pulp fiction.

As time went on, the Harlem novels deviated even further from the formula of detective stories as Himes focused more on the setting than the action. His characters became more grotesque, absurdities proliferated, and crimes remained hazy or unsolved. However, Himes felt he was making an important pointthat corruption in a world defined by racism is so far gone that no force can purify it. As he wrote in My Life of Absurdity, Realism and absurdity are so similar in the lives of American blacks one can not tell the difference.

Movies Brought Fame

Himes achieved his greatest fame in the United States in 1965 with Pinktoes, a satire of black-white relations, and in 1970, when the popular movie Cotton Comes to Harlem, based on his novel of the same name, was released. During the late 1960s and onward Himes injected more comedy into his work, although the violence remained as well. In The Quality of Hurt, published in 1972, he willingly blamed himself for the crimes of his youth and the harm he did to his family. The memoir was a stark account of a life toughened by tragedy, recounting everything from having seen his brother blinded in an accident that he may have been able to stop to the critical rejection of his work he endured for many years.

Despite years of setbacks and rejection that could have ended his writing aspirations, Chester Himes somehow kept the words coming and eventually achieved a certain level of fame. However, he never felt at home in the United States and avoided his native land for the last twenty years of his life. Himes lived in Moraira, Spain, for the last 15 years of his life, and he died there on November 12, 1984. While many critics dismissed his writing in the past, the works of Himes have aged well and today are largely thought to be an important contribution to American literature. As Sallis wrote, the Harlem novels are a singular achievement. There is nothing else like them in our literature, and their author rightly deserves the same approbation given another American original, Raymond Chandler.

Selected writings

Fiction

If He Hollers Let Him Go, 1945.

Lonely Crusade, 1947.

Cast the First Stone, 1952.

The Third Generation, 1954.

The Primitive, 1955.

Pinktoes, 1961.

A Rage in Harlem, 1965.

Cotton Comes to Harlem, 1965.

Baby Sisters and Selected Writings (stories), 1973.

Other

The Autobiography of Chester Himes, Volume I: The Quality of Hurt, 1972; Volume II: My Life of Absurdity, 1976.

Sources

Books

Lundquist, James, Chester Himes, Ungar, 1976.

Milliken, Stephen F., Chester Himes, University of Missouri Press, 1976.

Wilson, M. L., Chester Himes, Chelsea House, 1988.

Periodicals

Armchair Detective, Vol. 15, 1982, pp. 38-43.

Nation, November 15, 1986, pp. 523-25.

New York Review of Books, January 16, 1992, p. 8.

New York Times, November 14, 1984, p. A26.

New York Times Book Review, January 18, 1987, p. 34; October 31, 1993, p. 40.

Sociocriticism, 1986-1987, pp. 143-57.

Western Humanities Review, Autumn 1983, pp. 191-206.

Ed Decker

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Chester Bomar Himes

Chester Bomar Himes

His reputation rests largely on his detective novels, which in their own right rank with the best noir fiction, but Chester Himes (1909-1984) was hardly a man to be pigeonholed. In his lifetime he published 17 novels, more than 60 short stories, and 2 volumes of autobiography in which he detailed the pain of being an African American writer in the twentieth century.

Named for his maternal grandfather, Chester Bomar Himes was born on July 29, 1909, in Jefferson City, Missouri, the youngest son of Joseph Sandy and Estelle Bomar Himes. Himes's father was head of the mechanical department at Lincoln Institute, where he taught blacksmithing and wheelwrighting; his mother was formerly on the faculty of Georgia State College, teaching English composition and music. The Himes family led a nomadic life during Himes's early years. In 1914 they moved to Cleveland following his father's resignation from Lincoln Institute. Their stay there was brief as Himes's father accepted a position on the faculty of Alcorn College in Lorman, Mississippi. Tension between Himes's parents— attributed to his father's humble status and his mother's attempts at social climbing—soon caused a riff. Estelle Himes accepted an offer to teach in South Carolina and she took Chester and his middle brother, Joseph, Jr. However, less than a month later Estelle relocated again, this time to Augusta, Georgia. She taught music at the Haines Normal and Industrial School, which both her sons attended.

At the end of the school year the family was reunited, with the exception of the eldest son, Edward, who left home to attend Atlanta University and eventually made his way to New York. Himes's father took a position at the Branch Normal School in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, while his mother taught in local public schools. In June 1923 an accident during a chemistry demonstration on gunpowder left Joseph, Jr. blind, and Chester, who was forbidden to take part in the demonstration because of misbehavior, was despondent over his brother's injury. The family moved to St. Louis shortly thereafter, but by 1925 they were back in Cleveland.

In 1926 Himes graduated from Glenville High School in Cleveland. He planned on attending Ohio State University, and in order to earn money he worked as a busboy at the Wade Park Manor Hotel. While on the job Himes was seriously injured after he fell down an elevator shaft. The hotel was found liable and Himes was awarded a monthly disability payment. He enrolled at Ohio State but left in 1927 because of poor grades and bad health. Himes thereupon returned to Cleveland and began working as a bellhop in the Gilsey Hotel. Attracted by the seamier side of Cleveland, he began carrying a gun and hanging out at a bar and gambling club called Bunch Boy's, where he dealt blackjack. Himes soon found himself in trouble with the law. His first arrest, for passing bad checks, ended with a two-year suspended sentence, plus a five-year parole. His second arrest was far more serious: the armed robbery of an elderly couple. In December 1928 Himes was sentenced to 20 to 25 years' hard labor. He served time in the Ohio State Penitentiary from December 27, 1928. until September 21, 1934, when he was transferred to a work farm; he was paroled into his mother's custody on April 1, 1936.

In The Quality of Hurt, the first volume of his autobiography, Himes wrote, "I grew to manhood in the Ohio State Penitentiary. I was nineteen years old when I went in and twenty-six years old when I came out. I became a man dependent on no one but myself. I learned all the behavior patterns necessary for survival. … I survived, I suppose, because I knew how to gamble." Himes admitted that his explosive rage also served as a shield in prison, as did his education. It was in prison that Himes began to write, and his first stories naturally dealt with crime and criminals. "Crazy in the Stir," "To What Red Hell" (based on an infamous prison fire at the Ohio State Penitentiary), "The Visiting Hour," "Every Opportunity," "The Night's for Crying," "Strictly Business," and other stories appeared in various newspapers and magazines, including Coronet and Esquire. This early success bolstered Himes's confidence, and upon his release he began working on a prison novel, originally titled Black Sheep. On August 13, 1937, he married Jean Lucinda Johnson, whom he had lived with before his incarceration.

The Great Depression came upon the United States during Himes's prison term and, ironically, Himes was spared its harshest years. The Works Project Administration (WPA) was one of the New Deal programs designed to kick-start the economy, and in 1937 he went to work for the WPA, at first as a laborer and then a research assistant for the Cleveland Public Library. By 1938 Himes was working for the WPA's Federal Writers' Project, assigned to write a history of the state of Ohio and later a guide to Cleveland. In retrospect Himes considered this one of the happier periods in his life, both personally and professionally. Himes was even writing a column (though unsigned) for the Cleveland Daily News titled, "This Cleveland." In March 1940 he successfully petitioned Ohio Governor Harold Burton for termination of his parole and restoration of his citizenship. Himes afterward joined the Democratic Party.

In 1941, after his term in the Federal Writers' project had expired and he could not find work in Cleveland, Himes decided to head to California. Before doing so, however, he went to work as a butler on Malabar Farm, located in the countryside southwest of Cleveland. Malabar was owned by the writer Louis Bromfield, who at the time was at the height of his popularity. Bromfield, a Pulitzer Prize winner who also wrote Hollywood screenplays, read Himes's Black Sheep and promised to help get it published.

Himes spent most of World War II working in the war industry in Los Angeles and California. During this time he published stories and essays in such black-run magazines as Crisis and Opportunity. By 1944 Himes was working on another novel and was awarded a Rosewald fellowship to complete it. That year he moved to New York City. He completed the 1945 novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, a semi-autobiographical tale of the absurd and rage-filled life of a young, educated African American man who eventually lands a job in the shipyards. After the novel's publication Himes returned to California and began working on a new novel. When he had finished it Himes moved back to New York City. His second novel, Lonely Crusade, was published in 1947. The following year Himes spent two months at the famed Yaddo Writer's Colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. It seemed his career was finally on its way. However his home life suffered and by 1950 Himes and his wife had separated for good.

In 1952 Himes was again running out of money when he managed to finally sell his prison novel, now retitled Cast the First Stone. Unfortunately this was such an over edited version of the manuscript that it amounted almost to censorship. Even Himes's choice of a new title, Yesterday Will Make You Cry, was changed. It was not until 1998 that the novel was finally published in its entirety, along with Himes's preferred title. Also in 1952 Himes met a young woman who worked as an executive at the International Institute of Education; Himes's violent and often destructive affair with Vandi Haygood eventually became the basis for his 1955 novel The Primitive (also titled The End of a Primitive.). By the time that book came out, though, Himes was no longer living in the United States. In 1953 he immigrated to France already the refuge for such prominent African American writers as Richard Wright and James Baldwin. In 1954 Himes published The Third Generation; later that year he moved to Mallorca, a Spanish island also known as Majorca.

1956 was the real turning point in Himes's career. Marcel Duhamel, who had translated If He Hollers Let Him Go into French, became the editor of Gallimard publishing house's "La Sârie Noir" and persuaded Himes to write detective fiction. Since Himes's earliest published work had dealt with crime and his subsequent novels had both noirish and absurdist touches, this was not so unusual a request. Himes decided to give it a try and what resulted was a long series featuring literature's first two African American detectives, Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones, who were patterned after characters in a story Himes had written while in prison. The series became known as the "Harlem Cycle."

The "Harlem Cycle" and many of Himes' other novels are a mixture of elements, their violence and absurdity at times seemingly at odds with each other, while at other times serving as perfect counterpoints. As Himes himself wrote in My Life of Absurdity, "It never occurred to me that I was writing absurdity. Realism and absurdity are so similar in the lives of American blacks one cannot tell the difference."

The first novel in the series, published in 1957, was titled La Reine des pommes (For Love of Imabelle). The novel, which won the Grand Prix in 1958 as the best detective novel of the year, introduces Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones. When it was finally published in the United States it was heavily re-edited, but years later was restored under the title A Rage in Harlem. By the time For Love of Imabelle was published Himes had already finished the next two books in the series, The Crazy Kill (Couchâ dans le pain) and The Real Cool Killers (Il pleut des coups durs), both published in 1959.

Himes' next novel, Dare Dare, was also published in France in 1959, but did not reach its American audiences, under the title Run Man Run, until 1966. It is unique among the "Harlem" novels in that it does not feature Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones. In 1960 Himes published two more "Harlem Cycle" novels: All Shot Up and The Big Gold Dream. The early 1960s proved to be the peak of Himes' career, though not his fame. Ever the gypsy, Himes traveled widely about Europe and back and forth to the United States. He also became more deeply involved with Lesley Packard, whom he married in 1965. In 1961 he finished another novel in the "Harlem Cycle," The Heat's On, which, like Run Man Run, wasn't published in the United States until 1966. That same year, Himes also took a break from the "Harlem Cycle" with the publication of Pinktoes.

In 1962 Himes returned to the United States to do a film documentary about Harlem for France-Soir. The next year he published Une Affair de viol, published in the United States in 1984 as A Case of Rape. Himes suffered a stroke while in Mexico later that year, prompting his return to France. In 1965 he published Cotton Comes to Harlem. The best-known novel in the "Harlem Cycle," it was made into a 1970 film directed by Ossie Davis and starring Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques. Over the next few years Himes continued his hectic pace of travel. He and his wife moved to southern France and from there went to Paris, London, Barcelona, Sweden, and Egypt. In 1968 the couple moved to Spain and the following year built a house in Moraira. In 1969 Himes published what was to be the final volume of the "Harlem Cycle," Blind Man with a Pistol.

In 1972, after publishing The Quality of Hurt, the first volume of his autobiography, Himes went to New York, where he was recognized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In 1973 Black on Black was published; it is an anthology of Himes' selected shorter works. In 1974 The Heat's On was filmed as Come Back Charleston Blue, again starring Cambridge and St. Jacques. Himes published the second volume of his autobiography, My Life of Absurdity, in 1976. Seven years later Plan B was published, though Himes himself was too ill to finish it. Featuring Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones, Plan B is a novel of African American revolution begun in the early 1970s but scrapped when Himes decided to devote his energy to his autobiography. Himes died on November 12, 1984.

Books

Himes, Chester, My Life of Absurdity: The Autobiography of Chester Himes, Vol. II, Doubleday, 1976.

Himes, Chester, The Quality of Hurt: The Autobiography of Chester Himes, Vol. I, Doubleday, 1972.

Muller, Gilbert H., Chester Himes, Twayne Publishers, 1989.

Sallis, James, Chester Himes, a Life, Walker & Company, 2000.

Periodicals

Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 1, 1998.

New Yorker, June 4, 2001.

New York Times, November 14, 1984.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 20, 2000.

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), April 15, 2001.

Online

"Chester Himes (1909-1984)," http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/chimes.htm (November 7, 2001).

"Chester Himes Books: The Coffin and Gravedigger Mysteries," Giveadamn Chester Himes,http://www.math.buffalo.edu/~sww/HIMES/himes-coffingravedigger.htm (November 7, 2001). □

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