Himes, Chester

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Himes, Chester

July 29, 1909
November 12, 1984

The novelist and short-story writer Chester Himes was born in Jefferson City, Missouri. The youngest of three sons, he spent his first fourteen years in the South. His mother, the former Estelle Bomar, was the daughter of former slaves who had achieved considerable success in the construction business. She was educated at a black Presbyterian finishing school in North Carolina and taught music from time to time at African-American colleges and academies. Her husband, Joseph Himes, also born of former slaves, grew up in poverty in North Carolina but acquired a diploma at Claflin College in Orangeburg, South Carolina. A skilled blacksmith and wheelwright, he taught mechanical arts at black institutions in Georgia, Missouri, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Both parents appear as thinly disguised characters whose conflicting social and racial views bewilder the protagonist in Himes's autobiographical novel The Third Generation (1954).

In 1923 a freak accident blinded Himes's older brother, causing the family to move from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to St. Louis to seek specialized medical treatment. Two years later they moved to Cleveland, where Chester graduated from East High School in January 1926. Following graduation he worked as a busboy at a Cleveland hotel, where he suffered a traumatic fall that left him with permanent back and shoulder injuries. In September 1926 he enrolled as a liberal arts student at Ohio State University, but he was expelled the following February for failing grades and unseemly behavior. Thereafter he drifted into a life of crime in the black ghettos of Cleveland and Columbus. In December 1927, he was sentenced to serve twenty years in the Ohio State Penitentiary for armed robbery.

While in prison, Himes began a lifelong career writing fiction; his first stories were printed in African-American publications in early 1932. In 1934 he reached a national audience in Esquire for "To What Red Hell," describing the 1930 fire that swept through the Ohio penitentiary, killing more than 330 convicts. He was paroled in 1936, and in August 1937 he married Jean Lucinda Johnson, a longtime friend. From 1936 to 1940 he worked mainly at manual jobs and for the Federal Writers' Project, departing for California in the fall of 1940 in hopes of writing for Hollywood. Repeated rejections at the studios, however, led him to seek work at the racially tense California shipyards. These experiences are reflected in several articles he wrote in the 1940s, as well as in two bitter novels, If He Hollers Let Him Go (1946) and Lonely Crusade (1947). The interethnic, economic, social, and sexual consequences of racism are treated at some length in these books.

From 1945 to 1953 Himes lived mainly in New York and New England; he sailed for France several months after the publication of his prison novel Cast the First Stone (1952). For the rest of his life he lived mainly in France and Spain, making only occasional visits to the United States, and much of his subsequent fiction was published first in France before appearing elsewhere. Among his books written abroad were seven Harlem police thrillers involving the characters Cotton Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones; one of these books won a French literary award in 1958. Two incomplete novels, Plan B, dealing with a future race war, and The Lunatic Fringe have not yet been printed in the United States. Himes's own favorite among his works was The Primitive (1955), which depicts an intense, troubled relationship between a black man and a white woman in post-World War II New York. Himes's only published novel with a non-American setting, A Case of Rape (1985), focuses on four black men being tried in Paris for the violation and death of a white woman. Because the fictional characters were modeled on well-known African Americans living in Europe, the book caused something of a stir in the expatriate community. Himes's other works written in Europe were Pinktoes (1961), an interracial sex comedy about the activities of a celebrated Harlem hostess, and Run Man Run (1966), a thriller telling of a black man's flight from a murderous New York policeman. In 1978 Himes obtained a divorce in absentia and married Lesley Packard, an English journalist.

While living in Spain, Himes wrote two volumes of an autobiography, The Quality of Hurt (1973) and My Life of Absurdity (1976). Toward the end of his life he came to view his writings as being in the absurdist tradition. Racism, he said, made blacks and whites behave absurdly. He envisioned organized violence as the only means of ending racial oppression in America. Because his literary reputation was never as high in the United States as it was in Europe, Himes lived precariously for most of his authorial years, but a resurgence of interest in his writings in the 1970s brought him a measure of financial security. Upon his death in Alicante, Spain, he left a number of unfinished projects.

See also Federal Writers' Project; Literature of the United States


Lundquist, James. Chester Himes. New York: Ungar, 1976.

Milliken, Stephen F. Chester Himes: A Critical Appraisal. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1976.

Muller, Gilbert H. Chester Himes. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Sallis, James. Chester Himes: A Life. New York: Walker & Co., 2001.

Skinner, Robert. Two Guns from Harlem: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1989.

edward margolies (1996)
Updated bibliography