Himes, Chester 1909–1984
Chester Himes 1909–1984
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 America’s most powerful and original novelists” and “a marvelous observer and prodigious inventor….” Virtually all of Himes’s 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 Himes’s 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 nation’s 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, “That’s one of the saddest parts about the black man in America—that 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 don’t care if they think I’m a barbarian, a savage, or what they think; just think I’m 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 didn’t step off the sidewalk to let a white couple go by him. Later in the story this man is chastised because he won’t 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
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.
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 Abbott’s 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 Himes’s 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 Himes’s opinion of the black man’s status in America: “If I couldn’t live in America as an equal in the minds, hearts, and souls of all white people, if I couldn’t know that I had a chance to do anything any other American could, to go as high as American citizenship would carry anybody, there’d 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.
Himes’s 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 Himes’s declaration was met by hushed silence.
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 Hime’s 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 expediency’s sake. This twosome reflected Himes’s 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, “We’ve got the highest crime rate on earth among the colored people in Harlem. And there ain’t but three things to do about it: make the criminals pay for it—you don’t want to do that; pay the people enough to live decently—you ain’t going to do that; so all that’s left is let ’em eat one another up.” The viewpoint of this protagonist reverberates through Himes’s 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 black’s 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 point—that 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.”
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.”
If He Hollers Let Him Go, 1945.
Lonely Crusade, 1947.
Cast the First Stone, 1952.
The Third Generation, 1954.
The Primitive, 1955.
A Rage in Harlem, 1965.
Cotton Comes to Harlem, 1965.
Baby Sisters and Selected Writings (stories), 1973.
The Autobiography of Chester Himes, Volume I: The Quality of Hurt, 1972; Volume II: My Life of Absurdity, 1976.
Lundquist, James, Chester Himes, Ungar, 1976.
Milliken, Stephen F., Chester Himes, University of Missouri Press, 1976.
Wilson, M. L., Chester Himes, Chelsea House, 1988.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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). □
Himes, Chester 1909–1984
Chester Himes was born into a Southern, middle-class African-American family in Jefferson City, Missouri. The youngest of three sons, Himes was raised by his father, Professor Joseph Sandy Himes, who taught blacksmithing and wheelwrighting at various agricultural and mechanical colleges in the South, and his mother, Estelle Bomar Himes, a light-skinned, caste-conscious woman and professed descendent of white English nobility. Himes explained in his memoirs that his father, whom he obeyed, was "born and raised in the tradition of Southern Uncle Tom," and that his mother, whom he loved, "looked white and felt that she should have been white," instilling in him a hatred "for all manner of condescension from white people" and from "black people who accepted it." Himes enrolled in Ohio State University in 1926 to study medicine, but he was demoralized by the Jim-Crow environment, did poorly in his studies, and was promptly expelled. A self-proclaimed sensualist, Himes was drawn to the nightlife of Cleveland's black ghettoes. There his job as a janitor in a nightclub frequented by prostitutes provided a sort of sexual apprenticeship and a gateway to his brief career as hustler and petty criminal. In 1928 he was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to twenty to twenty-five years of hard labor in the Ohio State Penitentiary, of which he did seven and a half years before being paroled.
In prison he launched his prolific career as a writer, publishing stories about criminals and prison life first in black newspapers and magazines, and then in Esquire. He would eventually write eighteen novels, two short-story collections, and a two-volume autobiography. Himes's first published book, If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), was a loosely autobiographical social protest novel written in a naturalist mode and rooted in the crushing everydayness of institutional racism that he experienced firsthand as a Los Angeles shipyard worker during World War II. Himes's path to literary fame came on the heels of the critical failure of his second protest novel, The LonelyCrusade (1947), a searing critique of communist labor organizations. As Himes put it, "The whites rejected me, the blacks didn't want me. I felt like a man without a country, which in fact I was." In April 1953 he left America, joining Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and the thriving black American expatriate community in Paris. There, between 1957 and 1969, Himes wrote his "Harlem Domestic" detective novels for La Sèrie Noire, Marcel Duhamel's hard-boiled crime series at the prestigious French Press Gallimard. The ten-novel series transformed Himes into an international literary celebrity. After 1955 Himes only visited the United State twice, and briefly. In 1968 he settled in Spain with Leslie Packard, whom he married in the late seventies. Himes and Packard lived in Spain until his death in 1984.
Himes's sensationalistic "Harlem Domestic" series suited the expectations of his French readership perfectly. Here ontological absurdity and eroticized violence was the very existential terrain of black urban modernity, deformed by the dehumanizing pressure of America's systemic racism. With the quintessentially hard-boiled cops Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones as protagonists, the novels combine the familiar, stylized poses of noir masculinity with the saleable cool of urban blackness. The tight narratives are characterized by lurid sociological detail that often crosses into dreaminess and caricatural excess, highly fetishistic physical description, and a veritable catalogue of the bizarre sexual hijinks and erotic imbroglios of Harlem's black denizens.
While catering to the prurient interests of his largely white readership (invited to slum in Harlem's libidinous cityscape), Himes's detective fiction, like his social protest fiction, investigates the circumscription of sexual relations and erotic life by racist ideologies whose fraught internalization produces the self-destructive affects of his characters. The hyperbolic sangfroid of his masculine protagonists dissolves into uncertainty, frustration, and simmering self-loathing. Or, alternatively, their seeming sexual self-possession erupts in fits of misogynistic rage—scenes of stereotyped racial and sexual performance whose violently choreographed scripts and often disastrous outcomes they are powerless to avoid. Often, Himes's fascination with the sexual "perversions" of Harlem conceals a real sympathy with erotic transgression, as is evident in his portrayal of the transvestite hustler, Goldy, in A Rage in Harlem (1957), the first novel in the series. And the stunning finale to the series, the experimental Blind Man with a Pistol (1969), offers a parodic critique of the masculinist ideologies of Black Power and its shrill rhetoric of self-mastery and purity.
The spectrum of erotic life on display in Himes's work does much to gainsay his own claim in BLACK ON BLACK that "black protest and black heterosexuality" (Himes 1973, p. 7) were his "two chief obsessions." In fact, the 1998 publication by Norton of Himes's autobiographical prison novel, Yesterday Will Make You Cry (1998; first published in expurgated form as Cast the First Stone in 1952), has silenced those nagging critical views of Himes as a salacious naturalist trading in sexist and racist caricature, or a shrewd writer of pulp exploitation fiction. A profoundly affirmative homosexual love story between two prison inmates, the book is also a powerful Künstlerroman that offers a realist portrait of the artist as a young felon with strikingly modernist investments in the erotic vicissitudes of temporality and memory. Quite possibly Himes's greatest novel, Yesterday will likely remain at the forefront of early twenty-first century critical reinvention of Himes as a seminal figure in that transatlantic crucible of aesthetic sensibilities that helped voice the racialized experience of mid-century alienation and displacement. Between naturalism and impressionism, between urban sociological realism and an excessive, avant-garde aesthetics of caricature and grotesquerie, between surrealism and existentialism, and somewhere within that constellation of affective unease that is called noir, we rediscover Chester Himes, the vernacular modernist.
Himes, Chester. 1945. If He Hollers Let Him Go. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Himes, Chester. 1947. The Lonely Crusade. New York: A. A. Knopf.
Himes, Chester. 1960. The Big Gold Dream. New York: Avon.
Himes, Chester. 1960. The Heat's On. New York: Avon.
Himes, Chester. 1965. A Rage in Harlem. New York: Avon Books. [Orig. pub as For Love of Imabelle, 1957.]
Himes, Chester. 1965. Cotton Comes to Harlem. New York: Putnam.
Himes, Chester. 1968. The Crazy Kill. London: Panther. [Orig. pub 1959.]
Himes, Chester. 1969. All Shot Up. London: Panther. [Orig. pub 1960.]
Himes, Chester. 1969. Blind Man with a Pistol. New York: Morrow.
Himes, Chester. 1969. The Real Cool Killers. London: Panther. [Orig. pub 1959.]
Himes, Chester. 1972. The Quality of Hurt: The Autobiography of Chester Himes. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Himes, Chester. 1973. BLACK ON BLACK: Baby Sister and Selected Writings. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Himes, Chester. 1976. My Life of Absurdity: The Autobiography of Chester Himes. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Himes, Chester. 1993. Plan B: A Novel, eds. Michel Fabre and Robert E. Skinner. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Himes, Chester. 1997. The End of a Primitive. New York: Norton.
Himes, Chester. 1998. Yesterday Will Make You Cry. New York: Norton. [Orig. pub as Cast the First Stone. 1953.]
Bell, Kevin. 2005. "Assuming the Position: Fugitivity and Futurity in the Work of Chester Himes." Modern Fiction Studies 51(4): 846-872.
Diawara, Manthia. 1993. "Noir by Noirs: Toward a New Realism in Black Cinema." In Shades of Noir, ed. Joan Copjec. London: Verso.
Eburne, Jonathan P. 2005. "The Transatlantic Mysteries of Paris: Chester Himes, Surrealism, and the Série noire." PMLA 120(3): 806-821.
Fabre, Michel, and Robert E. Skinner, eds. 1995. Conversations with Chester Himes. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
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