Authors: Chester Himes

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and short-story writer

Identity: African American

Author Works

Long Fiction:

If He Hollers Let Him Go, 1945

Lonely Crusade, 1947

Cast the First Stone, 1952 (unexpurgated edition pb. as Yesterday Will Make You Cry, 1998)

The Third Generation, 1954

The Primitive, 1955 (unexpurgated edition pb. as The End of a Primitive, 1997)

For Love of Imabelle, 1957 (revised as A Rage in Harlem, 1965)

Il pleut des coups durs, 1958 (The Real Cool Killers, 1959)

Couché dans le pain, 1959 (The Crazy Kill, 1959)

Dare-dare, 1959 (Run Man Run, 1966)

Tout pour plaire, 1959 (The Big Gold Dream, 1960)

Imbroglio negro, 1960 (All Shot Up, 1960)

Ne nous énervons pas!, 1961 (The Heat’s On, 1966; also pb. as Come Back Charleston Blue, 1974)

Pinktoes, 1961

Une affaire de viol, 1963 (A Case of Rape, 1984)

Retour en Afrique, 1964 (Cotton Comes to Harlem, 1965)

Blind Man with a Pistol, 1969 (also pb. as Hot Day, Hot Night, 1970)

Plan B, 1983

Short Fiction:

The Collected Stories of Chester Himes, 1990

Nonfiction:

The Quality of Hurt: The Autobiography of Chester Himes, Volume I, 1972

My Life of Absurdity: The Autobiography of Chester Himes, Volume II, 1976

Miscellaneous:

Black on Black: “Baby Sister” and Selected Writings, 1973

Biography

Chester Bomar Himes was one of the most important black American writers of his generation. His career has generally been described as having two major phases. In his first five novels, he worked largely within the tradition of protest naturalism and was regarded as a disciple of Richard Wright. In his later novels, he adapted the detective novel to the Harlem milieu; although these novels were originally treated as potboilers, they eventually became recognized as Himes’s major achievement.{$I[AN]9810001204}{$I[A]Himes, Chester}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Himes, Chester}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Himes, Chester}{$I[tim]1909;Himes, Chester}

Chester Himes

(Library of Congress)

Himes’s father, Joseph Sandy Himes, taught in the mechanical arts department of various colleges. Consequently, by the time Himes was in his mid-teens, he had lived in Missouri, Mississippi, and Arkansas, and he had seen expressions of racism directed against his family on several occasions. His father was dismissed from the faculty at Alcorn State University largely because of the animosity of local white farmers, who resented the fact that Himes’s father owned the only automobile in the county. When Himes’s brother Joseph was blinded in a freak accident, the local white hospital in Arkansas refused him admittance; because the black hospital was not equipped to treat him effectively, the Himes family was forced to move to St. Louis, where better medical facilities were available. In St. Louis, Himes’s father was forced by necessity to take a job as a waiter in a barroom.

In 1923, the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where Himes’s father found work as a carpenter and prospered enough to buy a home in a middle-class neighborhood of that city. Himes graduated from Glenville High School in January, 1926, and planned to enroll at Ohio State University in the fall of that year. While he was working as a busboy at the Wade Park Hotel, however, he fell down an elevator shaft and severely injured his back. Like his brother, he, too, was refused admittance to a white hospital, and he underwent a protracted and painful recuperation. As a result of this accident, however, Himes was awarded a monthly disability pension of seventy-five dollars a month by the Ohio State Industrial Commission, which enabled him to attend the university.

After one year there, Himes was expelled because he initiated a trip to a speakeasy where a violent fight erupted between several prostitutes and some of the young women with him. Himes thereupon began peddling whiskey out of the back room of a gambling house in Cleveland, and he was arrested in succession for burglary, passing stolen checks, and committing an armed robbery. His parents succeeded in pleading for suspended sentences in the first two cases, but for the armed robbery Himes was sentenced to twenty to twenty-five years of hard labor in the Ohio State Penitentiary in December, 1928.

While in prison, Himes began writing fiction, and in 1934 several of his short stories were published in Esquire. After he was paroled in 1936, Himes continued to publish in Esquire and in several other magazines, while working as a busboy and a bellhop. In 1937, he married Jean Johnson, with whom he had had a relationship before his imprisonment. During the next three years, he worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and on the farm of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Louis Bromfield. Until the beginning of American involvement in World War II cut short the funding, he worked for a time with the Ohio State Writers’ Project on a history of Cleveland.

From 1942 to 1944, Himes and his wife lived in Los Angeles, where he was fired from or quit almost two dozen jobs, most of which were in the shipyards. In 1944, a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation allowed him to move to New York, and in 1945 his novel If He Hollers Let Him Go was published. Based largely on his experiences in the Los Angeles shipyards, the novel described how Bob Jones, a black foreman, loses his position because of his angry response to racial prejudice and becomes subject to the military draft. In 1947, Himes published Lonely Crusade, a novel that was attacked from all sides for its portrayal of Lee Gordon, a black union organizer who is undermined by the hypocrisies of white businessmen, union officials, and Communist Party recruiters and by the complacent stupidity of the black workers. For several months in 1948, Himes lived at Yaddo, a well-known writers’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, but for most of the next five years he supported himself by working as a caretaker, a janitor, a bellhop, and a dishwasher in various parts of the Northeast. In 1951, he and his wife separated.

When he reworked a novel he had written about his prison experiences so that the major characters were white instead of black, Himes was able to find a publisher for Cast the First Stone in 1952. This novel was generally well-received, and the advances for this novel and for The Third Generation, a largely autobiographical novel, allowed Himes to travel to France in 1953. Except for several brief visits to New York, he lived in Europe for the rest of his life. In 1955, he published The Primitive, a novel based loosely on his eighteen-month affair with Vandi Haygood before he left for France.

At the suggestion of his French publisher, Marcel Duhamel, Himes began writing the detective novels for which he became most widely recognized. These novels feature two Harlem police detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, who are in many ways isolated between the largely white police department for which they work and the black ghetto in which they work. Harlem is depicted in these novels as an urban hell, a place in which savage crimes are committed for immediate and usually casual motives and in which a curiously consistent code of survival gives a rhythm to the accidents of circumstance. These detectives do not solve crimes by their wits–to do so would be impossible in this environment. Instead, they pursue leads and strong-arm their informants until their presence almost in itself seems to dislodge the truth. Many consider Himes’s novel Blind Man with a Pistol, published in 1969, to be his best work. It depicts a series of crimes and accidents that circumstantially incite a race riot; no crimes are solved, and no more than a residue of hope survives the absurdity.

Himes’s works have been criticized for their sudden melodramatic turns of plot and for their unrelieved pessimism about race relations, but these technical and thematic limitations are, in fact, related. Seeing no basis for improved relations between the races, no means of removing the immediate distance created by differences in skin color, Himes also views life, especially for a black person, as a predictably patternless, identity-negating series of changes in fortune, usually for the worse.

BibliographyCochran, David. “So Much Nonsense Must Make Sense: The Black Vision of Chester Himes.” The Midwest Quarterly 38 (Autumn, 1996): 1-30. Examines Himes’s creation of the hard-boiled cop figure as a reflection of his own experience in Harlem. Argues that he presents Harlem as the underside of American capitalism.Crooks, Robert. “From the Far Side of the Urban Frontier: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes and Walter Mosley.” College Literature 22 (October, 1995): 68-90. Analyzes the emergence of African American detective fiction in the works of Walter Mosley and Chester Himes. Shows how Himes develops a strategy for disrupting the frontier narrative in a way that lays it bare.Fabre, Michel, Robert E. Skinner, and Lester Sullivan, comps. Chester Himes: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. This is a comprehensive annotated bibliography of writings by and about Himes.Himes, Chester. Conversations with Chester Himes. Edited by Michel Fabre and Robert Skinner. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995. This collection of interviews with Himes provides information about his life and work.Lundquist, James. Chester Himes. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1976. An introductory volume to Himes’s life and works, with chapters on the war novels, confessional novels, and detective novels. The first chapter, “November, 1928,” describes the armed robbery for which Himes was arrested and subsequent arrest and trial, in detail. Chronology, notes, bibliography of primary and secondary sources, index.Margolies, Edward. “Race and Sex : The Novels of Chester Himes.” In Native Sons: A Critical Study of Twentieth-Century Negro American Authors. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1968. A discussion of the major novels. The author sees Himes as considerably different from the group of protest writers following Richard Wright and believes that his European sojourn weakened his writings about the United States. Bibliography and index.Margolies, Edward, and Michel Fabre. The Several Lives of Chester Himes. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997. This full-length biography of Himes is indispensable for information about his life.Milliken, Stephen F. Chester Himes: A Critical Appraisal. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1976. Contains an excellent chapter, “Take a Giant Step,” on Himes’s short stories. This study includes sections on the protest, autobiographical and detective novels. Chronology, bibliography of primary sources, and annotated bibliography of secondary sources.Muller, Gilbert. Chester Himes. Boston: Twayne, 1989. An excellent introduction to Himes’s life and works. Traces the evolution of Himes’s grotesque, revolutionary view of life in the United States for African Americans, in several literary modes, culminating in his detective fiction. Chronology, appendix, index, and annotated bibliographies of primary and secondary works.Pepper, Andrew. The Contemporary American Crime Novel: Race, Ethnicity, Gender, Class. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. Devotes a chapter to Himes, Walter Mosley, and social-protest detective fiction. Bibliographic references and index.Rosen, Steven J. “African American Anti-Semitism and Himes’s Lonely Crusade.” MELUS 20 (Summer, 1995): 47-68. Discusses an anti-Semitic streak that runs through Himes’s work alongside an anxiety to assert masculinity. Shows how Himes used Jewish characters or formulated Jewish traits as a foil to black American masculinity.Rosenblatt, Roger. “The Hero Vanishes.” In Black Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974. Briefly compares Himes’s hero to Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940). Particularly interesting is the introduction, which provides a broad-ranging discussion of the relationship of black literature to American literature as a whole. Index, bibliography.Sallis, James. Chester Himes: A Life. New York: Walker & Co., 2001.Silet, Charles L. P., ed. The Critical Response to Chester Himes. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Compilation of essays reading Himes through the lens of various schools of literary criticism. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Skinner, Robert E. Two Guns from Harlem: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1989. Skinner’s study of Himes’s crime writing presents a comprehensive examination of his crime novels.Soitos, Stephen. “Black Detective Fiction.” In Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, edited by Robin W. Winks and Maureen Corrigan. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1998.
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