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Paging Mr Himes

When first I began writing about Chester Himes, some twenty years ago, every one of his books was out of print here in the States. When he was known at all, he was known for the series of detective novels that included Cotton Come to Harlem, eight books often perceived as cynical potboilers, sellouts, rags and bones from a once promising, 'literary' novelist. Meanwhile, works such as If He Hollers Let Him Go, Cast the First Stone, Run Man Run and his central masterpiece, The Primitive, one of America's scant handful of perfect novels, seemed, if not lost, then terminally misplaced. But these books would not go away. They would not be (in Sartre's phrase) gagged by the silence of others. They would not get out of America's face. Every five or six years they'd stutter back into print. Obviously something in Himes' work went on connecting in a very real, very enduring way with readers – readers who had witnessed civil rights and black power movements of the sixties, perhaps; readers who remembered the Watts riots and Rodney King; readers who wonder just how today's inner-city apartheid, this partitioning of the nation, came about. Finally now, readers and critics are catching up.

Today all of Chester Himes' books are back in print. James Lundquist's and Stephen Milliken's admirable early studies have been joined by Robert Skinner's Two Guns from Harlem, Michel Fabre's and Skinner's Conversations with Chester Himes and a recent biography from Fabre and Edward Margolies. Himes is also featured in, indeed central to, a major new study of African-American mysteries, The Blues Detective. Increasingly readers and critics recognize that it's not with Richard Wright or James Baldwin – both securely within the naturalist, European style, both embraced by the academic canon – that we find our surest route to the black experience and contemporary black writing, but with Chester Himes. The fantastical, poetic structure of The Primitive, the expressionist grotesques and hyperboles of the Harlem cycle, at once look back to African story-telling forms and forward to contemporary literary forms. Chester Himes is not only a major American writer; he is our central American black writer.

Himes was born in Jefferson City, Missouri, 1909, to a light-skinned, elitist mother and dark-skinned, bandy-legged father who taught blacksmithing and other commercial arts at Negro technical colleges. Over the years the rift between his parents grew unbreachable. Giving up on high expectations she'd had for his father, mother Estelle seems to have transferred those expectations, and ultimately her profound disappointment as well, to Chester. But Chester could never fit himself to anyone's expectations: his mother's, the university's, the literary establishment's, even his own. At Ohio State he joined the black fraternity and tooled about town and campus in racoon coat and roadster. Soon, though, he was spending time in Cleveland's game and sporting houses. Soon, too, with the kind of reckless, irrational behavior that became a leitmotif in his life, Himes tries to dovetail his two worlds. Taking a group of students to one of his regular haunts, he professes incredulity that both worlds should turn against him, and that subsequently he should be expelled.

Himes fell to running errands and interference for gamblers and hustlers. He also worked various Cleveland hotels as a bellhop; at one of these he plunged forty feet down an open elevator shaft. Recovery was slow, resumption of old habits following recovery almost immediate. A number of skirmishes with the law led finally to a sentence for armed robbery. Himes entered prison at age nineteen. It was there that he began to write. Stories appeared in black newspapers, then, with only his prison number as byline, in Esquire . His first novels, If He Hollers Let Him Go, Lonely Crusade and to an extent The Third Generation, were protest novels somewhat in the manner of Richard Wright and others. From the first, though, there were significant differences that set Himes' work apart.

Thematically, for one thing, he wrote of middle class, educated blacks. No Bigger Thomases here. For another, he was a highly original writer, spinning out scenes we've never read before, taking close notice of the world from perspectives rarely encountered, convincing us with the sheer physicality of his writing. Himes' novels were also tightly structured, If He Hollers around a series of reflective, ever-mutable dreams, Lonely Crusade around a series of philosophical dialogues. Exam question: Choose one word to describe Himes' work.

Answer: Intensity. A book like The Primitive immerses us so fully in the experience of its characters that our reaction to the book becomes an almost physical one. For this intensity and informing structure, as well as for his addressing of our most profound social problems, the writers with whom Himes has most in common, it seems to me, is Nathanael West, whose Miss Lonelyhearts is another of America's undervalued, almost perfect novels.

The detective novels for which he's best known came about with Himes' relocation to Paris. Lonely Crusade had met with poor reception in the States and newer manuscripts wandered New York streets like the popular folk song's boll weevil, just lookin' for a home, while in France Gallimard had published him to great acclaim. Fleeing America's racism, Himes joined a select group of black expatriates. At Gallimard editor Marcel Duhamel's suggestion, Himes wrote his first mystery, which promptly won 1958's Grand Prix de Litterature Policière. The specific genius of these books is hard to define. They began, inasmuch as Himes understood the form, as fairly standard thrillers. But, again, Himes could never live up to expectations. He could never say what he was supposed to; he was compelled to say something else. He'd always been an intuitive writer, burrowing his way to the heart of the matter by feeling alone, by sheer force of will and hard work, by instinct. It would be the same with his detective novels. Improvising like a jazz musician, never knowing from page to page what would happen, he wrote one, then another. Good tunes, solid beat, something you could build on. Precisely what he did.

We're coming to recognise now that crime novels provide the urban fiction. Few suspected this at the time the Harlem cycle came out – few but Chester Himes. In these books Himes found what artist Odilon Redon called a visual logic for the imagination: figures that could bear the weight of his preoccupations with social and racial problems without toppling beneath that weight, a freedom of form allowing him to recreate his own complex vision of America, of its disenfranchised, its disadvantaged and mortally wounded, unencumbered by intellectual baggage or the demands of naturalism. Chester Himes didn't transcend the genre so much as he personally reinvented it – as, if our fiction is to have any purchase, must all of us.

There's nothing else like these books. Nothing. Nowadays, finally, people are reading up and down the twenty-five-year line of Chester Himes' work. Backwards from Blind Man With a Pistol to If He Hollers Let Him Go. Forwards from Lonely Crusade to A Rage in Harlem. Rediscovering Chester Himes in all his complexity, all his unity, all his strength and peculiar weaknesses, all his intensity. Recent critical and popular fashion leans heavily on crutches of simile. Often it seems we care less what a thing is than what kind of thing it is. Books sell because they're like the author's last, new movies are touted as six parts this, half a dozen parts that. American literary history offers few analogs to Chester Himes. Nathanael West I've already mentioned. James M. Cain, a writer at least as fundamental to our literature as Hemingway and Fitzgerald, might prove another. Then there are writers like Jim Thompson, Horace McCoy, Philip Wylie, Theodore Sturgeon, Samuel R. Delany. All of them stand apart, having created something the world had never seen before. This may be the highest praise possible. I suppose it might just as well be taken to certify the peripheral nature of these writers, to underline their outlaw status, but (invoking simile myself) I think of jazz, where just such innovations, just such extensions of tradition, initially rejected, became central.

Reflecting his family's upheavals, giving voice to his own growing frustration and bitterness, Chester Himes' view of the black American experience was a grim one. In 1966, addressing an audience at the University of Chicago on 'The Dilemma of the Negro Writer in the United States,' Himes noted:

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 effect of oppression on the human personality. These are the daily horrors, the daily realities, the daily experiences of an oppressed minority.

Elsewhere, though, sounding remarkably like one of his models, Faulkner, Himes asserted:

    There is an indomitable quality within the human spirit that can not be destroyed; a face deep within the human personality that is impregnable to all assaults . . . we would be drooling idiots, dangerous maniacs, raving beasts – if it were not for that quality and force within all humans that cries 'I will live.'

Chester Himes could never say what others expected him to say. It was not the fashion in his day to refuse to dissemble, to point unflinchingly at the situation of blacks in America, demanding response; not the fashion to tell wild, high tales, to insist that raids on Senegambian villages and the Watts riots, the drums of Congo Square and the higher reaches of African-American literature were points on a line. Perhaps not, in our day, it's time at last to listen to what Chester Himes said.


This essay was first published in the Waterstone's Guide to Crime Fiction (Brentford: Waterstone's, 1997), edited by Nick Rennison & Richard Shephard. It is reproduced by kind permission of the editors and publishers.


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