If He Hollers Let Him Go
Cast the First Stone
The Third Generation
The End of a Primitive Virgin Publishing)
A Rage in Harlem
The Crazy Kill
The Real Cool Killers
Run Man Run
The Big Gold Dream
All Shot Up
The Heat’s On
Cotton Comes to Harlem
The Collected Stories of Chester Himes
There is a peculiar purgatory of esteem reserved for those American artists who have been lionized in Europe while enduring neglect at home. The obligatory jokes about Jerry Lewis aside, the history of this ambiguity stretches back to Poe and forward to such disparate figures as Nicholas Ray, David Goodis, Sidney Bechet, Samuel Fuller, Memphis Slim, Jim Thompson, Joseph Losey, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. These writers, musicians, and film makers failed to be prophets in their own country, were recognized too late or too little, in part because they worked the side of the street deemed “popular” (although not sufficiently popular), ever a focus of American cultural insecurities. Some of them became exiles, some, like the blacklisted Losey, for explicitly political reasons.
The black jazz musicians faced these constraints in addition to a blunt racial obstruction to their careers at home, and even if their reception in France carried a hint of an exotica fetish that is merely the reverse of the racist coin, Europe at least gave them relative comfort and steadier work and an absence of Jim Crow laws. Sidney Bechet even lived to see a statue of himself erected in Nice. But for both the voluntary exiles and for those who labored in obscurity at home, the final irony of their relative success abroad was that it seemed to delay their recognition in the United States even further.
The case of Chester Himes overflows with such ironies. After his complex realist novels of race relations were met with indifference and scorn in America, he moved to France. There, his obscurity seemed total until a publisher of detective paperbacks persuaded him to attempt a crime novel set in Harlem, a milieu he, as a Midwesterner, knew only glancingly. This first effort was striking and original, and it was a roaring success in French translation. Soon he found himself famous in Europe, although inconsistently solvent. His novels did not really make him much money until two of them were used as bases for Hollywood movies, by which time he had ceased to write them. Even the success of the movies failed to make the books catch on in the United States and, by the time Himes died, all of his work was out of print in English. It is only now, seven years after his death, that a majority of his books are again available in America, and then only after having been reprinted in England, so that some of the present American editions sport British spellings and vocabulary. Thus Himes, an important and singular African American writer, remains even posthumously an exile.
Such a fate seems all too symmetrical for Himes, whose life, professional and otherwise, was one long process of exclusion, external and internal, in which he was both subject and object. He would undoubtedly take some bitter satisfaction in this result, since the alienation that was inflicted upon him he turned into a point of pride, a weapon, and something like a cause. His work bristles with it like the quills of a porcupine.
I was trying to say [he wrote of his novel The End of a Primitive] that white people who still regarded the American black, burdened with all the vices, sophistries, and shams of their white enslavers, as primitives with greater morality than themselves, were themselves idiots…. Obviously and unavoidably, the American black man is the most neurotic, complicated, schizophrenic, unanalyzed, anthropologically advanced specimen of mankind in the history of the world…. I find it very difficult to like American blacks myself; but I know there’s nothing primitive about us.
His work is a rebuke to sympathy, let alone pity. His crime novels, for that matter, are anything but formulaic; they are teeming canvases of black society in which the characters are almost by definition on the wrong side of the law, all except the two black detectives whose actions are as brusque as their moral distinctions are subtle. The setting and the genre might have propelled Himes toward some far frontier of cynicism. Instead, the very inevitability of the form and the grimness of its preoccupation seemed to free him and allow him to find life and humor in every detail.
His training in division and paradox came early. A bitter racial line was present within his own family. His mother came of genteel stock and boasted of having had only one black grandparent; Himes described her as looking “like a white woman who had suffered a long siege of illness.” His father was a very dark man whose parents had been slaves and who worked his way up to a position as professor of mechanical arts at various black colleges in the Midwest and South. Their marriage only barely managed to survive a continual exchange of humiliations large and small. In Himes’s autobiographical novel The Third Generation (1954), he imagines their wedding night: the dinginess of the “colored hotel” and the sight of his naked black body arouse her sexual terror; she rebuffs him and goes rigid; he rapes her. The hatred born that night can do nothing but escalate.
Nevertheless, Himes’s upbringing was careful and middle class, although shadowed by tragedy (an older brother was blinded by an (explosion during a chemistry demonstration at school; the financial and emotional costs afterward brought the family down in the world). It was not until college that his wild streak burst out. As a freshman at Ohio State, he cut classes and hung around the poolrooms in the black part of town, and was eventually expelled for bringing a mixed-sex group of more upright students to a party in a whorehouse that turned into a brawl. He returned to Cleveland, where his family lived, and gravitated to the gambling houses and brothels along Scovil Avenue, known as the Bucket of Blood. It was there that he got his sentimental education, meeting the people, observing the capers, and absorbing the attitudes that would later turn up in his crime novels.
He was no mere onlooker, however. He went along on a robbery of guns and ammunition from a Negro YMCA and got himself arrested; a bit later he was arrested again, for passing bad checks. Both convictions resulted in suspended sentences. Himes ended the thinly fictionalized Third Generation at this point in the story, only he provided a climax, a melodramatic struggle for his soul in which his father is killed and the gambler and pimp who has served as his mentor meets an ambiguous fate, while his mother looks on in horror. In reality, Himes was caught after robbing a rich white couple in their home and then trying to sell the jewelry.
This time he was sentenced to twenty to twenty-five years in the Ohio State Penitentiary (because, the judge charged, he had taken ten years from the lives of each of his victims). He wound up doing seven and a half, beginning in 1929, when he was nineteen years old. It was in jail that he began to write, sending his stories at first to the black newspapers and by and by to white magazines. In 1934 Esquire published “To What Red Hell,” his account of the Easter Monday Ohio State Prison fire of 1930 in which more than 330 inmates died. It remains impressive today, a sophisticated mix of reportage and impressionism:
A variegated color pattern formed before his eyes: black smoke-mantled night, yellow light, red flames, gray death, crisscrossing into maggoty confusion. He ploughed through the sense of confusion, feeling that each step he took was on a different color. To his left was the white glare of the hospital corridor; gray bodies lay on the floor and white-clad convict nurses bent over them. To his right was the black confusion of the yard with bodies lying in the semigloom amid the rushing, cursing convicts. At the fringe of the light smoke was a thick gray wall.
He reworked the story a bit when he incorporated it into the prison novel he wrote after his release. That the book was not published until 1952 (as Cast the First Stone) is to some extent a result of its low-keyed honesty; its depiction of homosexuality as pervasive, a central and unalterable fact of prison life about which his protagonist has to shed his prejudices, is as nearly nonjudgmental as was possible for its time. It was also the only thing Himes ever published that did not focus on the subject of race. The main character, Jim Monroe, is white, although he is obviously Himes in every other respect.
Himes was obsessively autobiographical. He traced the chain of his life through his novels and stories, and then recapitulated the whole thing in the two volumes of memoirs he published at the end of his writing life. His first two published novels, If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945) and Lonely Crusade (1947), emerged from his wartime work, mostly in shipyards, in Los Angeles. The West held the promise of a new land, untainted by the racism endemic in the older states, but it actually proved worse in many ways. An unspoken but emphatic Jim Crow code was served up with a smile, governing employment, housing, hotels, restaurants, the military, and was only partly the work of the white southerners who had migrated west during the Depression.
In the first novel, Bob Jones is a gang foreman in a shipyard, a man too intelligent for his work who nevertheless gets knocked down in position to make way for a white man, a fascist crank. He is then teased and lured by a southern white woman who eventually maneuvers him into a room and cries rape. He narrowly avoids getting lynched. In the second book he is called Lee Gordon, and he is a union organizer at an aviation plant who has been hired for the specific task of enlisting black workers, who are suspicious or apathetic or frightened. Already embittered at the start, Gordon is further disillusioned by what he sees—not just the expected tyranny of the bosses, but the treachery within the union, particularly as practiced by the Communists. The first book is hard and fast and sure; the second sometimes drags under the weight of arguments, but the pains Himes takes with its complexities pay off. The book’s melodramatic ending—the union banner is kept aloft as bodies around it fall—is fully earned. On the other hand, while If He Hollers Let Him Go received good reviews, and sold modestly well, Lonely Crusade was reviled. “Hate runs through this book like a streak of yellow bile,” said The Atlantic; Ebony declared that Himes was psychotic; Commentary compared the book to a “graffito on the walls of public toilets.” Read today, the novel seems scrupulously fair; even poignantly idealistic:
Being a Negro was a cause—yes. Thus far Luther [an amoral black Communist] had been right. But it was never a justification—never!—which was what Luther had found out in the end. Because being a Negro was, first of all, a fact. A Negro is a Negro, as a pine tree is a pine tree and a bulldog is a bulldog—a Negro is a Negro as he is an American—because he was born a Negro. He had no cause for apology or shame.
And if because of this fact his rights were abridged, his privileges denied, and his duties rescinded, he was the object of oppression and the victim of injustice. A crime had been committed against him by sundry white people. But this did not prove that all white hands were raised against him, because he still retained the right to protest and appeal, to defend his person and his citizenship courageously, and to unceasingly demand that justice be accorded him.