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 …