Chester Himes
Chester Himes; drawing by David Levine

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.

Himes assumed that the attacks on his book were the work of a conspiracy led by Communists, but in fact their sources ran the ideological gamut. Their consistency in ignoring the book’s claim as literature and in advancing a view of it as hate-mongering would certainly encourage conspiratorial suspicions. Himes felt as if his allotment of hope had been abruptly cut off without explanation.

For the next six years he worked at odd jobs—as estate caretaker, porter, janitor, bellhop—and in his free time reworked Cast the First Stone and wrote The Third Generation, as well as stories that used those odd jobs and their settings as material. In 1953, at the end of his rope, he sailed to France, where he took up with Richard Wright and the rest of the African American colony in Paris. Himes, never much of a joiner, soon felt alienated from his crowd. With one woman, and then another, and then a third, he moved to various European locales—the French southwest, London, Mallorca, Denmark, Holland—living in conditions seldom very much above the poverty line, even in the meagerness of postwar Europe, when the dollar was all-powerful.

Himes’s response to Europe was characteristically ambivalent. In From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840–1980,1 the French literary scholar Michel Fabre points out that Himes’s account of Europe in the 1950s and 1960s—in letters to friends, or published in American magazines like Ebony—are lyrical, even rhapsodic. By the time he wrote his memoirs in the 1970s, however, he had retrospectively salted his experiences in bitterness. (Then again, as Fabre also notes, an evening spent in Paris with Richard Wright and James Baldwin was remembered by Baldwin as a benevolent meeting off minds, while Himes remembered it as an angry argument.)

Himes’s relations with women were even more riddled with complication. His first marriage, to a black American woman whom he had met on Scovil Avenue in Cleveland in the 1920s and wed upon his release from prison, had dissolved before he left the United States. In Paris he took up with a woman from an old New England family fleeing a bad marriage to a Dutchman, and then with a troubled young German girl; both liaisons were tortured, steeped in separate and collective misery. When Himes married again, for the second and last time, it was to Lesley Packard, an educated Anglo-Irish woman about whom little can be learned from his writings, which is perhaps, in a backhanded way, testimony to the solidity of their relationship.

In Mallorca he wrote The End of a Primitive, a corrosive depiction of an earlier interracial relationship (one he had had, of course, and here characteristically resolved in melodramatic violence), which was published in the United States (as The Primitive, a telling change by his publishers) in an abridged, not to say censored, version; it has not been reprinted in America since 1971. The book was meant to be squirm-inducing, and it succeeds, for reasons that have far less to do with race than with sex. It was as if Himes had set out to write a book that would earn him the epithets that Lonely Crusade had undeservedly drawn; it actually is filled with bile, directed at women, or at least one in particular, Vandi Haygood, who had been acting director of the Rosenwald Foundation, which had given Himes a grant to finish his first book. She was at least as troubled as Himes was, and their affair brought out the worst in them both, leaving him to conclude that “the final answer of any black to a white woman with whom he lives in a white society is violence.” By the time he wrote the book she had committed suicide. The book, he wrote, “is rather exact except that I didn’t kill her. I left that for her own race to do.” The End of a Primitive also represents Himes’s most sustained attempt at literary modernism; although most of its affectations do not succeed, it does convincingly replicate the fractures and lapses caused by alcoholic blackout. Needless to say, it made him no money to speak of.

In 1956 Himes was approached by Marcel Duhamel, a former Surrealist who had created the enormously influential Série Noire, a regular issue of crime novels, mostly translations “de l’Américain,” in a uniform edition of white-bordered black covers. Duhamel’s instructions were succinct. “Make pictures,” he said. “We don’t give a damn who’s thinking what—only what they’re doing.” He also gave Himes the equivalent of a thousand dollars as an advance, a larger sum than he had ever received. Soon Himes was off and running with the story. As he later recalled:

I would sit in my room and become hysterical thinking about the wild, incredible story I was writing. But it was only for the French, I thought, and they would believe anything about Americans, black or white, if it was bad enough. And I thought I was writing realism. 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 resulting book, called La Reine des Pommes in French and in America published first as For Love of Imabelle and then as A Rage in Harlem (he wanted to call it The Five-Cornered Square, the best title of them all), fully proves his point. It is a tall tale, set in a Harlem that is largely imaginary and couched in images of 1920s Cleveland, with a slang that is likewise partly dated and partly made up, and yet it is three-dimensional and ungainsayable in its poetic truth. “The Harlem of my books was never meant to be real,” Himes wrote. “I never called it real; I just wanted to take it away from the white man if only in my books.” The language and riotous imagination that had often been cramped by or subordinated to a mission in Himes’s mainstream efforts were set free in his crime novels.

One joker slashed the other’s arm. A big-lipped wound opened in the tight leather jacket, but nothing came out but old clothes—two sweaters, three shirts, a pair of winter underwear. The second joker slashed back, opened a wound in the front of his foe’s canvas jacket. But all that came out of the wound was dried printer’s ink from the layers of old newspapers the joker had wrapped around him to keep warm. They kept slashing away in buck-dancing fury, spilling old clothes and last week’s newsprint instead of blood.

The story—a convoluted series of con games and chases—is a toy, yet it simultaneously manages to act as a natural correlative to its setting and Himes’s theme. All mystery novels are artificial. Even the best require a powerful engine of plot to get the reader over the chasms of disbelief and irrelevance. Very few succeed at making the mystery itself part of a thematic point—Hammett’s Red Harvest, although an imperfect book, comes to mind—and even fewer incorporate their decorative excesses into a fabric of meaning. All but one or two of Himes’s crime novels pull off this remarkable feat.

The French, whether for reasons of disinterested appreciation or ignoble voyeurism, made the books best sellers and Himes a celebrity, even if they failed to make him rich. It is doubtful whether such an opportunity would have been presented to Himes in America, where the idea of a black writer producing anything but “protest novels” would probably not have occurred to many publishers at the time. For Himes, being in Europe had several creative functions. Instead of being shut out by white American society he could be actively and defiantly alienated; indeed, he seemed to take a perverse pride in having lived in France for decades without learning more than the barest rudiments of the language. Exile also seems to have affected him in a way reminiscent of what Gertrude Stein meant when she insisted that being abroad purified her language: it freed his imagination from the detritus of daily contact with his subject, and allowed him to see it in a new way.

His native country repaid him by neglecting his work; even in paperback racks in black ghetto drugstores his books were outranked by the artless and viscerally potent works of Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim, a literature that now finds its echo in the rhymes of the “gangsta” rappers. Himes’s work was perhaps too detached for this audience. But the detachment is as illusory as the literary quality is real. The narrative conventions of the genre forced Himes to channel all his preoccupations without betraying them, to proceed by stealth and indirection, to mask his rage as humor, to transfer his focus from himself to the diverse and particularized inhabitants of an entire teeming world, to trade his defensiveness for a gleeful assault on all fronts, and to treat social issues with an apparent insouciance that would penetrate the defenses of his readers. Popular fiction, popularly thought of as narrow, broadened Himes as a writer.

Duhamel had to talk Himes into putting some cops into his book, not surprisingly since Himes had suffered at the hands of the police and was not inclined to be sympathetic. His resulting invention, however, was memorable: the interchangeable team of Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones.

Both were tall, loose-jointed, sloppily dressed, ordinary-looking dark-brown colored men…. They had to be tough to work in Harlem. Colored folks didn’t respect colored cops. But they respected big shiny pistols and sudden death. It was said in Harlem that Coffin Ed’s pistol would kill a rock and that Grave Digger’s would bury it.

They took their tribute, like all real cops, from the established underworld catering to the essential needs of the people—gamekeepers, madams, streetwalkers, numbers writers, numbers bankers. But they were rough on purse, snatchers, muggers, burglars, conmen, and all strangers working any racket. And they didn’t like rough stuff from anybody else but themselves. “Keep it cool,” they warned. “Don’t make graves.”

They are anything but flamboyant; they are mostly tired and often angry. Both are natives of Harlem—a place which at the time the books were written was still filling up with migrants from the South—but they are now attempting to raise their families in the quiet of suburban Queens, where they live on the same street. In Harlem everybody ducks the cops, even the pious, and everybody is scratching for money, and almost everybody is prone to violence from the strain.

He leafed through the reports, reading charges: “Man kills his wife with an axe for burning his breakfast pork chop…man shoots another man demonstrating a recent shooting he had witnessed…man stabs another man for spilling beer on his new suit…man kills self in a bar playing Russian roulette with a 32 revolver…woman stabs man in stomach fourteen times, no reason given…woman scalds neighboring woman with pot of boiling water for speaking to her husband…man arrested for threatening to blow up subway train because he entered wrong station and couldn’t get his token back…. Man sees stranger wearing his own new suit, slashes him with a razor…. Man dressed as Cherokee Indian splits white bartender’s skull with homemade tomahawk…man arrested on Seventh Avenue for hunting cats with hound dog and shotgun…twenty-five men arrested for trying to chase all the white people out of Harlem—“

“It’s Independence Day,” Grave Digger interrupted.

The books are all set either in vicious winter or in blazing summer. The action shifts from street to bar to pool-room to whorehouse to church to temple to undertaking parlor to barbecue restaurant to waterfront shack to Sugar Hill high-rise to rotting tenement to back alley to junkyard. The players come from every walk of Harlem life and stand in every degree of distance from the law. The few white people to be seen are usually either hustlers or corpses, with the exception of the detectives’ maladroit but well-meaning superior.

As the series proceeded, Himes’s imagination became increasingly apocalyptic. Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965) features a farcical recasting of Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement, cross-cut with an equally grandiose white racist scheme to lure black people back to the South; The Heat’s On (1966) makes grim sport of the drug trade, with a rapidly proliferating cast of characters racing around in search of an elusive $3 million worth of heroin.

The last finished book in the series, Blind Man With a Pistol (1969), is also the most profound. It has no plot, as such, and no center, beyond the two detectives, who for once are nearly defeated by what they face, as two criminal cases, neither of which gets solved, thread through the chaos of a summer week lit up by riots. A friend had told Himes a story about a blind man on a subway train who had gotten slapped; trying to shoot his assailant, he wound up killing a bystander. “And then I thought of some of our loudmouthed leaders urging our vulnerable soul brothers on to getting themselves killed, and thought further that all unorganized violence is like a blind man with a pistol.”

What is implicit in the other books is made explicit here: Harlem itself is the main character. On 125th Street a brotherhood march, a Black Power march, and a Black Jesus (“They lynched me”) march converge and then collide. The riots illustrate why the crimes are not solved: because there is no single criminal. They are the work of a system, of institutional racism that creates ghettos where crime is incubated. The series thus comes to a sweeping and appropriate conclusion, as the scope becomes panoramic. The earlier books had revolved around single cases—good stories as well as often apposite metaphors. In Blind Man With a Pistol, however, Himes draws back to show the interrelation of cases and conditions; they are parallel and overlapping and linked. No single story can stand alone, and no case can be wrapped up.

Still, Himes wanted to take the cycle further. In Plan B, which exists only in fragmentary form and has only been published in its entirety in French, he tried to depict a black revolution; one of its alternate endings has Grave Digger killing Coffin Ed, while in another they participate in kidnapping the president and vice-president.2 The two excerpts from Plan B contained in the recently published Collected Stories (“Tang” and “Prediction”) show Himes’s usual flair and caustic humor all but undone by unmediated rage. They are the product not of imagination but of powerlessness and frustration; they are, in fact, the work of that blind man with the pistol.

In between the installments of his crime series Himes published Pinktoes (1961), a comedy of manners of Harlem society that has many splendid touches (“It was all for the Negro Problem. Julius was a Negro, wasn’t he; and being underfoot all the time he was certainly a problem”) but is just as often overemphatic and overbearing. It was originally published by the Olympia Press, the Paris-based English-language publisher of books too risqué for the standards of the US Post Office. My copy of the 1966 American paperback edition duly features quaintly leering blurbs: “A Sinerama in glorious black and white…Rabelaisian…balloon-bursting.” The titillation factor seems rather mild after thirty years; the contemporary reader is more likely to notice the strenuous nature of the fun, both the characters’ and the author’s.

Run Man Run (written in 1961, published in 1966) is a crime novel not featuring his two detectives. If the series shows Himes making triumphant use of the crime genre to explore major themes while pretending to be at play, Run Man Run demonstrates that he could be undermined by the constraints of formula as well. In the book, Jimmy Johnson, a porter at a Schmidt and Schindler luncheonette in midtown (Himes briefly held such a job at a Horn and Hardart), survives a wanton attack by a white detective named Walker, who, crazed by fear and whiskey, has killed two other porters. The action follows Walker and Johnson alternately as one stalks the other. Walker is the perfect white monster, the pacing is relentless, the details are telling, and the premise is obviously deeply felt. However, Himes could think of no way to end the book but by resorting to a series of utterly phony plot twists. There is, in fact, no logical ending to this traintrack of inevitability other than Johnson’s death at Walker’s hands. The book is an interesting case of artificiality as the result of the author’s emotional involvement, rather than of hackwork or expediency.

Himes’s last two books were The Quality of Hurt (1972) and My Life of Absurdity (1976), his autobiography, volumes one and two. They are sprawling, maddening books dense with pain, anger, self-contradiction, and trivia. Himes had already worked over his childhood and troubled youth pretty well in his novels, so the reiteration as fact of those slices of his life are inevitably thin and perfunctory. The rest is mostly a writer’s life, seldom good material under the best of circumstances, although Himes’s has somewhat more power than most as a chronicle of racism, frustration, poverty, and thieving publishers. His relations with women are presented in claustrophobic detail, and nobody, least of all Himes himself, comes out well (with the possible exception of his second wife, who seems translucent, nearly invisible).

The first volume is painful to read, but that is in part because of the painful events Himes relates; it nevertheless conveys his wit, insight, and descriptive skill. Volume two, however, is a disaster. Evidently written when he was in failing health, it appears to be an indiscriminate regurgitation of diary material, with directions to friends’ houses in the French countryside and the exact prices paid for articles of clothing given the same weight and measure as accounts of how he came to write his books or reflections on the political situation in America. It is, in addition, rife with typographical errors, errors of fact, and a variety of highly uncharacteristic misuses of language, including literal translations of French idiom that are obviously not intentional. None of this can be laid at the door of the elderly Himes, who was by then suffering from weakened eyesight and multiple sclerosis, and probably dictated the book. Rather, it seems a final indignity imposed on him by publishers, who in one guise or another had been tormenting him for more than thirty years, and at the twilight of his career chose not to assign him an editor.

But maybe Himes didn’t care by then, or maybe he wanted all the raw material published without interference, displaying every wart and blotch. He had never attempted to protect his image or to present a polished front to the world, even if such had been possible, and as he got older he seemed to relish describing his worst qualities and least creditable actions. Himes often complained that white people could only appreciate books by black writers if the books contained the appropriate amount of suffering; after the early works he’d be damned if he’d give them the satisfaction, although his own suffering was indisputable. He was an original, with a prickly and ungovernable disposition, saddled with the African American writer’s curse of having to be representative without having been elected. He never shirked this task, but it is significant that he did his best work under the triple cover of exile, translation, and genre.

This Issue

January 16, 1992