Chester Himes

Part of a memorial to Chester Himes in Moraira
Part of a memorial to Himes in Moraira.

Known mostly for the Harlem Detectives Series, Chester Bomar Himes was born on July 29, 1909 in Jefferson City, Missouri, U.S.  He died November 12, 1984 (aged 75) in Moreira, Spain.  He wrote “Hardboiled crime fiction detective fiction” between 1934 and 1980.  His works include “If He Hollers Let Him Go” and a series of “Harlem Detective” novels. In 1958 he won France's “Grand Prix de Littérature Policière”.

Chester Himes grew up in a middle-class home in Missouri to parents Joseph Sandy Himes and Estelle Bomar Himes.  His father was a peripatetic black college professor of industrial trades and his mother was a teacher at Scotia Seminary prior to marriage.  When he was about 12 years old, his father took a teaching job at Branch Normal College in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and soon a tragedy took place that would profoundly shape Himes's view of race relations.  He had misbehaved and his mother made him sit out a gunpowder demonstration that he and his brother, Joseph Jr., were supposed to conduct during a school assembly.  Working alone, Joseph mixed the chemicals and they exploded in his face. When he was rushed to the nearest hospital, the blinded boy was refused treatment. "That one moment in my life hurt me as much as all the others put together," Himes wrote in “The Quality of Hurt”.  "I loved my brother.  I had never been separated from him and that moment was shocking, shattering, and terrifying....We pulled into the emergency entrance of a white people's hospital. White clad doctors and attendants appeared. I remember sitting in the back seat with Joe watching the pantomime being enacted in the car's bright lights.  A white man was refusing; my father was pleading. Dejectedly my father turned away; he was crying like a baby.  My mother was fumbling in her handbag for a handkerchief; I hoped it was for a pistol."

The family eventually settled in Cleveland, Ohio. His parents' marriage was unhappy and eventually ended in divorce.

 Chester Himes

Chester Himes

Prison and literary beginnings

Himes attended East High School in Cleveland.  While he was a freshman at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, he was expelled for playing a prank.  In late 1928 at age nineteen, he was chained upside down, beaten by police until he confessed to an armed robbery, sentenced for twenty to twenty-five years, and incarcerated in the Ohio State Penitentiary.  By the time he was paroled in 1936, he had become a nationally known writer.  In prison, he wrote short stories and had them published in national magazines.  Himes stated that writing in prison and being published was a way to earn respect from guards and fellow inmates, as well as avoid violence.  After publishing eight stories in the African-American periodicals Abbott's Monthly (Chicago) and Atlanta Daily World, he had broken into the major leagues with four stories about prison life in Esquire, becoming one of the most popular authors for that magazine (where he continued to publish until 1959).  

Yesterday Will Make You Cry”, were stories that Himes published while in prison where he had to be careful to evade the systematic suppression of prison writings that coincided with the beginning of the Depression.  

 Chester Himes - Yesterday Will Make You Cry

Chester Himes, “Yesterday Will Make You Cry

In the 1930s, just as in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, state and federal officials and lawmakers worked zealously to prevent convicts from communicating with the reading public.  Miriam Allen De Ford wrote in "Shall Convicts Write Books?”, an article published in The Nation of November 5, 1930, that cells were being searched "not for narcotics and knives, but for manuscripts," which if found, were destroyed.  Federal authorities even ordered Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz, to stop publishing his groundbreaking research on the diseases of birds, severely punished him for smuggling out “Diseases of Canaries”, and later suppressed his book-length manuscript on the American prison system. According to Herman K. Spector, a prison librarian back then, it was the very success of prison writing that "set off a counter flow of reaction and prohibition," masquerading under the rationale that "convicts were in prison 'to be punished, not to make money.'"

Himes’ first stories appeared in 1931 in The Bronzeman and, starting in 1934, in Esquire. His story “To What Red Hell” (published in Esquire in 1934) as well as to his novel “Cast the First Stone” - much later republished unabridged as “Yesterday Will Make You Cry” (1998) dealt with the catastrophic 1930 prison fire Himes witnessed at Ohio Penitentiary in 1930.

 Chester Himes - All Shot up 1960

Chester Himes, All Shot up 1960

In 1934 Himes was transferred to London Prison Farm and in April 1936 he was released on parole into his mother's custody.  Shortly after his parole, Himes completed a novel based on his prison experience and filled with materials that never would have gotten by the prison censors.  As he tried to find a publisher, he discovered that censorship took other, somewhat more subtle forms in the larger society.  Year after year, rejection followed rejection.  In 1950, Henry Holt verbally accepted the book, but when Himes showed up to sign the contract he was told that the acceptance had been overruled from higher up.  By the time the novel was accepted in 1952, sixteen years after he left prison, Himes had published two controversial novels centering on African-American experience: “If He Hollers Let Him Go” (1945) and “The Lonely Crusade” (1947).  The prison novel meanwhile had gone through many rewrites with ever-changing titles: “Present Tense”, “The Way It Was”, “Black Sheep”, “Debt of Time”, “Solitary”, “Day After Day”, and “Yesterday Will Make You Cry”.  When at last published by Coward-McCann in 1952 under the new title “Cast the First Stone”, the novel was radically different from any of Himes' manuscripts. 

Finally, in 1998, six decades after Himes first composed the book and fourteen years after his death, the prison novel was published in its final manuscript form before being chopped up in the early 1950s.  Bearing Himes' own final title, “Yesterday Will Make You Cry”, the volume was issued as one of W. W. Norton's Old School Books - a series of twentieth-century African-American pulp novels overlooked or undervalued because of their disturbing content and style.  

Chester Himes - The Crazy Kill 1959  or  Couché dans le pain 1959 

Chester Himes, “The Crazy Kill”  (1959) = Couché dans le pain (1959)

Old School Books has also brought a new audience to Donald Goines, the prison writer who has sold five million copies of his novels to a mostly African-American readership.  “Yesterday Will Make You Cry” is the first hardback Old School Books

The manuscript's prose, which dramatizes the true insanity of the prison experience, was considerably toned down in “Cast the First Stone”.  The order of the narrative was re-arranged, making it seem less deranged, more accessible to 1952 readers, and less revealing about prison.

Himes' editors no doubt figured, realistically enough, that the novel had to make sense if it were to find an audience.  But the very essence of Himes' vision of prison, and of the American society, which has made prison such a central institution, is that things don't make sense.  The final words of “Blind Man with a Pistol”, the last of Himes' completed Harlem detective novels, put it this way in a dialogue between the two black detectives and their white lieutenant: "Can't you men stop that riot?" he demanded.  "It's out of hand, boss," Grave Digger said.  "All right, I'll call for reinforcements. What started it?." "A blind man with a pistol." "What's that?"  "You heard me, boss."  "That don't make any sense."  "Sure don't.

 Chester Himes - Blind Man With a Pistol or Hot Day Hot Night 1969

Chester Himes, Blind Man With a Pistol  = Hot Day, Hot Night 1969

Following his release he worked at part time jobs and at the same time continued to write. During this period he came in touch with Langston Hughes who facilitated Himes's contacts with the world of literature and publishing.  In 1936 Himes married his first wife Jean Johnson.

 Chester Himes - The Real Cool Killers 1959 or If Trouble was Money 1959 or Il pleut des coups durs 1959

Chester Himes, “The Real Cool Killers“ (1959) = “If Trouble was Money” (1959)
= “Il pleu des coups durs”

In the 1940s Himes spent time in Los Angeles, working as a screenwriter but also producing two novels, “If He Hollers Let Him Go” and “The Lonely Crusade” that charted the experiences of the wave of black immigrants, drawn by the city's defense industries, and their dealings with the established black community, fellow workers, unions, and management.  He also provided an analysis of the Zoot Suit Riots for The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP.

 Chester Himes - The Big Gold Dream 1960

Chester Himes, The Big Gold Dream, 1960

In “City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles” author Mike Davis describes the prevalence of racism in Hollywood in the 40s and 50s and cites Himes' brief career as a screenwriter for Warner Brothers, which was terminated when Jack Warner heard about him and said "I don't want no gotdamned niggers on this lot." (Davies, City of Quartz, pg 43, Verso 2006).

 Chester Himes - The Heat is On 1961

Chester Himes, The Heat's On  1961

Himes later wrote in his autobiography, “Up to the age of thirty-one I had been hurt emotionally, spiritually and physically as much as thirty-one years can bear.  I had lived in the South, I had fallen down an elevator shaft, I had been kicked out of college, I had served seven and one half years in prison, I had survived the humiliating last five years of Depression in Cleveland; and still I was entire, complete, functional; my mind was sharp, my reflexes were good, and I was not bitter.  But under the mental corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles I became bitter and saturated with hate”.

Emigration to France

By the 1950s Himes had decided to settle in France, a country where he was quite popular in literary circles.  In Paris, Himes was the contemporary of political cartoonist Oliver Harrington and fellow expatriate writers Richard WrightJames Baldwin, and William Gardner Smith.

 Chester Himes - Run Man Run 1966  orig Dare-Dare 1959

Chester Himes, Run Man Run, 1966 (orig. Dare-Dare 1959)

In Paris in the late 1950s, he met his second wife Lesley Packard, when she went to interview him.  She was a journalist at the Herald Tribune, where she wrote her own fashion column, “Monica”.  He described her as “Irish-English with blue-gray eyes and very good looking”, and “the only true color-blind person I’ve ever met in my life”. After he suffered a stroke, in 1959, Lesley quit her job and nursed him back to health.  She cared for him for the rest of his life, and worked with him as his informal editor, proofreader, confidant.  Director Melvin Van Peebles dubbed her his watchdog.  They were married in 1978.

The couple faced adversities as a mixed race couple in the United States, but they prevailed. Their circle of political colleagues and creative friends included towering figures as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright; as well as Malcolm XCarl Van Vechten, Pablo PicassoJean MiotteOllie HarringtonNikki Giovanni and Ishmael Reed.  Bohemian life in Paris later led them to the South of France and finally on to Spain where they lived until Chester’s death in 1984 from Parkinsons desease.

Chester Himes - Cotton Comes to Harlem 1965 

Chester Himes, Cotton Comes to Harlem 1965 

His Works

Himes's novels encompassed many genres including the crime novel/mystery and political polemics, exploring racism in the United States.  He wrote about African Americans in general, especially in two books that are concerned with labor relations and African American workplace issues.  “If He Hollers Let Him Go”, which contains many autobiographical elements, is about a black shipyard worker in Los Angeles during World War II struggling against racism, as well as his own violent reactions to racism.  “Lonely Crusade” is a longer work that examines some of the same issues. “Cast the First Stone” (1952) is based on Himes's experiences in prison.  It was Himes' first novel but was not published until about 10 years after it was written.  One reason may have been Himes' unusually candid treatment — for that time — of a homosexual relationship.  Originally written in the third person, it was rewritten in the first person in a more "hard-boiled" style.  “Yesterday Will Make You Cry” (1993), published after Himes's death, restored the original manuscript.

 Chester Himes - For Love of Imabelle  or A Rage in Harlem 1957

Chester Himes, “For Love of Imabelle” = “A Rage in Harlem” 1957

Himes also wrote a series of Harlem Detective novels featuring Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones, two New York City police detectives in Harlem. The novels feature a mordant emotional timbre and a fatalistic approach to street situations. Funeral homes are often part of the story, and funeral director H. Exodus Clay is a recurring character in these books.

The titles of the series include “A Rage in Harlem”, “The Real Cool Killers”, “The Crazy Kill”, “All Shot Up”, “The Big Gold Dream”, “The Heat's On”, “Cotton Comes to Harlem”, and “Blind Man With A Pistol, all written in the period 1957-1969.

Chester Himes - The Real Cool Killers 

Chester Himes, The Real Cool Killers

 “Cotton Comes to Harlem” was made into a movie in 1970, which was set in that time period rather than the earlier period of the original book.  It was directed by Ossie Davis in 1970 and starred Redd Foxx.   “For Love of Imabelle” was made into a film under the title “A Rage in Harlem” starring Gregory Hines and Danny Glover was done in 1991.   A sequel, “Come Back, Charleston Blue” was released in 1972.  In May 2011, Penguin Modern Classics in London republished five of Chester’s detective novels from the Harlem Cycle. His widow Lesley had been working on this to honor Chester’s last request to “keep my books alive”.

Chester Himes  

Chester Himes

Chester Himes has been mentioned as the literary equal to the likes of Raymond Chandler.  Ishmael Reed says "Himes taught me the difference between a black detective and Sherlock Holmes".   It would be more than 30 years until another Black mystery writer, Walter Mosley and his Easy Rawlins and Mouse series, produced and similar effect. 

In 1996, his widow Lesley Himes worked with long-time Himes scholars Edward Margolies and Michel Fabre on the first biographical treatment of Himes's life entitled, “The Several Lives of Chester Himes”, published in 1997 by University Press of Mississippi.  Later, novelist and Himes scholar James Sallis published a more detailed biography of Himes called “Chester Himes: A Life” (2000).

 Chester Himes

Chester Himes

A detailed examination of Himes's writing and what has been written about him in both America and Europe can be found in "Chester Himes: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography" compiled by Michel Fabre, Robert E. Skinner, and Lester Sullivan (Greenwood Press, 1992) and the two volumes of autobiography, "Conversations with Chester Himes", edited by Michel Fabre and Robert E. Skinner, published by University Press of Mississippi in 1995. 

Novels included

  • If He Hollers Let Him Go, 1945
  • Lonely Crusade, 1947
  • Cast the First Stone, 1952
  • The Third Generation, 1954
  • The End of a Primitive, 1955
  • For Love of Imabelle, alternate titlesThe Five-Cornered Square,A Rage in Harlem, 1957
  • The Real Cool Killers, 1959
  • The Crazy Kill, 1959
  • The Big Gold Dream, 1960
  • All Shot Up, 1960
  • Run Man Run, 1960
  • Pinktoes, 1961
  • Cotton Comes to Harlem, 1965
  • The Heat's On, 1966
  • Blind Man with a Pistol, 1969
  • Black on Black, 1973
  • A Case of Rape, 1980
  • The Collected Stories of Chester Himes, 1990
  • Plan B, 1993
  • Yesterday Will Make You Cry, 1998

 

 

REFERENCES / SOURCES / LINKS


  • Lipsitz, George.Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994.
  • Margolies, Edward, and Michel Fabre.The Several Lives of Chester Himes. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997.
  • Wikipedia
  • Franklin, H. Bruce. “Self-Mutilations.” Rev. ofYesterday Will Make You Cry, by Chester Himes.Nation16 Feb. 1998: 28-31.
  • Sallis, James. “Chester Himes: A Life”. Edinburgh: Payback Press, 2000. New York: Walker & Co, 2001.

 

Biography

 

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