Chester Bomar Himes's extraordinary life and writing resist categorization. Born in Jefferson City, Missouri in 1909 to a black bourgeois family one generation removed from slavery, Himes attended the Ohio State University in 1926 with the intention of studying medicine. Instead, he received his first education in institutionalized racism from the university's Jim Crow student facilities and was expelled two semesters later. Within a year, Himes had reinvented himself as a minor figure in Cleveland's black underworld and was arrested for armed robbery in 1928. As prisoner 59623 at the Ohio State Penitentiary, Himes began his unlikely literary career.
His first stories, mainly about crime and prison life, appeared in 1931 in the black periodical Abbot's Monthly. By 1934, he began landing pieces in the more lucrative Esquire. In “To What Red Hell” and “Crazy in the Stir” (both 1934) – later revised as episodes in his prison novel Yesterday Will Make You Cry (1998 ) – Himes's commitment to an aesthetics of absurdity emerges. His acute visual attention to the grotesque and his thematic interest in the violence and irrationality of modern America would become central features of his subsequent writing.
Following his release in 1936, Himes cast about for employment, worked for the Federal Writers Project, got involved with industrial unionism, and published fiction and editorials in Crisis, Opportunity, and Old Left literary magazines like Crossroads. Living and writing at the intersections of the Harlem Renaissance and the Popular Front – Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and Carl Van Vechten were critical early influences and supporters – Himes became increasingly concerned with radical social and political change. Himes's first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), weaves together the violent racial and sexual fantasies of his protagonist's dream life with realist accounts of his work as a black leader-man in the racially polarized shipyards of wartime Los Angeles. Here and in Lonely Crusade (1947), Himes revised the proletarian novel by joining documentary elements of social realism with modernist narrative experiments in perspective and the representation of extreme psychological states. Together, the novels provide important critiques of Popular Front racial politics and contribute to a – largely untold – cultural history of California's integrated war industries.
Despairing of American political and literary culture in the 1950s, Himes permanently departed for Europe and joined Richard Wright and a growing community of expatriate black artists and intellectuals in Paris. With no means of supporting himself, Himes welcomed French surrealist Marcel Duhamel's suggestion that he contribute a hard-boiled detective novel for his Série Noire label. The first novel, For Love of Imabelle (1958), won Himes the Grand Prix de Littérateur Policière and made him an instant celebrity in France – Himes would eventually complete nine novels for Duhamel, collectively known as the Harlem Domestic Cycle. In the early installments of the cycle- The Crazy Kill (1959a), The Big Gold Dream (1960b), and All Shot Up (1960a) – Himes's pair of black, antiheroic police detectives, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones, stride through Harlem like capricious gods, outsized Harlem folk heroes who sow havoc and reap awe and ambiguous justice from white and black populations alike. As Rudolph Fisher did before him, Himes rewired a genre implicated in the racist policing of black bodies by disrupting its overly rationalist vision, and insisting upon its blindness; forensic evidence yields no solutions here to crimes that spread out across a social order. In the final installments of the cycle, the growing structural and thematic marginalization of his detectives reflects the intensification of race conflict in 1960s America. In Blind Man With a Pistol (1969), which ends elliptically with Harlem's violent uprising against the city's white police and demolition crews, Coffin Ed and Digger are often absent from the narrative. When present, they appear as anachronistic “ghosts” to a Harlem mobilized by Black Power and Civil Rights movements. Their former structural centrality as folk heroes to Himes's Harlem is replaced by multiple, splintered points of view and textual fragments that seem to elicit black Harlem as the collective subject and object of its own – potentially apocalyptic – story in the making.
With his health declining in the 1970s, Himes completed his second volume of autobiography, My Life of Absurdity (1976), but little else. Himes ranked the Harlem Cycle as his most important literary achievement and critics have tended to agree, viewing them as major landmarks in black crime fiction. Largely neglected in America during his lifetime, Himes has gained much attention since his death in 1984. His strange, profoundly violent, genre-imploding novels have animated a generation of scholars trained in poststructuralist and neo-Marxist cultural theory. Meanwhile, his aesthetic influence remains palpable everywhere from Ishmael Reed and Clarence Major to Walter Mosley and Quentin Tarantino.
SEE ALSO: The City in Fiction (AF); Ethnicity and Fiction (AF); The Harlem Renaissance (AF); Noir Fiction (AF); Politics and the Novel (BIF); Social-Realist Fiction (AF); WPA and Popular Front Fiction (AF)
- Hardboiled Masculinities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. (2005).
- The Transatlantic Mysteries of Paris: Chester Himes, Surrealism and the Série Noire. PMLA, 120(3), 806-21. (2005).
- Crazy in the Stir. Esquire (Aug.). (1934a).
- To What Red Hell. Esquire (Oct.). (1934b).
- If He Hollers Let Him Go. New York: Doubleday. (1945).
- Lonely Crusade. New York: Knopf. (1947).
- The Primitive. New York: New American Library. (1956).
- For Love of Imabelle. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett. (1957).
- The Crazy Kill. New York: Avon. (1959a).
- The Real Cool Killers. New York: Avon. (1959b).
- All Shot Up. New York: Avon. (1960a).
- The Big Gold Dream. New York: Avon. (1960b).
- Cotton Comes to Harlem. New York: Putnam's. (1965).
- The Heats On. New York: Putnam's. (1966).
- Blind Man With a Pistol. New York: Dell. (1970).
- The Quality of Hurt. New York: Doubleday. (1972).
- My Life of Absurdity. New York: Doubleday. (1976).
- Yesterday Will Make You Cry [originally published as Cast the First Stone, 1952]. New York: Norton. (1998).
- The Several Lives of Chester Himes. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. ; (1997).
- “Enough to Make a Body Riot”: Pansies and Protestors in Himes's Harlem. Arizona Quarterly, 56(1), 105-133. (2000).
- The Blues Detective. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. (1996).
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