Top of page

portrait of Chester Himes
Carl Van Vechten, photographer. [Portrait of Chester Himes] 1946 Mar. 9. Prints & Photographs Division

Chester Himes: Reflections on a Life Shared

Share this post:

Like many writers, Chester Himes (1909-1984) wrote from lived experience. Like many African American men coming of age in the early 20th century, Chester Himes experienced much that left a significant—and often devastating—impression. He infused his stories with those impressions that, in turn, left a lasting mark on 20th century literature.

Growing up in a middle-class home in Missouri and and later Arkansas, Chester Himes’ earliest memories were largely happy (albeit tinged with a fair amount of parental bickering). His parents were both well-educated: his father was a professor of industrial trades at an all-Black college, and his mother taught music at a local seminary before her marriage. This relatively peaceful childhood was disrupted by a tragic accident that forced Himes to reckon personally with the cruelty of racism. When an explosion during a school science experiment blinded Himes’ brother (and later prominent sociologist), Joseph Jr., Chester accompanied their parents in rushing Joseph to the nearest hospital. There, despite the pleading of the family and a young man’s evident pain, the white doctors refused to treat Joseph on the basis of his race.

In 1925, Himes and his family moved to Ohio. There, the family fell on hard times as the industrial trades that Himes’ father taught were increasingly becoming obsolete, and he was forced to take on various menial jobs. Himes eventually attended the Ohio State University and became a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, but a college prank prompted his expulsion from both. At the age of 19, he was arrested for and convicted of an armed robbery. It was during the 8 years that he spent in the Ohio State Penitentiary that Himes began to write fiction.

Public Square, Cleveland, Ohio
Miller Studio (Cleveland, Ohio) , copyright claimant. Public Square, Cleveland, Ohio, c1916. Prints & Photographs Division.

Himes’ stories were published in magazines like the Bronzeman, Abbott’s Monthly Magazine, and Esquire. These stories were inspired by the people he met and the events he witnessed on the streets of Cleveland and during his time in prison. In 1930, he witnessed the catastrophic Ohio State Prison fire—the deadliest prison fire in U.S. history in which more than 300 prisoners were killed. Himes translated this horrific experience in a 1934 story titled, “To What Red Hell” that was published in Esquire magazine with only his prison number as a byline.

Upon his release, Himes worked for the Works Project Administration through the Ohio Writer’s Project. In the 1940s, he and his wife, Jean Lucinda Johnson, moved to Los Angeles, where he worked dockyard jobs and was exposed to what he would go on to view as a particularly L.A. brand of racism. Despite his proven abilities, this obstructed him from developing a career as a Hollywood screenwriter and forced him to constantly find new positions following frequent racist labor conflicts. 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.

In 1944, Himes was awarded a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship and moved to New York City, where he reconnected with an old friend, Langston Hughes (1901–1967). Hughes entertained often and introduced Himes to other authors, such as Richard Wright (1908-1960) and Ralph Ellison (1914-1994). Himes’ first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, was published the following year by Doubleday. Himes based the novel on his experiences in L.A. and working at the dockyards. The Ralph Ellison Library includes a first edition of this book, which Himes inscribed to Ralph and Fanny Ellison, as well as two later reprints. The presence of multiple copies suggests more than a simple exchange of books between friends. That Ellison was not just given a copy by Himes but also continued to read and collect later editions of Himes’ work reflects Ellison’s prolonged interest in Himes’ writing. 

Front and back of Chester Himes' novel If He Hollers Let Him Go
Chester B. Himes. If he hollers let him go. New York: Signet, [c1949]. Rare Book & Special Collections Division
In 1953, separated from his wife and lacking a positive reception from American literary critics, Himes relocated to Paris and immersed himself in a community of American expatriate writers. In 1957, Himes signed a contract to write a detective novel for the French publisher Gallimard. He set his story in New York’s Harlem, a neighborhood intrinsically linked in many minds to the African American experience. In 1958, Himes’ For Love of Imabelle (later renamed A Rage in Harlem) won the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, France’s highest award for crime and detective fiction.

This is the literary genre for which Himes became known. For Love of Imabelle is the first in a nine-book series called the “Harlem Cycle.” Each gritty novel follows the adventures of Black police detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson as they navigate the violent realities of organized crime and a corrupt legal system in the aftermath of Prohibition. Himes’ contribution to the greater body of hardboiled fiction was to bring narratives of Black detectives and Black criminals to the fore in a genre otherwise dominated by white men.

Lined up paperback copies of Himes' Harlem Cycle novels from Ralph Ellison's Library
Five of the Harlem Cycle series of novels by Chester Himes. Ralph Ellison Collection, Rare Book & Special Collections Division

As American literary critic Edward Margolies (1925-2017) explained, “the hardboiled genre is a peculiar mix, celebrating American individualism, while at the same time denigrating the corruption of American society.” Himes’ series, the Harlem Cycle, offers its readers an even more complicated image of American society —one depicting a shared American disillusionment while conveying a specifically African American experience built on generations of broken promises of social reform. For the heroes of the Harlem Cycle, “racism is the disease that eats away at society,” and the crimes that Himes’ detectives solve, “merely assuage an incurable illness.” Margolies points to the ambivalence of the protagonists as an important characteristic of Himes’ work:

Coffin Ed and Grave Digger made their literary debuts at a critical period when civil rights and black nationalist movements were underway. They were torn, almost from the start, between their desire to protect Harlem’s exploited citizenry and their feelings that the white power structure for whom they worked was the real enemy. Like most other popular heroes, they entertained a healthy distrust of organized society, but their aroused black consciousness added new elements to their uneasiness.

The powerful transatlantic networks that connected Himes, Ellison, and other African American writers allowed them to support one another as they all found the individual voices that would help them reckon with the evils of American racism in the early- to mid-20th century. Nowhere are the nodes of these connections clearer than when we look to the personal libraries of these authors. The Ralph Ellison Library, housed in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, contains numerous traces of the friendship between Himes and Ellison as well as evidence of their shared but distinctive efforts to express the realities of life as Black men in the United States.

Reprints of Himes’ early works in the 1960s and 70s gave later authors like Amiri Baraka (1934-2014) and Ishmael Reed (1938- ) much to reflect upon while creating their own powerful works. As the eddy of literature swirls on, perhaps we can count on the next generation of writers sharing their collections —and literary connections —with us, informing our understanding of their creative processes and the networks that supported them.

 

 

FURTHER READING & REFERNCES

Himes, Chester B.. The Autobiography of Chester Himes. [1st ed.] Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1972-76. https://lccn.loc.gov/71157601

Jackson, Lawrence. “Saying Things on Paper that Should Never Be Written”: Publishing Chester Himes at Doubleday. American Literary History, Summer 2011, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Summer 2011), pp. 283-310.

Margolies, EdwardWhich Way Did He Go? : The Private Eye in Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, and Ross Macdonald. New York : Holmes & Meier, c1982. https://lccn.loc.gov/81001061

McCabe, Bret. The Lonely Crusader.” Johns Hopkins Magazine, Fall 2017.

Sallis, James. Chester Himes : A Life. New York : Walker & Co., 2001. https://lccn.loc.gov/00063328

Wasserman, Sarah. “Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, and the Persistence of Urban Forms.” PMLA 135.3 (2020), pp. 530-545.

 

 

Click here to subscribe to Bibliomania and never miss a post!

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.


Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.