New Chester Himes Biography Reveals A Life As Wild As Any Detective Story

Jul 26, 2017
Originally published on July 31, 2017 2:22 pm

Most readers these days who know Chester Himes know him for his detective fiction, novels like The Real Cool Killers and Cotton Comes to Harlem, which were written late in his career during the 1950s and '60s. These hard-boiled stories — featuring black New York City police detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson — are brutal and wildly surreal. But no more brutal and surreal, Himes may have said, than the situation of being black — even of being a prominent black writer — in mid-20th century America.

Lawrence P. Jackson's meticulous big new biography of Himes, called simply Chester B. Himes, makes a convincing case for a writer who's always been something of a tough sell. Himes' early literary novels — like his debut, If He Hollers Let Him Go — were dismissed as second-rate social "problem literature" by the young James Baldwin.

Of his second novel, The Lonely Crusade, a reviewer in the Atlantic Monthly complained, "Hatred reeks through his pages like yellow bile." But implicit in that pan lurks a compliment that was almost always paid to Himes: that the harshness of his writing gave it a unique power.

Himes as a biographical subject is also something of a tough sell. He always seems to have been spoiling for a fight, alienating family and making enemies of both his white supporters and his black literary mentors and colleagues, like Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. As Jackson says, Himes "specialized in biting the hand that fed him."

But Jackson also argues that it's worth hanging in there with Himes, not only because he produced some of the most original novels we have in the American canon, but also because his own life story is just as wild as anything he ever dreamt up.

Himes was born in 1909 in Jefferson City, Mo. His father was a college professor who taught industrial arts. Indeed one of the many bonuses of this biography is its vivid excursion into the world of black colleges in the South and Midwest where Himes' father taught.

Himes' mother was also college educated. A light-skinned woman, she was, as Jackson says, "color struck," and tried to build her sons up by telling them, " 'You mustn't think of yourself as colored. ... You both have white blood — fine white blood — in your veins.' " In his novels, Himes would later lash out at the pretentions and black-on-black racism of middle-class African-Americans like his mother.

Though his brothers went on to solid careers, Himes rebelled against the message of uplift that he received at home and school. While an undergrad at Ohio State University, Himes sought out a rougher kind of education in the gambling dens, speakeasies and bordellos around campus. He was arrested for using a fake ID and cashing a bad check.

Out on bail, Himes stole a car, drove to a white neighborhood and, armed with a handgun, forced his way into a wealthy home and robbed the couple inside. He was caught the next day. The upshot was the stuff of nightmares: 19-year-old Himes went from the state university to the state penitentiary. He was given the maximum sentence of 20 years, although he would serve only seven of those hard years.

As interesting as Jackson's account of Himes' later life is — including his eventual self exile in Paris, a deep friendship with Malcolm X and the turn to writing the detective novels that would bring him fame and financial success — it's the long section of this biography about Himes' prison years that's most absorbing.

Himes started writing in his cement cellblock on a typewriter he bought partly with gambling winnings. He was encouraged by a fellow prisoner with literary aspirations with whom he had a sexual relationship — a relationship Himes would later fictionalize and not hide from his two wives. The prison stories Himes wrote eventually found a home in Esquire, alongside short stories by Ernest Hemingway.

Himes, like the literature he created, was difficult and sometimes cruel; but Jackson insists he's worth the trouble. At the end of this biography, Jackson memorably characterizes Himes' great gifts as a writer, describing "his spirited realism from the bottom that defied fear and always cut hard enough to draw blood." That sentence, and many more like it, make me intrigued enough to want to read Himes' work beyond the detective novels I already know.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. When Chester Himes published his first novel in the 1940s, he was hailed as a worthy member of an elite company of black intellectuals and writers, like Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. But these days, Himes' literary legacy is largely forgotten. A new biography of Himes by scholar Lawrence P. Jackson aims to make Himes' work and incredible life better known. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Most readers these days who know Chester Himes know him for his detective fiction, novels like "The Real Cool Killers" and "Cotton Comes To Harlem," which were written late in his career, during the 1950s and '60s. These hard-boiled stories, featuring black New York City Police detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson are brutal and wildly surreal - but no more brutal and surreal, Himes may have said, than the situation of being black, even of being a prominent black writer, in mid-20th-century America.

Lawrence P. Jackson's meticulous, big, new biography of Himes, called simply "Chester B. Himes," makes a convincing case for a writer who's always been something of a tough sell. Himes' early literary novels, like his debut "If He Hollers Let Him Go," were dismissed as second-rate social-problem literature by the young James Baldwin. Of his second novel, "The Lonely Crusade," the reviewer in The Atlantic Monthly complained, hatred reeks through his pages like yellow bile. But implicit in that pan lurks a compliment that was almost always paid to Himes - that the harshness of his writing gave it a unique power.

Himes as a biographical subject is also something of a tough sell. He always seems to have been spoiling for a fight, alienating family and making enemies of both his white supporters and his black literary mentors and colleagues, like Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. As Jackson says, Himes specialized in biting the hand that fed him. But Jackson also argues that it's worth hanging in there with Himes, not only because he produced some of the most original novels we have in the American canon but also because his own life story is just as wild as anything he ever dreamt up.

Himes was born in 1909 in Jefferson City, Mo. His father was a college professor who taught industrial arts. Indeed, one of the many bonuses of this biography is its vivid excursion into the world of black colleges in the South and Midwest, where Himes' father taught. Himes' mother was also college educated. A light-skinned woman, she was also, as Jackson says, color-struck and tried to build her sons up by telling them they mustn't think of themselves as colored because they had fine white blood in their veins. In his novels, Himes would later lash out at the pretensions and black-on-black racism of middle-class African-Americans like his mother. Though his brothers went on to solid careers, Himes rebelled against the message of uplift that he received at home and school.

While an undergrad at Ohio State University, Himes sought out a rougher kind of education in the gambling dens, speak-easies and bordellos around campus.

He was arrested for using fake ID and cashing a bad check. Out on bail, Himes stole a car, drove to a white neighborhood and, armed with a handgun, forced his way into a wealthy home and robbed the couple inside. He was caught the next day. The upshot was the stuff of nightmares. Nineteen-year-old Chester Himes went from the state university to the state penitentiary. He was given the maximum sentence of 20 years, although he would serve only seven of those hard years.

As interesting as Jackson's account of Himes' later life is, including his eventual self-exile in Paris, a deep friendship with Malcolm X and the turn to writing the detective novels that would bring him fame and financial success, it's the long section of this biography about Himes' prison years that's most absorbing. Himes started writing in his cement cellblock on a typewriter he bought partly with gambling winnings. He was encouraged by a fellow prisoner with literary aspirations, with whom he had a sexual relationship - a relationship Himes would later fictionalize and not hide from his two wives. The prison stories Himes wrote eventually found a home in Esquire, alongside short stories by Hemingway.

Himes, like the literature he created, was difficult and sometimes cruel. But Jackson insists he's worth the trouble. At the end of this biography, Jackson memorably characterizes Himes' great gifts as a writer, describing Himes' spirited realism from the bottom that defied fear and always cut hard enough to draw blood. That sentence - and many more like it - make me intrigued enough to want to read Himes' work beyond the detective novels I already know.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed the new biography "Chester B. Himes" by Lawrence P. Jackson. Coming up, our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album by tenor saxophonist JD Allen. Kevin says his trio gets a happy Ornette bounce that's too rare in modern jazz. This is FRESH AIR.

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