Robert B. Stepto teaches at Yale and is the author of “A Home Elsewhere: Reading African American Classics in the Age of Obama.”
Chester B. Himes was born in 1909 into an educated, prospering black family living in Jefferson City, Mo., across Lafayette Street from the Lincoln Institute, the African American college where his parents taught. This places him in that generation of black Midwesterners including Langston Hughes, Aaron Douglas and Josephine Baker — artists who would bring so much talent and creativity to Harlem, Paris and the New Negro Renaissance of the 1920s. But Himes’s early years did not follow that path.
As his family fell apart, Himes became derelict, delinquent and “out of control.” In 1928, he was arrested for breaking into the home of a wealthy Cleveland couple and robbing them. Himes pleaded guilty, seeking leniency. No doubt because he already had a record, the judge sentenced 19-year-old Himes to 20 years in prison. He entered the state prison in Columbus, where Ohio State University is also located — and where Himes had briefly been a student.
In his vivid, engrossing biography, Lawrence Jackson, a professor at Johns Hopkins, gives us an in-depth portrait of Himes, an African American writer whose 20 published books stirred controversy with their depictions of sexuality, racism and social injustice. The writings were often more sensational than revered — and raised questions as to Himes’s place in modern literary history. Jackson takes on those questions in a biography that is a revisionist literary history accommodating and embracing a black author who wrote about black detectives, white women, labor struggles, Harlem streets — and did so while living outrageously both here and abroad.
Himes also wrote about himself, fictively and otherwise. One of Jackson’s most important projects is observing how Himes created autobiographical fictions, beginning while he was in prison. A prime example was the 1933 short story “Prison Mass,” which Jackson tells us “drew its characters from [Himes’s] own life.” Along with many other Himes stories, “Prison Mass” appeared in Abbott’s Monthly, the Chicago black journal that also published in the 1930s Langston Hughes and the first work by Richard Wright. Himes was writing himself into the company of those writers, even before he left prison and met them. “Prison Mass” turned out to be the “proving ground” for Himes’s 1952 prison novel, “Cast the First Stone.”
Himes was paroled in 1936. He returned to Cleveland and soon met Hughes, who had traveled to the Soviet Union in 1932 to make a film with Himes’s cousin, Henry Lee Moon. Hughes was living in Cleveland while “tightening” his musical comedy, “Little Ham,” at Karamu House, Cleveland’s black experimental theater. Moon saw the promise of Himes’s writing and arranged for him to be in correspondence with the poet and Howard University professor Sterling Brown. Brown’s “concerned suggestions” struck Himes as “the first clear, pointed and understandable criticism” he had ever received.
The publication of Wright’s “Native Son” in 1940 stunned and inspired Himes. Jackson tells us that “for the rest of his life, Chester would admire Wright and his vision, at least partly because the characters from Native Son on — oppressed black men cut off from their peers — put onto paper so many dimensions of his life before Chester had reached middle age.”
Everything changed for Himes with the publication of “If He Hollers Let Him Go” in 1945. In that novel, Himes boldly reversed the “symbolic interaction” between Wright’s Bigger Thomas and Mary Dalton in “Native Son” and created a “black hero [who] was middle-class and upwardly mobile, and . . . [a] white villain [who] was a dissipated cracker biddy.” Jackson observes: “By the end of the novel Jones [the black hero] has been arrested for the attempted rape of a washed-out blowsy white Mississippi welder’s helper, mainly because, in the published version . . . he refuses to have sex with her. All of Jones’s tangible symbols of success are gone: job, fiancée, car, and draft deferment.” Clearly, he adds, Himes had “deliberately speared conventional good taste” even while “taming” the plot for its publication by Doubleday.
“If He Hollers Let Him Go” was praised in a review by no less than Wright. Himes and Wright were becoming “men of shared vision” in great part because both aspired, in Wright’s words, to be “a new kind of writing man,” not a “New Negro” of the past era. Ralph Ellison was certainly part of this coterie as well. Later in 1945, the Chicago Defender’s Earl Conrad wrote an article that “corralled [Himes], Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright into a ‘blues school of writers’ who were ‘trying to show what the inexplorable [sic] caste system can do to the human being.’ ” How these writers were there — or not there — for one another, professionally and personally, is a key component of the rest of Himes’s life story.
Jackson tells the story with remarkable insight and care, drawing in part on his research for books such as “Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius and the Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934-1960” (Himes was certainly of that generation). Jackson’s research on his own family (published as “My Father’s Name: A Black Virginia Family After the Civil War”) doubtlessly prepared him for plunging into Himes’s genealogical history while seeking to understand Himes’s family’s pronouncements about race and class. The genealogical research is pioneering, as is the material Jackson presents from the Himes archives and the publishing records of journals and publishing houses.
Himes may not have been part of the Parisian black expatriate community in the 1920s and ’30s, but he certainly was present among this group in the post-World War II era. It’s fascinating to learn how Himes interacted with black artists and writers including Ollie Harrington, William Gardner Smith and James Baldwin while he reconnected with Wright. They needed each other: Wright needed the company of another writer who was a “black literary realist,” especially after being castigated for that by Baldwin; Himes needed a guide to Paris, its writers and publishers, and “the wonders of the cafes.” Indeed, Jackson gives an astonishing account of Himes being present when Wright and Baldwin had their legendary public argument at the Deux Magots. Of this, Jackson writes that “Himes had every reason to understand, however slowly, that he was not just a witness to the conflict, but Wright’s codefendant, another writer whose work had been dismissed by Baldwin.”
It was in this period that Himes completed several novels, including “The Third Generation” in 1954, which “reproduced his life in consummate detail” in its account of “an African American family at the bottom of a caste system, and the dilemma of sexual desire in a male child growing up in such a family.”
He also began to write the black detective stories featuring Harlem detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson (based on men he knew) that would win him awards and international acclaim. Jackson explains how “the shift in American cultural space at the dawn of 1970” created a new era for Himes. Writing in the Chicago Tribune, Shane Stevens called him “the best black American novelist writing today.” Jackson contends that “the proof of the new acceptance was in celluloid”: The film version of “Cotton Comes to Harlem” was nearing completion, starring Godfrey Cambridge, directed by Ossie Davis, shot on location in Harlem.
In the 1960s Himes came to know Malcolm X (they were introduced by Harlem bookstore owner Lewis Michaux); LeRoi Jones, who said that Himes “reminded him of his younger self and the reason he had gotten out of the United States”; and John A. Williams, whose 1967 novel, “The Man Who Cried I Am,” drew from “the stories Chester had bubbled with over the years about himself and his friendship with Richard Wright.”
“With his unfiltered disdain for established literary conventions and his immutable underdog credentials, Chester became the doyen of the black writers whose aesthetic values were formed in the maelstrom of the 1960s,” Jackson declares. Among the writers Jackson lists are Ishmael Reed, Eldridge Cleaver, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou and Addison Gayle.
Jackson is a fine biographer fully attentive to Himes’s personal history and to his place in literary history. He has indeed written the definitive biography that Himes — who died in 1984 — deserves.
By Lawrence P. Jackson
Norton. 579 pp. $35