Chester B. Himes: A Biography

By Lawrence P. Jackson

W.W. Norton & Company | 2017

Reviewed by Robert Fleming

When I arrived in New York City as a young writer in the 1970s, one of the major events of my fledgling career was meeting the legendary Chester Himes at the apartment of poet Quincy Troupe. My great friend, Verta Mae Grosvenor, invited me along for the afternoon meeting. Himes, still recovering from an illness, spoke softly and sparingly. His wife, Lesley, stood by his side. I hung on his every word as he talked about Baldwin, Ellison, writing, publishing, and the American racial climate.

Later, Himes would tell an interviewer that he considered himself, “an evil, highly sensitive, unsuccessful old man, but not an American Negro in the usual connotation of the word.”

This new Himes biography, painstakingly researched by Lawrence P. Jackson, a John Hopkins Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of English and History, sets those doubts to rest. His peerless digging into the writer’s life spanned probing in the three library archives housing Himes’ papers, along with journals and letters with such literary figures as Sterling Brown, publisher Alfred A. Knopf, patron Carl Van Vechten, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright.

“If you’re looking at African-American men, Himes, to me, is the singular figure that helps us understand many of our pressing challenges,” Jackson recently told John Hopkins Magazine. “People that are obviously talented but don’t have credentials and are perhaps barred from obtaining credentials. He helps us begin a discussion on some of these things.”

The early years in the life of Chester B. Himes reads like a sepia puzzle gone amok. Himes was born in 1909 to a middle-class black family in Jefferson City, Missouri, near the Lincoln Institute where his father taught as a professor of metal trades. His mother, often mistaken for white, provided instruction at the elite Scotia Seminary in North Carolina before she got married. Their domestic clashes were fiery—over race or work, then complicated by the loss of Chester’s brother, in a school blast. His father slowly disintegrated into a mundane existence ruled by menial jobs as his wife seethed with rage at having “destroyed my life by marrying a Negro.”

Himes suffered from a series of bad luck on the road to adulthood. While serving as a busboy in hotel, he fell down an elevator shaft, busting up his face, breaking his left arm, and injuring his back and pelvis. Something happened inside him. He dreamed of being a medical doctor. He recovered sufficiently to attend Ohio State University, hoping to avoid the harsh parental conflicts, and started running around with a rough crowd. Whoring in brothels, drunken binges, learning the tricks of the trade in gambling dens. He loved dangerous thrills, teetering on the edge of arrest or getting shot.

The reckless partying continued, along with all-night parties of drinking and reefer. Next, Himes met Jean Johnson, a 16-year-old brown-skin bombshell with an hourglass figure. He was arrested in Columbus for a confidence scam in 1927. The crisis building up at home and inside his head was starting to unravel his resolve. He was losing control of his life.

Jackson, the author of the Himes biography, handles the sordid details of the young writer with sensitivity and style. In 1928, he shows the reader an emotional-distressed Himes, all played out, robbing an Ohio National Guard armory with his crew, and stealing weapons. A botched fur heist. Followed by an attempted robbery of some steel mill workers in nearby Warren. This crime got them busted and hurled into a Cleveland jail. But the crime spree went on.

One of the pivotal events in Himes’ life occurred later that year when he stole a car and drove to the home of a wealthy family in a Cleveland suburb. After a failed entry to the estate, he cornered the Miller family with a gun and robbed them of the contents of the safe, cash and jewelry. He fled to Chicago where he tried to fence the jewelry and was later arrested in a pawnshop. Local cops tortured Himes, “hanging him upside down and beating his testicles until he confessed.” Later, he was brought back to Cleveland and sentenced to a minimum of twenty years in prison.

According to Himes, he became a man behind bars. In 1929, the 19-year-old smooth-faced boy was sent to Ohio State Penitentiary for armed robbery. It would be his 26th birthday before he was released from prison in 1936, and the quiet youth used his time in lockup to his advantage. He watched the surly guards, the unruly inmates, the forced discipline, the harsh routines, the regulations separating the races. He even pursued the customary same-sex union with an inmate who encouraged him to write.

Jackson details the evolution of Himes as a writer while imprisoned, refusing to play up the popular myth of the warrior-convict. He credits the lethal 1930 fire at the overcrowded prison as the catalyst for his budding career as a scribbler, jarring the carefree attitude of the 21-year-old in the second year of his lengthy sentence. Intense flames spread from the scaffolding into the heavily populated G and H blocks, collapsing the roofs on the 1,600 prisoners below. As the charred corpses were piled up in the yard, the final tally was 322 men killed, 230 injured, making it the most tragic prison fire in the nation.

Of the prison experience, Himes summed it up this way: “The advantage I had over other black convicts was that I knew my own mind. Most of the black convicts were stupid, uneducated, practically illiterate, slightly above animals…I began writing in prison. That also protected me, against the convicts and the screws.”

While in prison in 1932, he published his first story, “His Last Day,” in Abbott’s Monthly, a black magazine. In 1934, he scores with his first story in a major magazine, “Crazy in the Stir,” in Esquire. The publication, with Arnold Gingrich at the helm, published three more Himes stories. It earned him a quality reputation for being featured with such A-list writers as Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Posses, Erskine Caldwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe.

When Himes was paroled after serving seven and a half years, he married Jean and worked at a wide range of jobs to keep writing. Also, he wrote pamphlets and circulars for the WPA. Somehow, he landed in Hollywood in 1940, working on screenwriter Louis Bromfield’s farm in Malibu, listening to him hammer out an adaption of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls that didn’t work out

Langston Hughes, a generous friend from Cleveland, gave him a list of contacts in California but they were mostly Communists. Himes watched and listened intently as he walked among the fellow travelers.

As Himes later said, Los Angeles was a very prejudiced place at the time, and the only places for employment were in the kitchens in Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Once he took a job in the reading department for Warner Brothers, but the big boss, Jack Warner, proclaimed: “I don’t want no niggers on this lot.”

Himes viewed the “cullud” stereotypes in the film industry as harmful, yet he knew black stars who were cashing on their skin color such as Stepin Fetchit, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and Hattie McDaniel. In fact, McDaniel said, “I don’t believe we will gain by rushing or attempting to force studios to do anything they are not inclined to do.”

The three years found him working various jobs in the war industries, while working on his first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go. Finally, the book was published to pleasant reviews in 1945, although there was somewhat mixed criticism about Bob Jones, the victimized L.A. shipyard worker framed for rape. Another novel, Lonely Crusade, appeared on bookshelves in 1947 and was immediately savaged by communists, Jewish and black critics, who distrusted Himes’ politics and “heavy handed characterizations.” The writer thought it ruined his literary reputation in America.

From 1948 to 1951, Himes, according to Jackson, had second thoughts about establishing a writing career here. His writing struggled in fits and starts, as he held a series of menial jobs to keep his marriage afloat, but the union evaporated. Himes later told his family that he wanted to go to Europe and having a black wife would be a liability.

In his first autobiography, The Quality of Hurt, he explained his emotional turmoil: “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 fallen down an elevator shaft, I had been kicked out of college. I had served seven and a half years in prison. I had survived the humiliating last five years of the Depression in Cleveland; and still I was entire, complete, functional; my mind was sharp, my reflexes were good, and I was not bitter. But with the mental corrosion of race prejudice of Los Angeles, I became bitter and saturated with hate.”

But Himes was noticed internationally. His French edition of If He Hollers Let Him Go, earned raves in 1949, as well as his “serious” novel, Lonely Crusade. It was published with a preface by Native Son author Richard Wright, immediately winning over the discerning critics. With his advance for The Third Generation, the writer left for Paris, where he was giving much support by a host of established artists such as Wright, Ollie Harrington, Jean Giono, Jean Cocteau, and Picasso.

Yet, in 1953, Himes was hard-up for money upon his arrival in Paris. His novel, The Primitive, was published in the States and France. The American reviewers ignored it largely. However, Marcel Duhamel, the editor of the noted Editions Gallimard’s Serie Noire, was a fan of Himes and advised the writer to write a detective novel.

“Make pictures,” Duhamel suggested. “We don’t give a damn who’s thinking what, only what they’re doing.”

At age 47, Himes recast himself as a noir writer and started the Harlem Cycle series. While the author had not resided in the mythic black community for any length of time, he knew the soul and character of the people there. He published For Love of Isabelle in America in 1957 but it didn’t cause a stir. Contrary to the U.S. lackluster response, Gallimard marketed the novel as La Reine des Pommes the next year, and it was a blockbuster, earning the coveted Grand Prix de la Litterature Policere. The publisher added another novel, The Real Cool Killers, which also became a literary sensation.

Himes was now in great demand throughout Europe, winning awards, his face on the cover of magazines and appearing on television and radio.

While America was going through a bloody, frenzied period of an organized campaign for equality between the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950s through the Black Power era in the 1960s, Himes added a provocative blend of political and cultural elements to the rest of Harlem cycle series. The series with black cops Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson included: 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.

Instinctive and a keen observer of human behavior, Himes explained the appeal of his books with white readers across the pond. “White readers read into a book what they want, and in any book concerning the black people in the world, the white readers are just looking for the exotic episodes. They’re looking for things that will amuse or titillate them. The rest of it they skip over and pay no attention to.”

Jackson notes the convoluted friendships between Himes, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. Ellison, the author of the classic Invisible Man, admired the power and rawness of Himes’ work but criticized images of “an admission of the immorality of black women or the uncivilized nature of black people.” There was also talk about Himes’ violence against women in his fiction.

Critics accurately pointed to the raunchy, lusty sex scenes that filled his controversial novel, Pink toes, published by Putnam in 1965. Although it was heavily censored, the book still packed a wallop for its time and put Himes’ work on the map of America’s literary successes. Blistering interracial sex had always been a staple of Himes’ fiction right from the beginning. He was fascinated with the allure of white females and what that taboo union represented to racist America.

Speaking on the forbidden nature of interracial affairs, Himes did not mince words: “Emotions between black man and white woman are erratic, like a brush fire in a high wind. For a time they burn brightly, burning everything in their path, but they are subject to skip over green patches or turn abruptly about and flicker out on the ashes of what they have previously burned.”

In 1978, Himes married Lesley Packard, a white woman who often worked for the Herald Tribune. She was his second wife. After all of the womanizing in Himes’ past, she would be his loyal partner, editor, typist, and caretaker in the years of declining health following his strokes. In the 1970s, he published a two-volume autobiography, The Quality of Hurt and My Life of Absurdity, as well as Black on Black, a collection of short fiction. Lesley was there to give him an able assist.

The French publisher, Editions Lieu Commun, published Plan B in 1983 with Himes’ approval. With the support of friend Michel Fabre, the unfinished novel featured Tomsson Black, a political activist and underground revolutionary who wanted to smash inequality and injustice by starting a racial conflict. It was a scathing indictment of America’s race crisis. The book was later published by the University Press of Mississippi in 1994.

In the 1960s, the political consciousness of Himes was affected by the poet-activist LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), John A. Williams, and Malcolm X, who he met at a Harlem bookstore. These men had a great effect on his cultural viewpoint. Himes noticed the relative calm of his new French surroundings. Against the backdrop of the marches, protests, and riots in his distant homeland, Himes revised his opinions on his work and the American resistance to ending the Jim Crow obsession.

Asked about his Harlem books, he offered this statement: “They offer no solution. But they go some way towards explaining the violence of the current situation. I’ve come to believe that the only way the American Negro will be able to participate in the American way of life is by a series of acts of violence. It’s tragic, but it’s true. Martin Luther King couldn’t make a dent in the American conscience until he was killed.”

While Himes died in 1984, some of his concerns and warnings still prove timely today in this murderous racial climate of police shootings, white supremacist marches, and sporadic events of urban violence. Jackson, a superb biographer, does not go for the sensational or the tawdry but instead focuses on the man and the writer. He avoids the tabloid traps of an early biography by crime writer James Sallis. He moves past the gossip, rumors, or innuendo, choosing to just tell the facts with a minimum of judgement or commentary. That is the key reason that Jackson’s work is the definitive biography of Chester B. Himes, a very complex and controversial figure in modern letters.

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