Agony Column Critical Essay


Chester Himes
Origins: From Ohio to France to Harlem
The Agony Column for August 9, 2004
Critical Essay by Norlisha Crawford, PhD

Editor's Introduction

One of the great pleasures of the Left Coast Crime conference that I attended earlier this year was the panel on the work of Chester Himes. I'd never heard much of Himes, but the title of the panel appealed to me, so I sat and down found myself entranced by the story of this fascinating author. After the panel I asked one of the participants, Robert Greer if he might be willing to write a column on Himes for me; he suggested that Norlisha Crawford, the moderator would be the best person for the job.

Ms. Crawford is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Bucknell University and a pre-eminent Himes scholar. She "became a reader because of Nancy Drew" which led to "a life-long love of detective fiction". She's a recent PhD, and an eloquent writer. I'm honored to have her aboard, and pleased to say that we should be able to have her back again with more about this fascinating writer.

Her essay on Himes is a wonderfully written biographical look at his background and childhood, giving a valuable insight into the turmoil and conflicts that he brought to his work. From his childhood in Ohio to his exile in France, readers will begin to understand the complex man who created the classic novels 'A Rage in Harlem', 'The Real Cool Killers' and 'Cotton Comes to Harlem'.

--Rick Kleffel

Chester Himes

by Norlisha Crawford, PhD

Young Chester Himes.
Over the course of his long literary lifetime, Chester Himes wrote 17 novels, including a stand alone mystery novel; a nine-volume hard-boiled detective fiction series; more than 40 pieces of short fiction, most of which have been subsequently published in 5 collection volumes; and more than 20 non-fiction essays. Himes’ works have been translated widely. Several, including most of the detective fiction novels, were published first in French because by the early 1950s he had already moved to France, following in the footsteps of fellow African-American literary figures Richard Wright and James Baldwin. After nearly two decades of expatriate life in Europe, Himes settled in and lived his last years with his second wife, Lesley, in their custom-built home, named Casa Griot, in Moraira, Spain. On November 13, 1984 Himes died there.

Beginning at the beginning

Understanding Himes’ ancestry is fundamental to understanding his literary work. Chester Bomar Himes was born on July 9, 1909, in Cleveland, Ohio. He was the third son of Joseph and Estelle (Bomar) Himes. Chester and his siblings, Edward and Joseph, Jr., were reared in tumultuous home environments in the mid-western and southern United States. His parents were diametrically different from each other, never having been able to find enough common ground between them to establish a loving or even respectful relationship.

The first of Himes' Harlem novels.
Himes’ mother was light-skinned—and especially proud of that feature—elegant in her carriage, with a commanding presence in any setting. Himes family lore indicates that on several occasions she “passed’ as white when the family lived, following Joseph Himes, Sr.’s teaching assignments, in various segregated sections of the South. Chester Himes’ father, by contrast, was a dark-skinned man, small in stature, with pronouncedly bowed legs, and a self-effacing, soft-spoken manner, especially when dealing with whites. She was stand-offish and haughty with most people; he was warm and kind, if shy.

Estelle hailed from a Southern middle-class—by African-American standards of the post-emancipation time—family of mixed racial heritage; her father was a small business owner, an independent building contractor. Himes, Sr.’s family was extremely poor, each member scrambling for a living as a laborer. As a young teen, Joseph was finally forced by dire economic circumstances to leave the family completely and support himself.

Although both of Chester Himes’ parents were to some extent educated, trained as teachers, Estelle Himes also saw herself as by nature an exceptionally talented poet. Joseph Himes, Sr. seemed content seeing himself as simply a qualified teacher of wheelwrighting and other mechanical skills—making and repairing farm equipment—in small African-American colleges where students learned trades for employment as agricultural and industrial workers or as themselves owners of small farms, in the tradition exemplified by educator Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee University model.

Himes in Paris.
Estelle, having been reared under the sheltering protection even in the South of a respected African-American father and family, and relative financial prosperity, and seeing her white ancestry as of the best even among whites (conveniently eluding the brutality and coercive nature of slave/master sexual liaisons), looked all of her life for recognition of her talents and worth from whites. Needless to say, she was bitterly disappointed by the ways that racial hierarchy robbed her of what she saw as her social parity with upper-class whites. She home-schooled her sons when living in the South precisely because she also wanted to inculcate each of them with her own sense of self-pride and entitlement.

Joseph Himes, Sr., on the other hand, was afraid of whites, and so never wanted anything to do with them. He came from a family that because of extreme poverty was fractured; his father abandoned the family early in Himes, Sr.’s life, while his siblings one by one scattered to find ways to support themselves. He had been beaten down all of his young life by the violence and fear borne by Jim Crow racism at its worst. He thought sending his sons to school with Southern black children would teach his sons time-honored rules for survival under the ever-threatening circumstances of brutally segregated U.S. society.

Himes' most famous novel.
Joseph Himes had worked hard, persevering against the odds to achieve an education and comfortable financial success—and he caught the eye of Estelle Bomar. She saw in him a man with potential and prospects that she could mold and shape into a partner who would take her to higher social standing. Unfortunately, because Joseph Himes felt deeply inferior to most of those around him, he also worked hard to achieve a kind of invisibility as a protective cover. The last thing he wanted was to be socially outstanding, rising above the crowd, available for close scrutiny. Estelle was as ambitious as Himes, Sr. was reticent. Tragically, she overestimated his achievements and drive, while underestimating compelling personality traits within Joseph Himes that were diametrically opposed to what would be needed for him to become what she envisioned.

I am not sure what Himes, Sr. saw in Estelle Bomar that made him choose her. Maybe he thought that because of her background she could help him to create the close-knit and financially secure family had he never had. Maybe he was attracted to her physical attributes. Maybe he found her keen intellect attractive. We don’t have his words or even those of others about his choice to help make any definitive conclusions. In any event, the mismatched couple married. According to Chester Himes, the couple fought constantly and bitterly from as early as he could remember. Himes’ mother seemed to hate her husband more and more for what she saw as career failures brought on by his obsequious manner and lack of drive. Himes, Sr. seemed to be hurt and angered more and more by his wife’s withering tirades and what he felt were unrealistic expectations of him, a black man in America. The three sons were caught painfully in the middle.

Chester spoke and wrote in later years of loving both parents dearly, and yet despising his mother’s arrogance, color-struck consciousness, and cruelty to his father, while also loathing his father’s lack of courage and self-pride in the face of the disparagement his mother meted out and the restrictions imposed by racist traditions and practices. In the end, the couple split after literally battling each other in a knife-wielding incident fueled by their divergent opinions on a matter concerning Chester. Edward and Joseph, Jr., had already moved from the family home; Chester was left alone to break-up the fight between his parents. The couple finally split.

Estelle moved in with Joseph, Jr., who was attending graduate school, and his wife, also named Estelle (Adams), while Joseph, Sr., moved with his teen-aged son Chester into a boardinghouse apartment. Demoralized and no longer able to find teaching positions, Joseph, Sr., supported himself and his son by taking menial jobs as they could be found. Chester Himes’ parents never reconciled nor saw each other again. The identity issues that surfaced first for him within the dynamics of his family—manhood definitions, spousal roles, the costs and consequences of inter- and intra-racial strife, the ways of socio-economic stratification, the complicated nature of love and hate, the vagaries and affects of historical circumstance, among others—are all reflected in the body of literary works Chester Himes would create.

The Harlem “domestic” series

"Get an idea. Start with action."
In My Life of Absurdity, the second of two autobiographies, Chester Himes says that one day in 1957 when taking the manuscript for another novel to the offices of Gallimard, his French publishers, he ran into Marcel Duhamel, the editor of the publishers’ La Series Noire. Duhamel, knowing about Himes’ persistent money needs, directed Himes to write a detective novel set in Harlem. According to Himes, Duhamel said:

"Get an idea. Start with action, somebody does something—a man reaches out a hand and opens a door, light shines in his eyes, a body lies on the floor, he turns, looks up and down the hall…Always action in detail. Make pictures. Like motion pictures. Always the scenes are visible. No stream of consciousness at all. We don’t give a damn who is thinking what—only what they are doing. Always doing something. From one scene to another. Don’t worry about it making sense. That’s for the end. Give me 220 typed pages."

Broke and desperate for funds, Himes reluctantly took Duhamel’s challenge. Ultimately he wrote a series of nine hard-boiled detective novels. He referred to them as his “domestic” novels because he says he “put the slang, the daily routine, and complex human relationships of Harlem into [the] detective novels…This is a world of pimps and prostitutes who don’t worry about racism, injustice, or social equality. They’re just concerned with survival.” And yet, Himes also makes it clear that while the Rabelaisian upside down world of his fiction may suggest a real world community—Harlem, NYC or any urban area in the USA—it is in fact a setting that he created to highlight deliberately the absurdist consequences for one community because the nation’s social fabric is permeated by racism. Although he couched his central theme in laugh out loud humor, Himes’ Harlem novels suggest the tragic reality of a great creative potential squandered in U.S. society because ideologies and discourse of race have prevailed, along with racism and racist traditions. Combined, they have weakened if not ruined the prospects for people of color, in particular African Americans, to truly participate on equal footing with those Americans who had been allowed to enter the national mainstream by way of equal employment opportunities.

All of the Harlem series novels have complicated publication histories, involving translations or publishers’ squabbles over rights and payment terms of Himes, as well as republication under varying names, depending upon where in the world the publisher was located. What follows is a listing of the novels’ titles in English and their original dates of publication, with some notation where necessary to distinguish between British and US publications:

The real cool novel.
For Love of Imabelle (1957); it was republished in the U.S. under the title A Rage in Harlem (1965).

The Real Cool Killers (1959)

The Crazy Kill (1959)

The Big Gold Dream

All Shot Up (1960)

The Heat’s On (1961)

Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965)

Blind Man with a Pistol (1969); the only one completed by Himes and published first in the U.S.)

Plan B (1993); at the request of Lesley Himes, the manuscript for the last novel in the series was completed by two scholars, Michel Fabre and Robert Skinner, using a number of story fragments left by Chester Himes upon his death. The novel was published posthumously in the U.S.

Run, Man, Run (1966); a stand-lone mystery novel.

A selected bibliography

Discover Chester Himes yourself.
New readers, scholars and journalists are “discovering” Chester Himes and his literary works every day. There are many book chapters, essays, and articles written about the Harlem series and Himes’ specific contribution to both the hard-boiled American detection fiction genre and African-American literary traditions. I have found the very best overall assessment of Himes’ work to be offered in an essay written by Raymond Nelson, “Domestic Harlem: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes,” published in the Virginia Quarterly Review 48 (Spring 1972), pages 260-276.

I also offer here a select listing for gaining further information on Himes and his body of literature. A few simple website searches of Himes’ name or titles will reveal much more.

To find a comprehensive (although because of its publication date, now incomplete) listing of works by and about Himes, look for Chester Himes: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography, compiled by Michel Fabre, Robert E. Skinner, and Lester Sullivan, published in 1992 by Greenwood Press.

For Himes’ own words about his life and works, see Conversations with Chester Himes, published in 1995 by the University of Mississippi Press, and his two autobiographies, The Quality of Hurt (1972) and My Life of Absurdity (1976), both published by Doubleday.

For more information regarding Himes life in biography, see: Chester Himes: A Life, by James Sallis, published first in Great Britain by Walker Press, in 2000; The Several Lives of Chester Himes (1997), written by Edward Margolies and Michel Fabre, published by the University of Mississippi Press; and Chester Himes: Author and Civil Rights Pioneer (1988), by M.L. Wilson, published by Melrose Square Publishing Co.

For critical assessments of the Harlem series, see 2 Guns from Harlem: The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes (1989), written by Robert Skinner and published by Bowling Green University Popular Press, and The Blues Detective: A Study of African American Detective Fiction (1996), written by Stephen F. Soitos, published by the University of Massachusetts Press.