His reputation rests largely on his detective novels, which in their own right rank with the best noir fiction, but Chester Himes (1909-1984) was hardly a man to be pigeonholed. In his lifetime he published 17 novels, more than 60 short stories, and 2 volumes of autobiography in which he detailed the pain of being an African American writer in the twentieth century.
Named for his maternal grandfather, Chester Bomar Himes was born on July 29, 1909, in Jefferson City, Missouri, the youngest son of Joseph Sandy and Estelle Bomar Himes. Himes's father was head of the mechanical department at Lincoln Institute, where he taught blacksmithing and wheelwrighting; his mother was formerly on the faculty of Georgia State College, teaching English composition and music. The Himes family led a nomadic life during Himes's early years. In 1914 they moved to Cleveland following his father's resignation from Lincoln Institute. Their stay there was brief as Himes's father accepted a position on the faculty of Alcorn College in Lorman, Mississippi. Tension between Himes's parents— attributed to his father's humble status and his mother's attempts at social climbing—soon caused a riff. Estelle Himes accepted an offer to teach in South Carolina and she took Chester and his middle brother, Joseph, Jr. However, less than a month later Estelle relocated again, this time to Augusta, Georgia. She taught music at the Haines Normal and Industrial School, which both her sons attended.
At the end of the school year the family was reunited, with the exception of the eldest son, Edward, who left home to attend Atlanta University and eventually made his way to New York. Himes's father took a position at the Branch Normal School in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, while his mother taught in local public schools. In June 1923 an accident during a chemistry demonstration on gunpowder left Joseph, Jr. blind, and Chester, who was forbidden to take part in the demonstration because of misbehavior, was despondent over his brother's injury. The family moved to St. Louis shortly thereafter, but by 1925 they were back in Cleveland.
In 1926 Himes graduated from Glenville High School in Cleveland. He planned on attending Ohio State University, and in order to earn money he worked as a busboy at the Wade Park Manor Hotel. While on the job Himes was seriously injured after he fell down an elevator shaft. The hotel was found liable and Himes was awarded a monthly disability payment. He enrolled at Ohio State but left in 1927 because of poor grades and bad health. Himes thereupon returned to Cleveland and began working as a bellhop in the Gilsey Hotel. Attracted by the seamier side of Cleveland, he began carrying a gun and hanging out at a bar and gambling club called Bunch Boy's, where he dealt blackjack. Himes soon found himself in trouble with the law. His first arrest, for passing bad checks, ended with a two-year suspended sentence, plus a five-year parole. His second arrest was far more serious: the armed robbery of an elderly couple. In December 1928 Himes was sentenced to 20 to 25 years' hard labor. He served time in the Ohio State Penitentiary from December 27, 1928. until September 21, 1934, when he was transferred to a work farm; he was paroled into his mother's custody on April 1, 1936.
In The Quality of Hurt, the first volume of his autobiography, Himes wrote, "I grew to manhood in the Ohio State Penitentiary. I was nineteen years old when I went in and twenty-six years old when I came out. I became a man dependent on no one but myself. I learned all the behavior patterns necessary for survival. … I survived, I suppose, because I knew how to gamble." Himes admitted that his explosive rage also served as a shield in prison, as did his education. It was in prison that Himes began to write, and his first stories naturally dealt with crime and criminals. "Crazy in the Stir," "To What Red Hell" (based on an infamous prison fire at the Ohio State Penitentiary), "The Visiting Hour," "Every Opportunity," "The Night's for Crying," "Strictly Business," and other stories appeared in various newspapers and magazines, including Coronet and Esquire. This early success bolstered Himes's confidence, and upon his release he began working on a prison novel, originally titled Black Sheep. On August 13, 1937, he married Jean Lucinda Johnson, whom he had lived with before his incarceration.
The Great Depression came upon the United States during Himes's prison term and, ironically, Himes was spared its harshest years. The Works Project Administration (WPA) was one of the New Deal programs designed to kick-start the economy, and in 1937 he went to work for the WPA, at first as a laborer and then a research assistant for the Cleveland Public Library. By 1938 Himes was working for the WPA's Federal Writers' Project, assigned to write a history of the state of Ohio and later a guide to Cleveland. In retrospect Himes considered this one of the happier periods in his life, both personally and professionally. Himes was even writing a column (though unsigned) for the Cleveland Daily News titled, "This Cleveland." In March 1940 he successfully petitioned Ohio Governor Harold Burton for termination of his parole and restoration of his citizenship. Himes afterward joined the Democratic Party.
In 1941, after his term in the Federal Writers' project had expired and he could not find work in Cleveland, Himes decided to head to California. Before doing so, however, he went to work as a butler on Malabar Farm, located in the countryside southwest of Cleveland. Malabar was owned by the writer Louis Bromfield, who at the time was at the height of his popularity. Bromfield, a Pulitzer Prize winner who also wrote Hollywood screenplays, read Himes's Black Sheep and promised to help get it published.
Himes spent most of World War II working in the war industry in Los Angeles and California. During this time he published stories and essays in such black-run magazines as Crisis and Opportunity. By 1944 Himes was working on another novel and was awarded a Rosewald fellowship to complete it. That year he moved to New York City. He completed the 1945 novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, a semi-autobiographical tale of the absurd and rage-filled life of a young, educated African American man who eventually lands a job in the shipyards. After the novel's publication Himes returned to California and began working on a new novel. When he had finished it Himes moved back to New York City. His second novel, Lonely Crusade, was published in 1947. The following year Himes spent two months at the famed Yaddo Writer's Colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. It seemed his career was finally on its way. However his home life suffered and by 1950 Himes and his wife had separated for good.
In 1952 Himes was again running out of money when he managed to finally sell his prison novel, now retitled Cast the First Stone. Unfortunately this was such an over edited version of the manuscript that it amounted almost to censorship. Even Himes's choice of a new title, Yesterday Will Make You Cry, was changed. It was not until 1998 that the novel was finally published in its entirety, along with Himes's preferred title. Also in 1952 Himes met a young woman who worked as an executive at the International Institute of Education; Himes's violent and often destructive affair with Vandi Haygood eventually became the basis for his 1955 novel The Primitive (also titled The End of a Primitive.). By the time that book came out, though, Himes was no longer living in the United States. In 1953 he immigrated to France already the refuge for such prominent African American writers as Richard Wright and James Baldwin. In 1954 Himes published The Third Generation; later that year he moved to Mallorca, a Spanish island also known as Majorca.
1956 was the real turning point in Himes's career. Marcel Duhamel, who had translated If He Hollers Let Him Go into French, became the editor of Gallimard publishing house's "La Sârie Noir" and persuaded Himes to write detective fiction. Since Himes's earliest published work had dealt with crime and his subsequent novels had both noirish and absurdist touches, this was not so unusual a request. Himes decided to give it a try and what resulted was a long series featuring literature's first two African American detectives, Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones, who were patterned after characters in a story Himes had written while in prison. The series became known as the "Harlem Cycle."
The "Harlem Cycle" and many of Himes' other novels are a mixture of elements, their violence and absurdity at times seemingly at odds with each other, while at other times serving as perfect counterpoints. As Himes himself wrote in My Life of Absurdity, "It never occurred to me that I was writing absurdity. Realism and absurdity are so similar in the lives of American blacks one cannot tell the difference."
The first novel in the series, published in 1957, was titled La Reine des pommes (For Love of Imabelle). The novel, which won the Grand Prix in 1958 as the best detective novel of the year, introduces Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones. When it was finally published in the United States it was heavily re-edited, but years later was restored under the title A Rage in Harlem. By the time For Love of Imabelle was published Himes had already finished the next two books in the series, The Crazy Kill (Couchâ dans le pain) and The Real Cool Killers (Il pleut des coups durs), both published in 1959.
Himes' next novel, Dare Dare, was also published in France in 1959, but did not reach its American audiences, under the title Run Man Run, until 1966. It is unique among the "Harlem" novels in that it does not feature Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones. In 1960 Himes published two more "Harlem Cycle" novels: All Shot Up and The Big Gold Dream. The early 1960s proved to be the peak of Himes' career, though not his fame. Ever the gypsy, Himes traveled widely about Europe and back and forth to the United States. He also became more deeply involved with Lesley Packard, whom he married in 1965. In 1961 he finished another novel in the "Harlem Cycle," The Heat's On, which, like Run Man Run, wasn't published in the United States until 1966. That same year, Himes also took a break from the "Harlem Cycle" with the publication of Pinktoes.
In 1962 Himes returned to the United States to do a film documentary about Harlem for France-Soir. The next year he published Une Affair de viol, published in the United States in 1984 as A Case of Rape. Himes suffered a stroke while in Mexico later that year, prompting his return to France. In 1965 he published Cotton Comes to Harlem. The best-known novel in the "Harlem Cycle," it was made into a 1970 film directed by Ossie Davis and starring Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques. Over the next few years Himes continued his hectic pace of travel. He and his wife moved to southern France and from there went to Paris, London, Barcelona, Sweden, and Egypt. In 1968 the couple moved to Spain and the following year built a house in Moraira. In 1969 Himes published what was to be the final volume of the "Harlem Cycle," Blind Man with a Pistol.
In 1972, after publishing The Quality of Hurt, the first volume of his autobiography, Himes went to New York, where he was recognized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In 1973 Black on Black was published; it is an anthology of Himes' selected shorter works. In 1974 The Heat's On was filmed as Come Back Charleston Blue, again starring Cambridge and St. Jacques. Himes published the second volume of his autobiography, My Life of Absurdity, in 1976. Seven years later Plan B was published, though Himes himself was too ill to finish it. Featuring Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones, Plan B is a novel of African American revolution begun in the early 1970s but scrapped when Himes decided to devote his energy to his autobiography. Himes died on November 12, 1984.
Himes, Chester, My Life of Absurdity: The Autobiography of Chester Himes, Vol. II, Doubleday, 1976.
Himes, Chester, The Quality of Hurt: The Autobiography of Chester Himes, Vol. I, Doubleday, 1972.
Muller, Gilbert H., Chester Himes, Twayne Publishers, 1989.
Sallis, James, Chester Himes, a Life, Walker & Company, 2000.
Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 1, 1998.
New Yorker, June 4, 2001.
New York Times, November 14, 1984.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 20, 2000.
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), April 15, 2001.
"Chester Himes (1909-1984)," http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/chimes.htm (November 7, 2001).
"Chester Himes Books: The Coffin and Gravedigger Mysteries," Giveadamn Chester Himes, http://www.math.buffalo.edu/~sww/HIMES/himes-coffingravedigger.htm (November 7, 2001).