- Chester B. Himes: A Biography by Lawrence P. Jackson
Norton, 606 pp, £25.00, July 2017, ISBN 978 0 393 06389 9
On 21 April 1930, a fire broke out in the state penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio, a wretched, segregated prison where more than 4000 men were packed into a facility built to hold 1500. By the time it was extinguished, 322 prisoners lay dead, and the National Guard was called in to suppress rioting. Among the survivors was Chester Himes, a twenty-year-old black man serving a twenty-year sentence for armed robbery. Himes had already seen his share of troubles but, as Lawrence Jackson writes in his impressive biography, they ‘did not inspire him’ the way that ‘stumbling through the gore of two cell block tiers’ worth of burned-alive men’ did. After the fire, Himes began to write fiction on a typewriter he had bought with his gambling winnings, and four years later he published a story about the fire in Esquire. As the prison was engulfed in flames, Himes had seen its clandestine eroticism come into the open, in a carnival of the damned. A convict called Broadway Rose put on a sex show, and the prison’s ‘boy-girls’ offered their services in cells covered by red curtains. In Himes’s ‘To What Red Hell’, it’s the fire that enables this liberation of desire, before extinguishing it: ‘Oh, Lawd, ma man’s dead,’ a black prisoner called Beautiful Slim says, mourning his lover. Yet death also has a levelling effect: Blackie, the white protagonist, observes that all the dead, white and black, have the same ‘smoke-blackened flesh’.
In his novels, Himes depicted the whole of American life as a prison inferno, a blaze of race, sex and power, where freedom could be achieved only in death, or murder. One of the most prolific American writers of his generation, as well as one of its most versatile, Himes published proletarian and prison fiction, Bildungsromans, sex romps, blistering tales of interracial manners and flamboyant detective stories set in Harlem. The odd man out in a group of ambitious black male writers who came of age in the 1930s and 1940s and included Richard Wright (born 1908), Ralph Ellison (1914) and James Baldwin (1924), Himes has never quite entered the pantheon. His peers were condescending: Wright never took him seriously as an artist; Ellison, who saw him as little more than an ex-con with a pen, joked that Himes must have been the model for Bigger Thomas, the murderous anti-hero of Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son; Baldwin wrote that ‘Mr Himes seems capable of some of the worst writing this side of the Atlantic.’ Jackson, whose previous book, The Indignant Generation, was a formidable history of black American writers from the Depression years to the civil rights era, writes brilliantly about Himes’s fraught relations with his black peers as they competed for what little attention the white literary world was willing to grant them, a game Himes described as a ‘mean and undermining competition with your black brothers for the favours of white folks’.
It was a game he could never win. Wright, Ellison and Baldwin were all determined to write the Great American Novel, and took Dostoevsky, Malraux and James as their models. Himes was a reader of European modernism, and of Hemingway and Faulkner (‘my secret mentor’), but he mostly wrote genre fiction: existential potboilers, family dramas, ribald comedies, urban noirs. His prose was lean and gritty, and his plots often so dense with incident that they were difficult to follow. The intellectual seriousness of Ellison, the prophetic eloquence of Baldwin, the allegorical fire of Wright: these high notes eluded Himes. He remained just outside the gates of the literary establishment, grumbling at his exclusion. It was only in France, where Himes settled in 1953 and spent more than a decade, that he found himself celebrated as a major writer, the poète maudit of black America. Like his mentor Faulkner (and later Cormac McCarthy), Himes appealed to a Parisian readership convinced of the essential savagery of American life.
‘What the great body of Americans most disliked’ about his work, Himes believed, ‘was the fact that I came too close to the truth.’ He wasn’t wrong in thinking that something beyond pure aesthetic judgment had prevented him from reaching a wider audience. Long before Himes left America for good, he had committed what, for black writers of the era, was a kind of treason: he depicted racism as a sin without the promise of redemption. Even at their bleakest, Himes’s contemporaries hinted at a better world on the horizon. Wright, a socialist, held out the hope of collective action against racism and inequality. Ellison, a Cold War liberal, wrote scathingly about white benefactors in Invisible Man but believed in the promise of a racially inclusive American democracy. Baldwin, the gay stepson of a preacher, dreamed that romantic love between a white man and a black man might give birth to ‘another country’. Himes was black American literature’s one authentic nihilist. In his novels, solutions to what was then called the ‘Negro problem’ – communism, Cold War liberalism, integration, ‘race mixing’ – are all subjected to withering ridicule. That he should even be asked to address the ‘Negro problem’ he considered foolish and insulting, ‘as if this American dilemma of what to do with twenty million descendants of American slaves … was some riddle these poor folk had cooked up for the mortification of white intellect and could themselves solve at a moment’s notice if they so desired.’ Merciless towards white liberals, he was equally severe with the black bourgeoisie he was born into. Being light-complexioned himself only intensified his rage at blacks who held themselves aloof from those with darker skin. In his 1945 novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, Bob Jones, a black ‘leaderman’ in an LA shipyard, is at a dinner party with a group of decorous middle-class blacks who ask his opinion on how to ‘integrate the people of this ghetto into the life of the community’. ‘Well, now,’ he replies, ‘I think we ought to kill the coloured residents and eat them. In that way we’ll not only solve the race problem but alleviate the meat shortage as well.’
With his scorn for liberal pieties, Himes won admirers among the black writers who emerged during the Black Power era, such as LeRoi Jones, John A. Williams and Ishmael Reed. And his legacy now? As Jackson writes, ‘history has borne out some of his vinegary judgments.’ Today, Himes’s belief in the implacable force of white supremacism – what is now called Afro-pessimism – enjoys a growing vogue among black intellectuals. One can detect echoes of his jaundiced vision in Jordan Peele’s recent horror film, Get Out, and in Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout. But, as if it were his destiny to remain just beyond the pale of literary approval, Himes, unlike Baldwin, flunks the contemporary ‘woke’ test. As much as he deplored the prejudices of the black bourgeoisie and aligned himself with poorer, dark-skinned blacks, he was not above comparing one of his characters to an ape. His unsparing depiction of black poverty, his insistence on the sheer ugliness of social misery, seem rather dated in an age when black American writers, artists and filmmakers have been creating more redemptive visions of the inner city.
Then there is the matter of Himes’s attitude towards women. Not only was he sometimes brutal towards the women in his life; he explicitly defended his brutality. ‘The only way to make a white woman listen is to pop her in the eye, or any woman for that matter,’ he wrote in his memoirs. ‘But it is presumed only right and justifiable for a black man to beat his own black woman when they need it. But how much more does a black man’s white woman need it; maybe she needed it when she became his woman.’ Jackson refrains from citing this passage, which accurately identifies white hypocrisy only to rationalise spousal abuse, but he makes no secret of Himes’s violence, or what drove it: ‘Chester took up his fists for really only one cause: the prerogative of patriarchy.’
The youngest son of educated, middle-class parents, Himes started out on a path that looked relatively auspicious, but strayed from it after a series of accidents, never to return. Those accidents came to acquire the appearance of fate – as if, as Jackson puts it, they were ‘comeuppance for overambition’ – and a sense of fate would hang over Himes’s novels of proud, articulate men, destroyed by forces beyond their control. He was born in 1909 in Jefferson City, the state capital of Missouri, across the street from the Lincoln Institute, where his father, Joseph, taught blacksmithing and wheelwrighting. Chester’s parents were both children of former slaves, members of the ‘second generation’ of African Americans in the postbellum era, but otherwise had little in common. Joseph Himes, a short, dark-skinned man with blue eyes, bowed legs and an aquiline nose, was a ‘contented and modest artisan’ who educated his sons in black history but avoided confrontation with whites. Estelle, Chester’s mother, was a pale-skinned beauty from a highly cultivated family of former slaves who were ‘light-bright-and-damn-near-white’; he described her in his memoir The Quality of Hurt (1971) as resembling ‘a white woman who had suffered a long siege of illness’. Chester respected his father, but adored his mother: in his 1954 novel, The Third Generation, a wrenching portrait of the family’s disintegration, he would depict the mother-son bond in explicitly Oedipal terms. A proud, restless woman who wrote sonnets and played Chopin études for pleasure, Estelle dreamed of what Jackson describes as an elusive ‘world of refinement and equal rights’. Embarrassed by the folkways of poor Southern blacks – their ecstatic worship in church, their sexual mores, their accents – she preferred to mix with those who, like her, were partly descended from Southern aristocracy. She told her sons they must never think of themselves as ‘coloured’, or forget their ‘fine white blood’, and kept them from playing with the children of poorer blacks. She was distraught when Chester’s fine hair turned kinky, a reminder not only of her husband’s ‘black blood’, but her own. Chester’s first exposure to the American race war took place inside his own black family.
In 1923, the family suffered a catastrophe that Chester would remember as its foundational trauma. They were living in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where Joseph had taken a job at Branch Normal, a school for blacks at which Chester was introduced to Shakespeare and Chaucer. One day, in front of an audience of parents and students, Joseph Jr, the middle son, gave a chemistry presentation: a gunpowder demonstration in which he mixed ground saltpeter, ground charcoal and ground glass. Chester was supposed to lend his brother a hand, but Estelle forbade it as punishment for bad behaviour. Joseph Jr miscalculated the ingredients, and the contents of the mortar exploded in his face. Refused treatment at the local hospital because he was black, he was blinded. Chester blamed himself. ‘That one moment in my life hurt me as much as all the others put together.’
To be closer to better medical care, the family moved to St Louis, Missouri. But Joseph couldn’t find work as a teacher there, and joined the ranks of black manual workers. In 1924, the family moved again, to Cleveland, where they lived with Joseph’s relatives close to Scovil Avenue, otherwise known as the ‘Bucket of Blood’, home to poor, unemployed blacks, and to Eastern European immigrants working in the steel factories, which refused to employ their black neighbours. Estelle – increasingly distant from her husband, who had suffered a devastating loss in prestige, and resentful about having to share a home with his relatives, whom she considered beneath her – moved out with their disabled son. She returned a year later, when Joseph bought a large house on an all-white block, but the marriage continued to crumble. Chester rebelled by wrecking the family car and spending his money on prostitutes working in the ‘Bucket of Blood’, where he lost his virginity to (in his words) ‘an old fat ugly whore sitting on a stool outside her hovel’.
After high school, Chester took a summer job at a luxury hotel, where he had an accident nearly as serious as his brother’s. While flirting with two white girls employed by the hotel, he stepped backwards through the doors of an elevator. The car had already ascended to the floor above, and Himes fell between thirty and forty feet, shattering his chin, his jaw and all his teeth, as well as his pelvis and three vertebrae. Himes compared the experience to ‘spattering open like a ripe watermelon’. Like his brother, he was turned away from the local hospital, allegedly because of space constraints, before being put into a full body cast at another. ‘The reality of his wounds and pains,’ Jackson suggests, ‘led him to a place of brittle irony with others, and self-pity with himself.’ The incident further chipped away at the fragile foundations of his parents’ marriage. Estelle, the ‘rebellious dissenter’, wanted to sue the hotel, but Joseph persuaded Chester to sign away his claim, since doing so entitled him to a secure pension.
Barely recovered from his injuries but determined to put on a brave face, Himes enrolled at Ohio State University in Columbus, where he boarded with a black family – the dormitories and fraternity houses were barred to black students. Dressed in a coonskin coat and knickerbocker suit, he drove around town in a used Model T, drank ‘white mule’ (a highly potent form of alcohol developed during Prohibition) and frequented the local bordellos. He avoided whites (‘I simply didn’t need them, didn’t want to know them, and always felt that they couldn’t reject me any more than I could reject them’) but he was equally put off by the ‘“light-bright-and-damn-near-white” social clique’ – his mother’s people. Neglecting his studies, he befriended a thief called Benny Barnett, who taught him to steal cars and introduced him to Jean Lucinda Johnson, a precocious 16-year-old whose ‘skin was the warm reddish brown of a perfectly roasted turkey breast the moment it comes from the oven’. She would become his first wife. Himes quit college at 17, and began to pack a .44 calibre Colt. ‘It was much later in life that I came to understand I simply hadn’t accepted my status as a “nigger”,’ he wrote in his memoir, elevating his slide into crime as an intuitive revolt against racism. But he was also – in Hilton Als’s words – ‘a child of the bourgeoisie in love with the stars in the gutter’, and the gutter nearly swallowed him up. In 1928, he robbed a couple in Cleveland of four rings worth $5000, and was arrested the next day in a pawnshop. The police forced a confession out of him by hanging him upside down and beating his testicles.
In his memoir, Himes claimed that ‘nothing happened in prison that I had not already encountered in outside life.’ Perhaps. But like Jean Genet, who was born a year after him, Himes found in prison a laboratory in which he could observe human behaviour under duress. Initially terrified of being raped, he carried a knife to protect himself, but after the fire, Jackson writes, he came to consider ‘uncoerced situational homosexuality in prison a compensatory and human reflex to the despair of life behind bars’. He fell hard for a prisoner known as Prince Rico, who wore a ukulele attached by shoestrings round his neck. In his otherwise frank memoirs – a second volume, My Life of Absurdity, appeared in 1976 – Himes never mentions Rico, but his 1952 prison novel, Cast the First Stone (posthumously published unabridged as Yesterday Will Make You Cry), offers a tender account of their romance, though both Rico and Jimmy Monroe, the character based on Himes, appear in whiteface. ‘Out of all the things that touched him that spring,’ Himes wrote, ‘Rico touched him more than anything, Rico, with his morbid, brilliant, insane, unsteady mind and his frenzied beautiful mouth and kaleidoscopic moods and Mona Lisa smile and eyes of pure stardust … Poor little kid, he thought, what a terrible mistake that he was not a woman.’ In a 1952 letter to his friend Carl Van Vechten, Himes admitted that ‘I was in love with him more, perhaps, than I have ever been in love with anyone before or since.’
Some of the black convicts, he wrote, sounding like his mother, struck him as ‘dull-witted, stupid, uneducated, practically illiterate, slightly above animals’, but in the fire of 1930 he also witnessed their capacity for heroism and sacrifice. Before long, his dispatches from prison began to appear regularly in the black literary journal Abbott’s Monthly, alongside the work of Richard Wright and Langston Hughes. Prison turned out to be an ideal writer’s retreat. Thanks to the injuries he sustained in the elevator accident, he was assigned to the ‘cripple’ ward, which meant that he couldn’t be forced to do hard labour. He had a roof over his head, regular meals, and all the time in the world. That he put his time to such good use showed how deeply influenced he was by his mother’s drive and ambition, the values of the black middle class he claimed to despise.
Released from prison in 1936 for good behaviour, Himes moved back to Cleveland and married Jean. The success of ‘To What Red Hell’ had raised his expectations of a literary career: Meyer Levin, his editor, told him it had ‘received the greatest “curtain call” of any short story published in Esquire’. But it would be another two decades before he could live off his writing. By the time he was freed, his brother Joseph Jr had become the director of research for the Urban League, from which position he would advance smoothly into the professional black middle class: already wracked by guilt about his brother’s blindness, Himes now envied his success. He managed to pick up odd jobs with the Federal Writers Project, but as a black ex-convict who had never finished college, he was mostly confined to manual labour. He worked as a ditch-digger, a waiter, and as a groundskeeper and butler on the estate of Louis Bromfield, a writer of popular fiction whom he would later send up as the fascist industrialist Louis Foster in Lonely Crusade. His short fiction was being published, but his prison manuscript was rejected by Doubleday as too ‘grim’ for its readers.
In 1941, the Himeses moved to Los Angeles. This turned out to be an even more bruising experience than prison. Chester hoped to find work as a screenwriter but ended up working in the shipyards for war production. Jean, meanwhile, became the co-director of a charity working with the War and Navy Department to provide leisure activities for soldiers – her success was, he felt, an insult to his manhood. For all the racial discrimination he had already endured, Himes insisted in his memoirs that until he came to Los Angeles, with its brutal, racist police force, he had seen ‘nothing racial about my hurt, unbelievable as this may seem’. Like most black writers of his generation, Himes fell into the orbit of the Communist Party because of its commitment to racial equality. He hung out with Dalton Trumbo and black veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, wrote articles for the People’s Daily World and championed a ‘double V’: a victory against fascism abroad and racism at home. In an article called ‘Negro Martyrs Are Needed’, which included footnotes citing Marx and Engels’s correspondence, he excoriated the black middle class for its cowardice, and advocated violent rebellion against ‘our native American fascists’. A month later, the FBI opened a file on him.
Himes’s alliance with the party was intense but short-lived. He recoiled at its paternalism, and came to suspect that his white comrades were driven by what he described, in an early short story, as a ‘queer sympathy for the underdog, sensual in its development’. They imagined that they had liberated themselves from the prison of race when in fact they still couldn’t see beyond its walls. After Pearl Harbour, he wrote, wartime Los Angeles seethed with a ‘tight, crazy feeling of race as thick in the street as gas fumes’, and no one was above the fray. Himes captured the atmosphere better than anyone in his LA novels, If He Hollers Let Him Go and Lonely Crusade. But of all the injuries inflicted by racism, the one that he resented the most was its destruction of patriarchal masculinity. He had seen his father, an accomplished teacher, reduced to a ‘shrunken man’ after his brother’s accident. Now he appeared to be repeating his father’s experience, since he was unable to support his wife. Worse, she was supporting him, having taken advantage of opportunities that were appearing for black women, but not for black men. He felt like her ‘pimp’, and the fact that ‘she didn’t mind … hurt all the more’. When he couldn’t find work in the shipyards he turned to drink, and in the autumn of 1944 he jumped ship for New York, where he spent the next ten months. When Jean came to visit him, she ‘found me deeply involved in so many affairs that she tried to take her own life’.
In New York, he hung out with his Harlem neighbours Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison, who had also drifted from the party. In a short story about his New York experiences, published in 1945, he wrote: ‘I spent half my time thinking about murdering white men. The other half of the time taking my spite out in having white women. And in between, protesting, bellyaching, crying.’ Still, it was more pleasant than LA: as Himes wrote, New York hurt him ‘by accepting me’. He sold If He Hollers Let Him Go to Bucklin Moon at Doubleday, who promised him that he would win the inaugural George Washington Carver Book Award, a prize for the best book about ‘American Negroes’. The story unfolds over a few days in the life of Bob Jones, a man with two years of college who’s working in a California shipyard. He is courting the light-skinned daughter of a local physician, but by the end of the novel has been arrested for the attempted rape of a white woman, a menacing ‘peroxide blonde’ called Madge who has accused him mainly because he refuses to sleep with her.
Himes evokes his ‘trapped, cornered, physical fear’, a state of being he shares with Bigger Thomas in Wright’s Native Son, but the voice Jones speaks in – hardboiled, defiantly black – was unlike anything that had been heard before in American literature: ‘Race was a handicap, sure, I reasoned. But hell, I didn’t have to marry it.’ As it turns out, he doesn’t have a choice: for a black man, race is a forced marriage. Jones is a reasonable man, and precisely because he is a reasonable man, he is an angry man: ‘The only solution to the Negro problem is a revolution. We’ve got to make white people respect us and the only thing white people have ever respected is force.’ That voice won Himes acclaim – from Wright (for once), from the sociologist Horace Cayton, from Frantz Fanon, who admired its emphasis on the inherent violence of racial conflict – but it left his publisher deeply uncomfortable. Doubleday reneged on its promise, giving the Carver Award to Fannie Cook’s Mrs Palmer’s Honey, a sentimental novel about an illiterate maid who becomes a cheerleader for the New Deal. Himes was even more disappointed by Doubleday’s advertisement for that book, which implicitly smeared his own: Cook had written ‘an honest, intelligent novel, devoid of lynchings, mixed love affairs and profanity’.
He poured his hurt into his next, supremely ambitious novel, Lonely Crusade, published in 1947, in which he explores the fractures on the home front: class struggle in the shipyards, battles among union organisers, conflicts in the Communist Party, Jewish paternalism and black anti-Semitism, and, not least, the impact of racism on sexual intimacy, both between black men and black women, and between black men and white women. The plot revolves around the pursuit of a mole in the Communist Party and culminates in a grisly revenge killing, but it draws its emotional force from a portrait of a marriage that resembled Himes’s own. Lee Gordon, the protagonist, is a black union organiser at the Comstock Aircraft Corporation, married to a black striver called Ruth. He should be the ‘happiest man in the world’, but instead he is consumed by fear of whites, and sunk in a depression that leaves him feeling ‘castrated’. There’s no way of escaping ‘white eyes – measuring him, calculating, conspiring’, nor can he take comfort in the company of other black workers, who strike him as ‘either too loud or too sullen’. He allows himself to feel ‘a secret admiration for Japan’, while admitting this is ‘only the wishful yearning of the disinherited’. Ruth, for her part, has grown tired of being ‘a sponge for his brutality’, having realised that his fear ‘had beaten his life into a weird infirmity, it was a disappointment, as it would have been to any Negro girl with dreams’. Feeling ‘emasculated’ by his more successful wife, he leaves her for a white communist, Jackie Forks, who ‘could give him the illusion of manhood even while denying that he possessed it, for to her he was the recipient of her grace’. When Ruth learns of the affair, she covers her face with white powder, as if by magic it could bring him back.
Jean Himes broke down when she read the book, and was found weeping in the desert, a few miles from a ranch in the Sierra Nevada that they were renting. She wasn’t the only one who couldn’t stand it. As Himes remembered, ‘the left hated it, the right hated it, Jews hated it, blacks hated it.’ His closest literary friends weren’t much more supportive. Wright offered lukewarm praise of its ‘hard, biting, functional style’, but Ellison, who insisted that the blues sensibility enabled blacks to ‘transcend’ the ‘jagged grain’ of racism, felt Himes was dangerously obsessed with the psychological damage racism caused. Langston Hughes declined to blurb the novel, because the characters ‘behave so badly which makes it difficult to care very much what happens to any of them’. Lonely Crusade may have been the most important novel by a black writer since Native Son, as Jackson argues, but Himes couldn’t afford another success of its kind. He barely published a word for the next five years. In 1948 he went to Yaddo to revise his prison novel, but spent much of his time getting drunk, and trying to seduce Patricia Highsmith, a 26-year-old Barnard graduate from a Texas slaveholding family who ‘consistently tried to tackle Chester on his own turf: evil and sexuality’. Himes was writing about his affair with Rico while Highsmith, who was coming to terms with her own sexual preference, was writing Strangers on a Train. She followed him into his room one night but rebuffed him when he tried to kiss her. The most significant piece of writing he did that year was a speech in Chicago on the ‘dilemma of the Negro artist’. ‘If this plumbing for truth reveals within the Negro personality homicidal mania, lust for white women, a pathetic sense of inferiority, paradoxical anti-Semitism, arrogance, Uncle Tomism, hate and fear and self-hate,’ he said, ‘this then is the effect of oppression on the human personality.’ The writer who exposed this ‘truth’, he added rather self-flatteringly, would be ‘reviled by the Negroes and the whites alike’. No one applauded.
For the next few years, Himes lived in a room on Convent Avenue in Harlem, while plotting his escape to France, where Wright had urged him to move. He did occasional menial work, avoided his more successful friends and licked his wounds. He separated from Jean, but was too ashamed to tell anyone, above all Ellison, who was soon to be lauded for Invisible Man. But in his hibernation Himes managed to finish two still underrated books, both quiet and intimate, with flashes of Faulknerian stream of consciousness: the prison novel, Cast the First Stone, and a thinly disguised portrait of his family, The Third Generation. The protagonist of Cast the First Stone, Jimmy Monroe, is a young white convict struggling to accept his love for another man. The Third Generation (originally titled The Cord) explores the ruinous consequences of black self-hatred but avoids political commentary, instead immersing the reader in the consciousness, the pleasures and agonies, of its characters. Himes sold both books in 1952, and began to show his face in public again.
‘The first thing I desired now that I had money was to sleep with a white woman, and the only woman in the city I knew at the time who was likely to sleep with me was Vandi Haygood,’ Himes reported in his memoirs, as if she were merely an easy lay. In fact, as Jackson points out, Himes cared deeply for Haygood, who ran the Rosenwald Fund’s fellowship programme. He moved into her flat on Gramercy Park, but when he discovered she had another lover he beat her up so badly she couldn’t leave the house for two weeks. He later threatened her at a party with a butcher’s cleaver, and had to be subdued by his frenemy Ellison, which added humiliation to his embarrassment. Himes described his 1955 novel about their boozy, violent affair, The End of a Primitive, in which a black writer frees himself from his status as a ‘primitive’ in the eyes of his white mistress by murdering her in their hotel room, as ‘rather exact except that I didn’t kill her’. Two days before he sailed to France in April 1953, he broke his big toe when he kicked her with his bare foot. He spent his last night in the States alone in a hotel room, ‘nursing my broken toe, and hating Vandi’.
On the deck of the Ile de France, Himes met the woman with whom he would spend the next two years: Willa Thompson, the American ex-wife of a Luxembourg dentist and Nazi sympathiser who had abused her for sheltering a downed Allied airman. Willa (‘Alva’ in Himes’s memoir) was blonde, slender and emotionally brittle, a daughter of the New England upper class whose sophistication and reserve reminded him of his mother. Recognising how ‘very hurt by life’ she was, Himes writes, he had hesitated to kiss her, ‘as though kissing her would have been wrong. I wanted only to comfort her. How strange we blacks are. I did not want to make the slightest gesture that might disturb her, as though she were my patient and I were her nurse.’ When they finally made love in a cramped Paris hotel room, he took her ‘small, trembling body in my arms … What mattered to her was she had lost herself in the darkness of my race. She had hid from all her hurts and humiliations. In a strange and curious way, by becoming my mistress, the mistress of a man who’d never been entirely free, she had freed herself.’ But he soon separated from Thompson too, and threw himself into an affair with a highly unstable young German woman, Regine Fischer (‘Marlene’ in his memoir), and, as he put it, ‘tried to bury ambition, resentment, pity and all the rest, all the past hurts and future fears into her too-young, exaggeratedly tufted dark blonde German vagina’. They moved into a room on the rue Buci, and had at one point so little money they had to eat ‘dog meat cooked with leeks to kill the odour’. When she seemed to express renewed interest in her old boyfriend, the black expatriate communist Ollie Harrington, he beat her in what Jackson calls a ‘blind insensate fury’. He said he couldn’t help himself because he was a ‘dirty nigger-beast’. She wasn’t persuaded.
Himes didn’t adjust easily to life abroad. Visiting Paris in the mid-1950s, Ellison found him ‘as tortured as ever’, still ‘in love with a vision of absolute hell’. Himes had no illusions that white Europeans would be different from American whites, but this knowledge was no help when he wanted to get a hotel room with a white woman. He gave up on learning French when his translator, hearing his French, replied: ‘You must forgive an uncultured Frenchman such as myself, but I do not understand English so well.’ He never felt entirely comfortable among his ‘soul brothers’, the black American writers and artists in Paris who gathered around their ‘king’ Richard Wright at the Café Monaco and the Café Tournon. ‘At times my soul brothers embarrassed me, bragging about their scars, their poor upbringing, and their unhappy childhood, to get some sympathy and some white pussy, and money, too, if they could. It was a new variety of Uncle Toming, a modern version.’ Himes reserved his hurts for the bedroom and the page, the only places he felt truly himself.
Escaping America was harder than it looked, and as ever he needed a trauma to inspire his imagination. A ten-month visit to New York in 1955 provided it in abundance. He arrived there a defeated man: his editor had rejected The End of a Primitive (‘it’s unthinkable for us, and I really wouldn’t know who to suggest as a prospect for it in this country. Even with expurgation’). His relationship with Thompson, already frayed, was about to fall apart. That summer, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American in Mississippi, was lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman. In New York, Himes was so down on his luck that he was forced to pawn his typewriter; each morning, he stood in line with other men hoping to get a day’s work washing dishes. Meanwhile, he noticed If He Hollers Let Him Go being sold as a mass-market paperback at nearly every newsstand. With the help of a lawyer, he got a royalty cheque that enabled him to buy a ticket back to France. If he had stayed, he told a friend, he would have killed someone.
Only after he returned to Paris did Himes realise that, grim as his time in New York had been, it was a goldmine for his writing. In Harlem, he had studied ‘the way of life of the sporting classes, its underworld and vice and spoken language, its absurdities’. And when he looked at himself – a ‘famous but destitute’ novelist who could barely afford a typewriter – he had an epiphany: ‘My life itself was so absurd I saw everything as absurd.’ He began to take a more forgiving view of the soul brothers at the Café Tournon, for they too were absurd: ‘unique individuals, funny but not clowns, solemn but not serious, hurt but not suffering, sexualists but not whores’. (He wrote a novel about the Tournon scene, A Case of Rape.) He understood now that he had always been ‘writing absurdity’ even when he thought he’d been ‘writing realism’, because ‘realism and absurdity are so similar in the lives of American blacks one cannot tell the difference.’
Himes’s first work of absurdism was a sexual farce called Pinktoes, black male slang for fetching white women. He based the heroine, Mamie Mason, ‘the uptown hostess with the mostess’, on his cousin Mollie Moon (a friend but no relation of his editor at Doubleday), whose decadent interracial parties had helped promote the cause of ‘civil rights in the bedroom’. As the jacket cover read, Mason ‘solved the integration problem with one bright idea: SEX’. With Pinktoes, Himes declared riotous war on American puritanism, that secret sharer of white supremacy. He had often wondered why Americans censored the word ‘fuck’, the profanity that ‘expressed the most pleasurable, the most meaningful, the most necessary function of human life. Was it a black word? Like nigger? But nigger got by. Nigger had always passed the censors. Must be passing for white.’ Himes had difficulty publishing the book: one editor told him he had ‘put too much burden on comic situation and done too little with plot and structure’. But as Jackson writes, Himes was ‘more interested in brilliant virtuoso soloing than swinging a melody involving multiple complex parts’. When Pinktoes was finally published in 1961, it became Himes’s first bestseller, and prefigured the novels of black absurdists like Ishmael Reed and Paul Beatty.
Himes’s real breakthrough, however, came with his series of comic noirs, set in Harlem, about the tough, seen-it-all detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, in which he put his 1955 ‘research’ to inspired use. It was his French translator, Marcel Duhamel, the director of La Série Noire at Gallimard, who suggested that he try his hand at detective fiction. ‘We don’t give a damn who’s thinking what – only what they’re doing,’ Duhamel advised him. He took this to heart. He depicted what he called ‘the big turbulent sea of black humanity which is Harlem’, high and low, illuminating its garish surfaces while skirting the psychological interiority – and the hurt – that had been his speciality. He wrote the first novel in the series, The Real Cool Killers, while drinking two bottles of wine a day, washed down with Jamaican rum, and reading Faulkner’s Sanctuary, his ‘bible of absurdity’. He felt as if he was writing directly from ‘the American black’s secret mind’. The Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones novels were less ‘serious’ than his earlier work, but in their irreverent vision of Harlem’s human comedy, they expanded the terrain of American literary expression, and they were so stripped down and cartoonish that they suggested a kind of black Pop Art. One of those novels, Cotton Comes to Harlem, was made into a film by Ossie Davis in 1970, but Himes felt ripped off by the cinematic genre of Blaxploitation that his noirs had helped inspire. As Jackson puts it, he ‘considered himself the primary person exploited’.
The Harlem novels were praised in Paris by Jean Cocteau and Jean Giono, who said he would ‘give you all of Hemingway, Dos Passos and Steinbeck for this Chester Himes’. In a 1966 review in the TLS, Patricia Highsmith, his old Yaddo mate, called his detective fiction the work of a novelist who had ‘mellowed’, thereby achieving genuine literary distinction. Himes celebrated his success by buying a Jaguar, and boasting that it was his ‘main purpose’ for writing crime fiction. In fact, he ‘only felt at home in my detective stories’, which he came to consider his most important achievement. But it’s possible that Himes also worried that he had retreated from the uncompromising fury of his novels of hurt. As Jackson notes, the Harlem novels were ‘blues tales’, without ‘arguments about civil rights or the psychological dynamics of racial oppression’. Although he wouldn’t have admitted it, Himes was using the blues to transcend the absurd ordeals of black life, not unlike his old antagonist Ellison.
Off the page, Himes remained an angry loner. He distanced himself from Wright, feeling disrespected. When Wright died in 1960, he was the most prestigious black American writer left in Paris, but he declined to assume Wright’s throne, and suspected younger black writers of patronising him. In his 1963 novel, The Stone Face, William Gardner Smith, one of the Tournon soul brothers, pictured a writer like Himes emerging ‘from his apartment now and then to drink heavily and launch an ironic tirade against the United States and the white world in general’. The only black intellectual Himes praised without reservation was Malcolm X, whom he befriended on a brief visit to New York in 1962. As fellow ex-convicts from bourgeois homes with light-skinned mothers and dark-skinned fathers, they ‘understood each other perfectly’, although Himes chastised him for allying himself with Arabs, whom he dismissed as ‘slave traders’. (He modelled the Sheik in The Real Cool Killers on Malcolm.) Himes had left America, but it never left him, and he followed the urban revolts back home with close attention. During the hot summer of 1967, when his friend LeRoi Jones was arrested in Newark and charged with carrying a concealed revolver, he wrote that most black Americans ‘were never seen until they lie bloody and dead from a policeman’s bullet on the hot dirty pavement of a ghetto street’.
In 1967, Himes moved to southern Spain with Lesley Packard, a British journalist. They remained there until his death in 1984. Their bond was initially tested by Himes’s numerous infidelities, but it evolved into a stable partnership, and they were married in 1978, as soon as Himes was able to get a divorce from Jean, his first wife. In perhaps his most famous commentary on interracial intimacy, Himes wrote: ‘Emotions between black men and white women are erratic, like a brush fire in a high wind.’ In his relationship with Packard, he found an exception to what had been, in his experience, a destructive pattern. Like absurdity, love required another country to bloom. They spent their best years in the coastal town of Moraira, ten of them under fascist rule: such were the paradoxes of exile. And exile it was: as Jackson makes clear, Himes had good reason to think that he couldn’t survive as a black writer in America; to call him an ‘expatriate’ is to see the pull factor, but not the push. It was in Moraira that Himes wrote his memoirs, The Quality of Hurt and My Life of Absurdity. Widely dismissed when they were published, together they comprise one of the great autobiographies of literary exile, brave in its self-scrutiny, meticulous in its anatomy of the physical and emotional toll of racism, gripping in its portrait of a sensitive, volatile, sometimes monstrous man. Jackson’s biography adds much to the record, but the memoirs, which deserve to be reprinted, remain indispensable for what Himes called their ‘hurting knowledge’, which he had acquired at great cost. All his life, Himes confessed, he had been looking for ‘somewhere black people weren’t considered the shit of the earth. It took me forty years to discover that such a place does not exist.’ By then, however, he could look back and laugh.