Himes showed little interest in politics until he was released from prison in 1936 and subsequently seduced by the Communist Party, which gave him the tools to pick apart America’s racialized caste system. He was a starving artist, taking menial jobs to make ends meet as his writing gradually turned toward the material horror and psychological torment of white supremacy. Himes’s sexually charged first novel, “If He Hollers Let Him Go” (1945), earned critical acclaim and placed him in the “protest novel” tradition of writers like Richard Wright. It did not, however, establish Himes as a full-fledged celebrity or stabilize his life. Himes’s second and third novels failed to garner substantial praise from critics, and he followed Wright and other self-exiled black American artists to France in 1953.
Excepting a few brief visits to America, Himes remained in Europe for the rest of his life. Jackson’s depiction of his life in France is riveting. Himes wrote at a furious pace but struggled mightily with finances, squandering fellowships, signing ill-conceived contracts with publishers and reneging on debts. He joined a vibrant artistic community in France, befriending and antagonizing the literary giants of his time, including Wright (his idol, dear friend and sometime rival) and Ralph Ellison.
Jackson establishes early in the biography that intimate partnership fueled Himes’s writing, as evidenced by Prince Rico’s impact on Himes while incarcerated. Several of the characters in Himes’s early fiction are barely disguised versions of people he knew, and Jackson uses these characters in concert with Himes’s personal letters to bring his friends and colleagues to life. Himes held fast to these relationships to maintain order amid the tumult of artistic labor and alcoholism, and he drew heavily on his experiences, especially his partnerships with white women, in his writing about the psychosexual dimensions of racism. He led an entirely straight romantic life after prison, and his relationship history was replete with episodes of abuse and misbehavior that sullied the affection he showed for the women he loved.
Despite Himes’s literary output, wealth and sustained praise eluded him until the final third of his career. Disappointed by his American book sales and haunted by the fact that literary elites did not hold him in the same esteem as Ellison and James Baldwin, Himes took the advice of the French editor Marcel Duhamel and started writing detective novels, beginning with “A Rage in Harlem” (1957). Seemingly overnight, Himes was reborn as a commercial and critical success in France. Himes attributed European interest in his detective novels to his pivoting away from realism and racial protest and toward a more spectacular and cinematic depiction of black life. This is at least partially true, as Himes’s work was eventually developed into the Ossie Davis-directed “Cotton Comes to Harlem” (1970), arguably the first Blaxploitation film ever produced.
Yet Jackson disputes the notion that Himes’s hard-boiled detective series evades or cheapens racial politics. Instead Jackson argues that Himes’s “sizzling exaggerations … amplified and telescoped” Himes’s political concerns. The gruesome collage of Harlem fashioned by Himes was devoid of love and racial justice, which mirrored his shrewd cynicism about racial progress. But Jackson says that spilling blood, guts and tragedy on the page was not merely entertainment or catharsis, but politics, because it left room for optimism to fill the void left by despair and destruction.
Himes would never conceive of his writing as optimistic, but its rawness, originality and impact are beyond question. The applause from France grew so loud that American critics were compelled to join in, and Himes eventually earned the status he had craved for so long back in the United States. His detective novels and earlier books were elevated to the canon of black American literature, and he became a model and inspiration for black writers in the post-civil rights era. Crippled by multiple strokes and memory loss, Himes died in the care of his second wife and longtime partner, Lesley Himes, in 1984.
Many of the details of Himes’s life appear in other books, but Jackson’s research is unimpeachable. The biography is based on a kaleidoscopic mix of archival materials, close readings of Himes’s published writing and personal letters and conversations with people who knew him. Himes had a mercurial personality and led a thrilling life that might tempt a biographer to conjure a book in the spirit of its subject, but Jackson avoids this pitfall. The book is neatly written and accessible, without cheap tricks to build suspense or sway readers’ opinions.
As for the thorny question of interpretation, Jackson builds measured, straightforward arguments about what Himes believed mostly through close readings of his published work. Carefully chosen excerpts allow Jackson to comment on the techniques, themes and characters most central to Himes’s legacy. The reader senses that Jackson, a professor of English and history at Johns Hopkins University, has even more to say but restrains himself. The biography does not suffer, but one yearns to hear more from Jackson about the social conditions of Himes’s work, literary comparisons between Himes and his contemporaries, and Himes’s impact on writers who followed him. All told, “Chester B. Himes” is a bracing journey through the life of an uncompromising writer who considered himself “an evil, highly sensitive, unsuccessful old man — but … not an American Negro in the usual connotation of the word.”
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