The Complex Life of Writer Chester B. Himes

Harlem Tenement in Summer, 1935-1939. (Photo: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library)

The prologue to Lawrence P. Jackson’s biography of Chester Himes begins with the twenty-five-year-old Himes sitting at a typewriter in the Ohio State Penitentiary. Himes developed his craft in prison through a voracious reading habit and a steady discipline of composing new stories. After serving eight years incarcerated, Himes went on to become a famed writer who published novels with Knopf and Doubleday, rubbed elbows with the literati in New York, Los Angeles, and Paris, innovated in the genre of detective fiction with his Black detective characters Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, and even dabbled in Hollywood where his novels were adapted to films including the 1970 Blaxploitation classic Cotton Comes to Harlem. Jackson’s biography is not the first on Himes. The Several Lives of Chester Himes (1997) by Edward Margolies and Michael Fabre, and Chester Himes: A Life (2001) by James Sallis, covered some of this same territory before. But Jackson synthesizes the best stories from the archives and from Himes’s own autobiographies, essays, and fiction to create a timely and urgent portrait of an artist whose life and work touches on many pressing issues of our own era, including race, sexuality, civil rights, inequality, and the justice system.

Chester Bomar Himes was born on July 29, 1909 in Jefferson City, Missouri, into a family of educators. Jackson confirms the veracity of many details from Himes’s 1954 autobiographical novel The Third Generation. Himes grew up in a world defined by education, particularly on the campuses of Black colleges where his parents worked. His father, Joseph Sandy Himes, Sr., graduated from Claflin University (Orangeburg, South Carolina), and went on to teach industrial education at Alcorn State (Lorman, Mississippi) and at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. His mother, Estelle Bomar Himes, was a pianist and music teacher whose compositions include “Alcorn Ode,” a song that remains the alma mater of Alcorn State University to this day.    

Jackson certainly highlights the reckless decisions that led to Chester’s prison sentence, but this biography also illustrates the precarity of this American social stratum known as the “Black middle class.” Joseph Himes, Sr. taught courses in blacksmithing, horseshoeing, and wheelwrighting at a time when those skills were increasingly becoming obscure and obsolete. He went on to teach some history courses as well, but when the family moved to St. Louis and Cleveland he ended up working odd jobs as a laborer. The biography spells out the torrid family life that Himes depicts in The Third Generation, a life in which his mother resented her darker-skinned husband and clashed with members of his family who took them in when they fell on hard times. In the novels If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945) and Lonely Crusade (1947), Himes depicts African Americans who struggled through the American racial system in which education and respectability were no guarantees of success or fair treatment.

Though he spent some time as a student at Ohio State University, Himes also sowed his wild oats in the streets of Cleveland. At age 19 he carried out a reckless home invasion robbery and was later apprehended, tried, and sentenced to the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, where he served eight years of an initial twenty-year sentence. A couple of years before prison he had injured his back when he fell down an elevator shaft at his hotel job (an accident vividly depicted in The Third Generation). His injury would turn out to be a saving grace because it exempted him from the hard labor of shoveling coal, which gave him time for reading and writing. While in prison he was also witness to one of the deadliest fires in American history, the Ohio State Prison fire of 1930 that killed 322 prisoners. Himes later incorporated the traumatic experience into the 1934 short story “To What Red Hell.”

As he worked on his craft, Himes began to parlay his street knowledge into fiction. He populated his stories with the lively characters that he ran with in Cleveland and knew growing up. As Jackson puts it:

Chester had a rare perspective on black life from American society’s utter margin, one that he never relinquished. He managed to impose standards of artistic discipline and to cultivate his imagination. That he had done so – without artistic instruction and literary friendships, and in rejection of a code of social and racial improvement – while on a Negro convict’s bunk with a folding table next to a urinal was more than surprising. It was distinguished.

The literary friendships would come later, after he left prison and gravitated toward the bohemian enclaves in New York and Los Angeles where he met writers and editors who helped him get his first novels published.

This biography stands out in the way that Jackson brings insights from gender and sexuality studies to understand some of Himes’s intimate experiences, and how he incorporated them into his fiction. Himes had a romantic relationship with a fellow prisoner named Prince Rico that went beyond the situational homosexuality of prison. Rico encouraged Himes’s writing and helped him type up his first manuscripts. Himes himself described the relationship in romantic terms, never disavowing that it happened. He didn’t self-identify as bisexual or queer but was forthright with later female partners about his prison experiences, and he would also later confide in the white gay Harlem artist Carl Van Vechten about his sexuality. Moreover, the entanglement of sex and race in American life is a major theme in Himes’s work. There are candid depictions of sexuality in many of his stories and novels, and he explored the libidinal aspects of American racism, including the taboo of interracial relationships between Black men and white women.

Jackson is also frank about Himes’s shortcomings and avoids composing a Great Man biography (not that Himes’s life would lend itself to such a narrative anyway). Jackson doesn’t shy away from the stories of Himes abusing the women in his life. After his release from prison in 1936 he married a Black woman from Ohio named Jean Plater who initially worked as a domestic, and then followed him back and forth across the country from Los Angeles to New York as his writing career picked up steam. They would later separate in 1952. His last wife was a white woman named Lesley Packard. In between was a series of volatile relationships with several women. One particularly scandalous episode that Jackson covers is a failed liaison at the Yaddo artists’ colony with the writer Patricia Highsmith. Jackson portrays Himes as a committed artist whose relentless work habits and unruly alcoholism could make him a difficult person to live with, though it seems that he usually took up with women who shared his love of strong drink.

Chester Himes proved himself to be a versatile writer, with acclaimed social novels like If He Hollers Let Him Go, Lonely Crusade, and Cast the First Stone. But it was his innovations in the genre of detective fiction that sealed his literary reputation as a cult figure. Himes eventually saw two of his novels (Cotton Comes to Harlem and The Heat’s On) adapted into films during his lifetime, with another (A Rage in Harlem) coming in 1991. The latter chapters of the book show Himes befriending actors and filmmakers like Melvin Van Peebles and Ossie Davis (who directed Cotton Comes to Harlem). Under different circumstances Himes might have been more involved in filmmaking. But by the time the big screen adaptations came along he was an older man and his health continued failing after he suffered a stroke in 1959.

Lawrence Jackson’s previous books include Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius, 1913-1952 (2001), and The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African-American Writers and Critics, 1934-1960 (2011). Both of those books have points of contact with Himes, who was very much a part of the generation that Jackson explores in the latter book. Himes socialized with other Black writers in New York, Los Angeles, and Paris, including Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Willard Motley, and William Gardner Smith. One of the famous friendships covered in the biography is with Malcolm X, who was a fan of Himes since reading If He Hollers Let Him Go during his own prison stint. They were introduced in the summer of 1959 by Lewis Michaux at his bookshop on 125th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem, and they later met up in Paris in 1964 when Malcolm lectured at the Sorbonne.

Chester Himes lived most of the last three decades of his life in France and Spain in a voluntary exile similar to that of other African American artists like James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Nina Simone. In 1984 he died of Parkinson’s disease at age seventy-five, and was buried in Moraira, Spain. Chester Himes wrote his characters with a raw honesty and candor that encompassed their humanity in all of its glory and shame. Lawrence Jackson follows that lead by creating a richly detailed biography of Himes that embraces the fullness of his remarkable and complicated life.

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Lavelle Porter

Lavelle Porter is a writer and scholar of African-American literature. He is an assistant professor of English at the New York City College of Technology (CUNY), and he is currently working on a book about academic fiction and black higher education. Follow him on Twitter @alavelleporter.