Review of Chester B. Himes: A Biography

Chester B. Himes: A Biography W. W. Norton, 2017. 606 pages.

Chester B. Himes: A Biography

W. W. Norton, 2017. 606 pages.

In an arena of fans and critics primed for the often-bloody sport of declamation, it takes much nerve to attempt to tell the definitive story of a major literary figure. But with Chester B. Himes: A Biography, author Lawrence Jackson lays his game down flat and provides the most wonderful and illuminating portrait of Himes that we are likely to get. Fifteen years in the making and wearing the process well, the book extends beyond previous biographical treatments of Himes, say Edward Margolies and Michel Fabre’s The Several Lives of Chester Himes and James Sallis’ Chester Himes: A Life, and even beyond the two volumes of Himes’ autobiography, The Quality of Hurt and My Life of Absurdity. Jackson picks up on the fact that “hurt” and “absurdity” are certainly the two poles around which Himes spun his personality. Jackson keeps this idea in the forefront as he assembles the difficult puzzle that was Himes’s life, and he connects the psychological pieces with deft hands.

He begins with an elaborate genealogy that traces the Himes and Bomar (what the B stands for) lines and how they intersected to form Himes’ immediate family. It was black middle-class and top-level dysfunction, as the dark-skinned Mr. Himes never could secure the material success that the light-skinned Mrs. Himes demanded and for which she would excuse his complexion. Demanding of Chester as well, the youngest, most light-skinned, and perhaps most gifted of her three children, Estelle Himes emerged as a domineering presence to him and a source of both affection and discomfort throughout the family’s nomadic journey---Missouri, Mississippi, Georgia, Arkansas, Ohio---and eventual descent in class status. To add to any distress he felt, Chester Himes had become extremely guilt-ridden at the age of fourteen when his brother Joe was blinded as the result of a chemistry demonstration gone awry, an experiment in which Himes had been scheduled to participate but did not because of either disciplinary reasons or his own stubbornness.   

Next, Jackson spins the most accurate and detailed version that we have of a familiar tale: the teenaged Himes, survivor of a fall down a hotel elevator shaft, fatalistic and wayward, enthralled by street life in Cleveland and Columbus, washing out of Ohio State University while still a freshman, and becoming an inept robber sentenced to a stretch in the Ohio Penitentiary in 1928 at the age of nineteen. Then, literally rising from the ashes of the infamous fire at the penitentiary on April 20, 1931, in which 322 men perished, Himes is a fledgling phoenix that flies into a literary career. To Jackson, given Himes’ eventual choice of a literary vocation, prison was his big break. One does not want to romanticize prison conditions, but, in the middle of the Depression, Himes drew seventy-five dollars a month in workmen’s compensation, probably more than he would have earned on a job---if he could have found one. Moreover, because of the lingering physical effects of the accident, Himes was assigned to the “cripple company” and thus had about as much leisure time as anyone in the prison. After being locked away for more than seven years, and after several years of placing short stories in newspapers and magazines, Himes was paroled.              

What followed was a bumpy, nearly fifty-year literary career on the outside, during which Himes, through all of his battles with publishers, agents, reviewers, friends, girlfriends, and bottles, published seventeen novels, the autobiographies, and a collection of shorter pieces. Highly autobiographical in novels like Cast the First Stone, A Lonely Crusade, The Third Generation, and The Primitive, Himes brilliantly recasts many incidents of his life as fiction---and Jackson adroitly recasts that fiction back into the world of historical fact. The biographer reveals the crucial elements that fueled Himes’ literary quest: his conflicted sense of racial and sexual identity, his struggles with masculinity, his famous rage at racial and class injustice, his rejection of rigid ideology, his suspicion of organized political movements, his detesting of bourgeois respectability, his almost incurable bouts of self-pity, and his lifelong sense of fear. Jackson remarks that Himes “tried to appear tougher than he was inside” (xii), but it is doubtful that Himes fooled many. His excessive drinking, incessant womanizing, and propensity to torpedo most of his friendships speak, as Jackson discerns, to a fragile psyche. Hurt, of course, by the critical reception of A Lonely Crusade and the rejection of his brand of truth telling, Himes resolved to leave the United States and became an expatriate in 1953 after having published four serious and accomplished but relatively ignored novels. He lived most of the rest of his life in France and Spain. Overseas, writing about black life in Harlem, mostly through the vehicle of the detective story---Rage in Harlem, The Real Cool Killers, Cotton Comes to Harlem, etc.---he became an international literary sensation, even immensely popular back in the United States, and a financial success to boot. Yes, the absurdity of it all. Jackson painstakingly charts the entire sojourn and offers incisive opinions about the significance of each book that Himes published. 

Jackson skillfully sketches the major personal relationships of Himes’ life, those with his mother Estelle, father Joseph, brother Joe, fellow inmate Prince Rico, wife Jean Himes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Willa Thompson, Regine Fischer, and Lesley Packard, who became his second wife. Also notably included are shorter and adeptly drawn depictions of Himes’ interactions with Sterling Brown, John A. Williams, and Malcolm X, who, three months before his assassination, visited Himes in Paris. Jackson covers Himes’s tour of the U. S. in 1972, by which point, because of his perseverance and uncompromising politics, he had become, as Jackson indicates, a hero to two generations of black writers and activists, including Williams, Larry Neal, Toni Cade Bambara, Ishmael Reed, Steve Cannon, Melba Boyd, and Nikki Giovanni. Accordingly, in the last chapter of the biography, Jackson dubs Himes the “Afro-American People’s Novelist.” Maybe the title belonged to Williams, or James Baldwin, or John Oliver Killens, or the upstarts Reed and Toni Morrison. But Himes was definitely a contender.     

The main point that Jackson pushes is that although Himes was often an emotional wreck and no role model for social living, he was, on the other hand the paragon of a committed artist. Throughout all of the adversity and demons he faced, he wrote and wrote and wrote, and in that writing he remained bold and unflinching until the end. Jackson explains, “writing helped him steel himself emotionally. He often compared the literary life to prizefighting and he accepted the discipline of training, punishment, and rejection, saying that ‘a fighter fights, and a writer writes’” (xii).     

The book is not unassailable. No biography is. Someone else may read an incident or two differently. Most of us are amateur therapists. Or someone may tell a different version of an episode. Some may become annoyed because of the misspelling of names like Larry Neal and Arthur Fauset. But there really isn’t much shade that one can throw legitimately at Chester B. Himes: A Biography. This is in itself a brightly shining story and phenomenal achievement.