October 18, 2017
Chester Himes, Hard TimesOn this day in 1909 Chester Himes, "the father of black American crime writing," was born. Although Himes is mostly read for his "Harlem Domestic" novels -- Cotton Comes to Harlem, A Rage in Harlem and six others featuring the detectives "Coffin" Ed Jones and "Gravedigger" Johnston -- a recent flurry of attention may change that. The End of a Primitive and Yesterday Will Make You Cry, two novels deemed too sexual or violent when they first appeared, have been reissued in their original, uncut form as W. W. Norton "Old School Books. Add to this two recent full-length biographies and, three decades after his death, Himes may be on the verge of rediscovery.
Judging by the last sentence in My Life of Absurdity (vol. II of Himes's autobiography), such posthumous fame would seem to confirm his own view of his life:
"It's out of hand, boss," Grave Digger said.
"All right, I'll call for reinforcements. What started it?"
"A blind man with a pistol."
"You heard me, boss."
"That don't make any sense."
The anger and absurdity continued throughout his time at Ohio State Penitentiary -- the one convict who was murdered for not passing the bread, the two who killed each other over whether Paris was in France or France in Paris, the 330 who died in a fire, most of them trapped in their overcrowded cells. But Himes learned to write in prison, and channel enough of his anger into plot and theme that he was paroled after serving seven-and-a-half years of his twenty-five year sentence. Few of his serious or social protest novels were widely-read, but when he found his crime-novel formula -- he wrote the eight Harlem books in twelve years -- he was a popular hit. This was especially true in Europe, where Himes had chosen to live for racial reasons. Here he felt he could walk down the street with his head up and, later in life, see bookstore placards describing him as "The Greatest Find in American Crime Fiction Since Raymond Chandler."
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