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Lawrence P. Jackson, Chester Himes’ Biographer, on the Iconic Harlem Detective Series


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Chester Himes is one of the most prolific and underrated Black writers of the 20th century. Himes, who lived from 1909-1984, was the author of 17 novels and numerous short stories. But for crime fiction lovers, he is best known for his Harlem detective series featuring the African American detective team of Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. I was first introduced to the duo through the 1970 movie Cotton Comes To Harlem, which was based on the sixth novel in his series.

While Himes published his first novel in 1945, he didn’t enter the hardboiled genre until he was recruited by a French publisher to write crime novels while living in France in the 1950s. The expatriate published his first Harlem detective novel in 1957, For Love of Imabelle (later renamed A Rage in Harlem). The novel won the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in 1958, France’s most prestigious award for crime and detective fiction. It also broke into the white male narrative dominated hardboiled genre, providing the perspective of both black law enforcement and black criminals.

In 2017 English and History Professor Lawrence P. Jackson published his biography, Chester B. Himes. It was the winner of the 2018 Edgar Award for Best Critical/Biographical Work. I interviewed Jackson shortly after he published the book for my radio show KAZI Book Review. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Hopeton Hay: I was a little surprised when I started asking some of my friends and other people if they had heard of Chester Himes and the answer was no. Now they had heard of Invisible Man and Ralph Ellison, they had heard of Richard Wright and Native Son. And Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison are peers of Chester Himes. Would you say that Chester Himes is one of the most underrated African American writers of the 20th century?

Lawrence Jackson: Well, I would say he’s probably right up there. I would also put someone like an Ann Petrie in the category. We just had the centennial for Gwendolyn Brooks this year. She’s probably in that category, too. I suppose that’s an embarrassment of riches. African Americans have produced world class writers from the time that we arrived on the shores of North America and the Western Hemisphere. But we’ve been systematically under acknowledged and I hope to bring Chester Himes back into prominence with the new biography.

Hopeton Hay: When were you first introduced to Chester Himes personally?

Lawrence Jackson: I had the great fortune of having James A. Miller as a professor when I was at Wesleyan University in the 1980s. And Jim Miller, who passed away, was the centerpiece in African American Studies in the northeast. He taught classes on black writers in the 1930s and 1940s. And he would come in with an arm-full of books that no one had ever seen before. I was introduced to Richard Wright, not by reading Native Son, and not by reading Black Boy, but by reading the novel Lawd Today, the strong social realist treatment of black postal workers in the 1930s. And in the same way, I was introduced to Chester Himes, to his novels Lonely Crusade and If He Hollers Let Him Go. I found as I was getting older that I would read a novel like Invisible Man as kind of a fulcrum for understanding my identity as a black man and understanding my identity as an American, and helping me get through tough times. If you look at a novel like Invisible Man, you look at a novel like Native Son, you look at a novel like James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain, you see these protagonists who are post-adolescence, but they’re not really fully developed adult men. It was in the works of Chester Himes that I encountered adult men who are having adult male problems. When I got to the work of Chester Himes I was just sort of like, wow, I can’t believe that somebody is talking about some of the real issues that I’m facing and helping me understand a longer history of the same kinds of grappling throughout the 20th century.

Hopeton Hay: I first became aware of Chester Himes through the 1970 movie Cotton Comes To Harlem, which was based on his 1965 detective novel of the same name. My first impression of Chester Himes was really driven by his detective novels featuring Harlem New York police detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. And as I was reading through your biography, of course, you talk about how his literary success was not accompanied initially by financial success, and it was those mystery novels, that ironically were first published by French publishers, that brought him the financial success he had been searching for his whole life.

Lawrence Jackson: That’s the great irony, but often the accompanying paradox of any artist’s career. You labor alone in obscurity for the majority of your career, and then you get some type of financial recognition either at the conclusion of the career or even posthumously. And in Chester Himes’s case, he actually had considerable prosperity when he was incarcerated in the Ohio State Penitentiary in the 1930s. He always described himself as being the person in his immediate family who was the best-off financially because he had his gambling winnings, and then he would get an occasional payday from a magazine like Esquire. Himes had this interesting up and down career where he had early success that showed him his capacity to compete in the world literary marketplace. And then he was in obscurity for close to 10 years. Then he goes back to the top right at the end of the Second World War, with a very well received novel If He Hollers Let Him Go. He also had a prominent fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald foundation. He went even further in 1947, when he published Lonely Crusade and reached the apex of the American high-class, literary publishers with Alfred A. Knopf. Himes thought he had the world at his feet. And then the way that novel was disparaged (he believed excessively disparaged) began many years of what artists described as woodshedding, leading Himes to leave the United States and to live permanently overseas by the mid 1950s. He leaves in December of 1955 for France and basically has no money when he lands there. And it is in the crisis of the year of 1956 when he described his living circumstances as being forced to go to the horse butchers on the banks of the river Seine for his daily meal, scavenging around with the young German woman he was living with, and that was what led to the creation of Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones. Chester Himes based his two detectives off of African American police officers that he knew who worked in South Central Los Angeles in the 1940s. The Grave Digger character, who was the intellectual of the pair, was based off of a man named Jeff Kimbro, who was actually an active literary man, and was a member of the Communist Party, even though he carried out his duties faithfully as this incredibly rough and violent police officer on the streets of Los Angeles. The other man whom Coffin Ed was based on is a guy named Charles Brody, who was another long standing police officer.

Hopeton Hay: His parents’ tumultuous relationship left Chester, when he was in high school, somewhat unmoored. And despite coming from a middle-class family with two parents as teachers, he ends up getting involved in criminal activities when he’s 17-18 years old.

Lawrence Jackson: This is another element of Himes’s life and background that makes him so relevant for us today. Himes would be the person to inaugurate the literary tradition of the African American prisoner or convict turned major writer or spokesperson. He was followed by Malcolm X, Claude Brown, Nathan McCall, and Eldridge Cleaver. He’s really the person who gets that underway. I think that what his early years emphasize is that throughout the 20th century you have such a very strong narrative of the difficulty of getting a second chance as a black male in urban America. It’s probably true for black women too, but, slightly different relative to going to prison. When Himes went to prison in Ohio, in 1929, black Americans were about five percent of Ohio’s population, and they were more than fifty percent or close to fifty percent of the Ohio State Prison penitentiary population. They were always getting very, very hard penalties. But the collapse of Chester Himes’s family definitely had everything to do with his hanging out in gambling dens and getting high and stealing cars and the life of the demimonde, leading to a robbery, for which he was arrested and sent to prison at the end of 1929.

Hopeton Hay: If you were to look at his coffin and Grave Digger novels, which one would you recommend to the general public?

Lawrence Jackson: Everybody has their favorite and mine would be The Heat’s On, because it has the most sensational characters, with the albino giant Pinky, and then with the drug dealing, septuagenarian or octogenarian Sister Heavenly. This is about 60-61. So it’s before the era of the expose of the French Connection, and the international drug rings operating out of Marseille. Himes is so far ahead of the curve of the opiate crisis. He’s so far ahead of the curve with the niche in Harlem, the descriptions of the absurd urban violence, the drug crisis and scourge, and the corruption of the police and the ineptitude of the police. I think it’s well done and fascinating. And the most important thing I want people to remember about these detective fictions which have absolutely scintillating social critique, is that they take no prisoners. There are no heroes. There are no people that Himes seeks to burnish their image. Everybody is exposed for who they are at their least desirable or least beautiful moments.

Hopeton Hay: Now, when I was reading about this transition and the growing literary popularity of his Coffin Ed and Grave Digger novels, there’s something that you wrote about Anthony Boucher, the New York Times critic who wrote reviews of mystery novels. Apparently he had not been a fan of Chester Himes, but you write:

“By 1966 Chester’s naturalistic arguments of black bitterness and standard English have pierced white literary circles. Now they began to see Chester as underrated and under publicized and they were willing to understand something else about his work that had been there all along, the point that he tempers anger with humor. So Boucher had espied the new land for Himes when he called Cotton Comes To Harlem the wildest of camps—grotesque macabre, black humor, using black in a quiet nonracial sense.”

The novelist Patricia Highsmith, who became a fan of Chester Himes, wrote a review of Cotton Comes To Harlem. To quote your book:

“‘As an American Negro one can understand why he chose to live in France,’ she allowed while noting that he was no longer wielding the hatred of If He Hollers Let Him Go. Now he was mellowed, making money with the detective stories and poking fun at Harlem high society in Pinktoes, another one of his novels, not a Grave Digger novel. Highsmith felt that he had become an artist.”

So, what is this, that all of a sudden critics who did not necessarily like him began to embrace him when he was in his 50s?

Lawrence Jackson: This is in 1966. Boucher started reviewing him in about 1959. And they just don’t have much use for Chester Himes in the 1950s. He was a very alert critic of this. He told everybody who would listen—and there were only a very few—but he exposed the literary establishment’s kingmaker apparatus. He always maintained that they would only allow one black writer to emerge at any particular moment. He often talked about the way that the celebrity makers pitted Ralph Ellison against Richard Wright and James Baldwin against Richard Wright, and sometimes they would throw him in for good measure. Time Magazine represents not so much the American mainstream, really the American right wing, and at the end of the 1950s they had an article where the centerpiece of it was about Chester Himes. But they used that moment to try to pit a whole group of writers one against the other, because Himes had had success with A Rage In Harlem, published in France, and was the winner of a police detective fiction award. They just couldn’t figure out a way to account for that and they really did try to tear the group down, even though Himes had achieved this major success in France. He always railed against the way that the American publishers, but especially the literary establishment, didn’t want to have anything to do with black writers who would go their own way, or who tried to determine their own careers on their own terms. So then in the middle of the 1960s, the country is on the verge of nonstop rioting, right? 1964 in Harlem, 1965 in Los Angeles, 1966 in Chicago, in Detroit and 1967 in Newark. Then they’re turning to Chester Himes and saying black rage is something that’s real, that we can’t avoid. Chester Himes has been writing about this really, in journalism in France, from the early 1960s. But when he would write something for the American market they would say, this is unreal, or, we don’t have any need for this. It’s an interesting process that by the mid 1960s, but certainly after 1965, you begin to see a reluctant gesture of approval to Chester Himes, and then this acknowledgment that there were other elements in his writing, local color elements, the humor, the deep portraits of black life, that the literary establishment could find something of value in.

***

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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