Chester B. Himes : A Biography
by Lawrence P. Jackson

Overview -

Chester B. Himes has been called "one of the towering figures of the black literary tradition" (Henry Louis Gates Jr.), "the best writer of mayhem yarns since Raymond Chandler" ( San Francisco Chronicle ), and "a quirky American genius" (Walter Mosely).  Read more...

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More About Chester B. Himes by Lawrence P. Jackson

Chester B. Himes has been called "one of the towering figures of the black literary tradition" (Henry Louis Gates Jr.), "the best writer of mayhem yarns since Raymond Chandler" (San Francisco Chronicle), and "a quirky American genius" (Walter Mosely). He was the twentieth century's most prolific black writer, captured the spirit of his times expertly, and left a distinctive mark on American literature. Yet today he stands largely forgotten.

In this definitive biography of Chester B. Himes (1909-1984), Lawrence P. Jackson uses exclusive interviews and unrestricted access to Himes's full archives to portray a controversial American writer whose novels unflinchingly confront sex, racism, and black identity. Himes brutally rendered racial politics in the best-selling novel If He Hollers Let Him Go, but he became famous for his Harlem detective series, including Cotton Comes to Harlem. A serious literary tastemaker in his day, Himes had friendships--sometimes uneasy--with such luminaries as Ralph Ellison, Carl Van Vechten, and Richard Wright.

Jackson's scholarship and astute commentary illuminates Himes's improbable life--his middle-class origins, his eight years in prison, his painful odyssey as a black World War II-era artist, and his escape to Europe for success. More than ten years in the writing, Jackson's biography restores the legacy of a fascinating maverick caught between his aspirations for commercial success and his disturbing, vivid portraits of the United States.

  • ISBN-13: 9780393063899
  • ISBN-10: 0393063895
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • Publish Date: July 2017
  • Page Count: 624
  • Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.3 x 1.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.11 pounds

Related Categories

Books > Biography & Autobiography > Literary Figures
Books > Biography & Autobiography > Cultural, Ethnic & Regional - General
Books > History > African American

BookPage Reviews

Well Read: Crossing the divide

In the pantheon of African-American writers, Chester Himes occupies a secondary perch. If he is still embraced by the general reader, 30 years after his death, it is probably for his Harlem-based series of detective novels featuring Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson—the best known of which is Cotton Comes to Harlem. Yet, far more than being simply the black Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, Himes was a writer who crossed genres and explored the racial and political divide he witnessed and personally lived through in 20th-century America. Lawrence P. Jackson’s detailed and eminently readable new biography, Chester B. Himes, goes a long way in restoring this influential writer to a place at the table.

Himes was born in Missouri in 1909 into an elite subculture of black America—both his parents were professors in the system of historically black colleges and universities. Expectations were high, and young Himes’ intelligence and talent were apparent, but he would fail to fulfill his academic promise, a reality that Jackson traces to a number of factors, including a restless spirit and, not least of all, the burden of domestic strife caused by his parents’ faltering marriage and the family’s frequent geographic upheavals. Himes’ mother was a light-skinned black woman of exacting standards with no small amount of intraracial prejudice of her own, and her clear disappointment in her son’s shortcomings seem to have weighed heavily on young Himes. His time at Ohio State University was short-lived, and still a teenager, he began to drink, gamble and solicit women in Cleveland’s slums. By 19, he was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 20 years in the state penitentiary. That excessive prison term was eventually reduced, but the almost eight years that Himes did spend incarcerated would prove defining to his career.

While in prison, Himes began to write about what he knew—life in prison. His short stories, with their unvarnished authenticity, were soon being published in Esquire and other periodicals. Ironically, once Himes was a free man and editors no longer could sell him as writing from behind prison walls, he found it increasingly hard to sell stories. Still, encouraged by the likes of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, he found his footing in the literary world. His first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, based on his experiences living amid racism in Los Angeles, was published in 1945. In a review, Richard Wright wrote, “Himes establishes himself not as what has quaintly been called a New Negro, but as a new kind of writing man.”

Jackson does not shy away from conveying the pricklier side of Himes' nature.

Jackson, who spent 15 years working on this book, displays a vast knowledge and clear appreciation for Himes, his work and his rightful place in the canon. Still, he does not shy away from conveying the pricklier side of the man’s nature, which sometimes led to imprudent choices. Much of Himes’ fiction was autobiographical, and Jackson interweaves just the right amount of literary analysis into the narrative of his life. This engaging and impressive biography does Himes the greatest service of all—it inspires the reader to seek out Himes’ books and appraise the work of an underappreciated writer firsthand.

This article was originally published in the July 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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