Reviews — From the August 2017 issue

Liberation Struggle

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In 1953, with the help and encouragement of Richard Wright, who had gone into self-imposed exile several years earlier, Himes sailed to Paris, where his novels, all of which bombed domestically, had been favorably received. Aside from one brief stint back Stateside, he lived in Europe, mainly in France and Spain, for the rest of his life.

At a remove from the American racial caste system and the artistic imperative to protest against it, and already attuned to black aesthetics through the G.I.-fueled jazz scene and pastiche such as Boris Vian’s novels in blackface, French critics and audiences brought vastly different expectations to African-American literature. They also showed a straightforward appreciation for a variety of purportedly lowbrow American genres, such as westerns and detective fiction. Soon, Marcel Duhamel, a powerful figure at the publishing house Gallimard, suggested that Himes try his hand at crime stories. Himes felt such work to be beneath him but urgently needed the income. Eventually, he conceived a series of policiers set in Harlem. In a seeming demotion that echoed his previous lapses into menial labor, he soon accepted that his literary career was behind him and took to detective fiction with relish.

As in prison, he flourished under constraint. The narrowness of the form, Jackson notes, allowed him “to create sizzling exaggerations that amplified and telescoped his concerns” about the black Americans he described as “the most neurotic, complicated, schizophrenic, unanalyzed, anthropologically advanced specimen of mankind in the history of the world.” And so it was that detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, the antiheroic center of Himes’s writing for the next dozen years, eventually brought him the wealth and status he so badly craved — first in Europe and later in the United States.

Reviewing the sixth novel in the series, Cotton Comes to Harlem, in 1965, the Los Angeles Times argued, “More important than its entertainment value is the social comment it makes throughout,” in particular its simultaneously compassionate and withering depiction of a Garveyite back-to-Africa scheme. Himes, however, downplayed any nobler motivations. At a dinner party, Jackson writes, “Chester told the crowd that he had not even a dilettante’s concern about the quality of his art or its political dimensions. ‘I don’t write for money accidentally,’ he lectured, ‘it’s my main purpose.’ ” This seems a lot more like the hard-won gloating of a man who had finally made his intellectual labor pay than any genuine modus operandi. In any event, he understood that it was far too late to make himself respectable.

Decades of heavy drinking and drug use, compounded by scarcity and stress, began to take their toll by the Seventies, when Himes suffered two debilitating strokes. But — at least as he liked to tell it — he’d “become more famous in Paris than any black American who had ever lived.” He had arguably bested Baldwin, whose own worldview, Jackson claims, grew ever more Himesian as he found himself “held in decreasing esteem” over the final twenty years of his career owing to the tumult of the Sixties and the rise of Black Power. Ironically, since Himes evinced none of the latter’s desire to be a spokesman, his own standing among the younger, more radical generations only grew stronger.

It made no difference, for his would always be a one-man movement. This is perhaps his most intriguing legacy for the present: the possibility of an uncompromisingly personal liberation. Whether or not black lives in the abstract could be said to matter no longer concerned him, if it ever had; Himes was determined to make sure his own life did. And though he would eventually swap the girl and the car for English models and retire to the warmer climes of Spain, his reason for settling in France remained the same until his death, in 1984: “I had a German girl, a German car; I was making my living from French publishers, and I had no reason whatsoever to put foot in America.”

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is the author of Losing My Cool, a memoir.

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