The Several Lives of Chester Himes

The Several Lives of Chester Himes

The Several Lives of Chester Himes

The Several Lives of Chester Himes

Excerpt

Memory is a fragile instrument, and Chester Himes's was no exception. The two volumes of autobiography he wrote when he was well past sixty are fraught with errors of fact, incorrect sequences of events, and even incorrect dates of central experiences. Further, Himes was not averse to putting a romanticized or ideological "spin" on some of his accounts. This is not to say these books are not useful, but often they represent a state of mind as much as a life lived.

This is a pity because Himes's years not only tell us what literary lessons he drew from the flagrant contrasts in his life but also tell of the little-known worlds and societies he passed through in his quest to attain celebrity--a celebrity, be it acknowledged at once, far greater in France than in America. (The enthusiastic reception in France of African American artists and intellectuals is, of course, a story in itself, and Himes, as we shall see, had some acerbic observations in this regard.) Himes's American successes did not come early or easily, doubtless in part because of racial barriers, but also because he contained within himself so many of the contradictory impulses, desires, and aspirations of his American upbringing. Himes is mainly known in the United States today as an author of Harlem thrillers, but his other works also deserve serious attention. Although no one would wish to claim Himes as an American Everyman, or even as a black American Everyman, surely he mirrors in himself the social, cultural, and racial conflicts of the America he wrote about. Indeed his most powerful writings express these unresolved tensions.

Born in 1909, the youngest and fairest-skinned of three brothers, Chester Himes passed his first eleven years in the genteel surroundings of the southern black middle class. His "professor" father taught mechanical skills in . . .

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