Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Chester Himes's the Third Generation: A Dystopic Domestic Novel

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Chester Himes's the Third Generation: A Dystopic Domestic Novel

Article excerpt

For the sake of argument, imagine that you sit down to read a novel, and it opens with the following paragraphs:

   Spring was in the air. The bright morning sunshine had dried the
   dew and warmed the ground, and crocuses, bordering the front brick
   walk, bloomed in yellow flame. Rosebushes along the front picket
   fence were heavy with buds, and the tiny lacquered leaves of the
   spreading elderberry tree trembled as if in ecstasy. Everything
   seemed dazzlingly clean and dressed for an occasion. Beyond the
   vivid green of the sprouting grass the small frame house glistened
   with fresh white paint.

      The faces of two small children pressed wistfully against the
   front windowpanes gave eyes to the house. It was a pleasant house,
   and one could imagine it having eyes, and smiling, too, on such a
   morning. Professor Taylor rented it from the college president. (7)

What kind of story would you anticipate from this? A sentimental tale in which the mother does her part to make the world a better place by educating her children with loving kindness and gracious moral examples? A British tale of a decorously impoverished gentleman's daughter who overcomes countless obstacles to finding love and succeeds in fulfilling a marriage plot? Given these opening paragraphs, it would be reasonable to anticipate either of these plotlines. However, these paragraphs actually open Chester Himes's 1954 novel The Third Generation, and rather than developing the serene domestic ideal portrayed in this scene, Himes proceeds to explode it.

Born in 1909 into an educated, middle-class African American family in Jefferson City, Missouri, Himes spent his childhood in many locations in the Midwest and the South, as his father moved between teaching positions at various agricultural colleges. He attended Ohio State University but withdrew before he graduated. There are varying accounts given as to why he left, but perhaps the most likely story is that university officials asked him to leave the school after he brought some of his classmates to a "combination speakeasy-whorehouse," where he then became involved in an altercation (Margolies and Fabre 25). Shortly after leaving college, Himes was arrested and convicted for armed robbery, serving eight years in prison. After his release from prison, he worked at various jobs and at the same time wrote and published. However, his writing offered him little in the way of financial success. Disgusted with the endemic racism of the United States, he moved to France, as Richard Wright and James Baldwin had before him. There Himes wrote a series of detective novels, which garnered him the literary notoriety and financial success that had eluded him in the United States.

Himes is best known for this Harlem detective novel series, published in the late 1950s and 1960s, which features the detective duo Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, who are propelled through violent, absurdist plot lines. Early on in his career, however, Himes wrote protest novels, most notably If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), which features a young African American man who works (as Himes had) in a California shipyard during World War II. Critics have categorized Himes with other mid-twentieth-century social protest writers, such as Wright and Ralph Ellison, whose naturalism builds on the literary tradition of Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair. His early novels, including The Third Generation, exude a palpable rage similar to that found in Wright's Native Son (1940) and Ellison's Invisible Man (1952).

The Third Generation has received very little critical attention, and scholars who have written on it have focused mainly on the autobiographical nature of the novel. Although The Third Generation is indeed autobiographical, as a novel it would benefit from being exposed to additional critical approaches. In this article, I will focus on how Himes takes a literary-historical domestic paradigm and almost literally destroys it. …

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