RARA-AVIS: Other references on Chester Himes

From: Richard Moore ( moorich@aol.com)
Date: 21 Jul 2007

I'm not certain what critical works examining the career of Chester Himes have been mentioned in this discussion aside from James Sallis' biography and his earlier slim volume that looked at Himes, Jim Thompson, etc. I am in the process of packing up a great number of my books and came across four others on Himes that I have collected through my years of interest in him--all of which have some value and are worth mentioning. Here they are:

CHESTER HIMES, A CRITICAL APRAISAL (University of Missouri Press 1976) by Stephen F. Milliken

CHESTER HIMES by James Lundquist (Frederick Ungar Publishing 1976)

TWO GUNS FROM HARLEM, The Detective Fiction of Chester Himes
(Bowling Green State University Popular Press 1989) by Robert E. Skinner

CONVERSATIONS WITH CHESTER HIMES (University Press of Mississippi 1995) edited by Michel Fabre and Robert E. Skinner.

The last book is a collection of interviews (or portions of interviews) conducted with Himes between 1955 and 1985. They are fascinating, although they are not necessarily reliable for details. For example, he says in one that he sold one story to Esquire "but there were no others." In fact, he sold eight stories to Esquire between 1934 and 1942.

Of interest here is his explanation of the origins of his two detectives not mentioned in his autobiographical writings but given in an interview: "...the two cops, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, are roughly based on a black lieutenant and his sergeant partner who worked the Central Avenue ghetto in L.A. back in the 1940s."

Glancing through the books I was reminded that he was working on Louis Bromfield's Malabar Farm around 1941. Bromfield had won a Pulitzer for a long forgotten novel and was much in demand as a writer of popular fiction and Hollywood screenwriter. Today Bromfield's fiction is forgotten but his later essays and books on sustainable agriculture were remarkably ahead of their time and are still very influential.

As James Sallis wrote in his biography it is hard to imagine the very proud Chester Himes and his wife working as butler and cook on Malabar Farm. But after his WPA position ended he was passed over for other jobs that went to white applicants and he and his wife had to sell their furniture for food. His last hope was the job on the farm and Bromfield and Himes hit it off.

Bromfield read Himes' original prison novel and according to Himes "...became excited about it and wanted to get it submitted to the movies." Bromfield paid for Himes and his wife Jean to travel to Hollywood. Although nothing came of the movie sale, getting to California did result in the material for his first published novel.

Richard Moore

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