The Several Lives of Chester Himes

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Overview

The Several Lives of Chester Himes by Edward Margolies and Michel Fabre

The writings of Chester Himes are colored by a fascinating blend of hatred and tenderness, of hard-boiled realism and generous idealism. His life was complex, his relationships complicated.

How did this gifted son of a respectable southern black family become a juvenile delinquent? How did he acquire self-esteem and a new sense of identity by writing short stories while in the Ohio state penitentiary?

Drawn from his letters, notebooks, memoirs, and fiction, this straightforward account of Himes's varied, episodic life attempts to trace the origins of his significant literary gift.

It details the socioeconomic, familial, and cultural background that fed his ambivalent views on race in America. His Deep South childhood, his adolescence in the Midwest, his young manhood in prison, his years as a menial laborer, his struggles as an author in California and New York City, and finally his glory days as an expatriate and celebrity in France and Spain are plumbed deeply for their effects upon his creative urges and his works.

In his native country Himes is recalled more as the author of successful detective novels such as "Cotton Comes to Harlem" than as a practitioner of the art of fiction. In France and Spain, his adopted countries, he is regarded as a literary master.

This critical biography detailing his multiple profiles reveals how autobiography is the genesis of his books. In "If He Hollers Let Him Go" and in the fratricidal shootout of his black detectives Grave Digger and Coffin Ed in "Plan B" Himes was an unsparing witness to our changing times. His painful experiences in America indelibly marked his fiction, which is filled with reflections on his difficult relationships, especially with women: his fair-complexioned mother, his African American first wife Jean, his many white lovers, and finally his English wife Lesley.

His career was so beset by controversy that he left America to live on the Left Bank in a colony of expatriates and as a colleague of Richard Wright. Eventually he settled in Spain and died there in 1984.

This critical biography is the bittersweet story of a troubled man who found salvation in writing.

Edward Margolies is Professor Emeritus, English and American Studies, College of Staten Island, City University of New York.

Michel Fabre (deceased) was Professor Emeritus, American Studies, Université de la Sorbonne.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
As an American who preferred Europe, a published author with a hatred of publishers and a serious writer best known for the potboilers he wrote late in his career, Himes 1909-1984 was also an acerbic African American of partial white ancestry who reduced his contradictory circumstances and nature to race, declaring "if one is a Negro, one is absurd." After eight years in jail for armed robbery committed at age 19 and a homosexual relationship he would later call the most fulfilling of his, Himes produced a wealth of pulpy short stories for Esquire and other magazines in the '30s and '40s, as well as several novels on racial themes most famously, If He Hollers Let Him Go which he thought were deliberately smothered by their publishers. Moving to the '50s Paris of better-known friends James Baldwin and Richard Wright, Himes began to write a genre-blending series of what he called Harlem domestic detective storiesseething policiers, such as A Rage in Harlem, that indicted American interracial relations. These often centered on an idea he applied in his life as well: that black men could heal white women, as both were oppressed by white men. Margolies and Fabre, two American studies professors who knew Himes during the last 20 years of his life, draw generously upon Himes's work, letters and notoriously untrustworthy memoirs for this concise, matter-of-fact biography, neither fawning over nor condescending to their complex subject, whose work and life showed his dual obsessions with violence and reform. June
Library Journal
Margolies emeritus, Coll. of Staten Island and Fabre emeritus, Universit de la Sorbonne are probably best known for their work on Richard Wright. It took them almost 15 years to complete this slim biography of Wright's fellow expatriate writer, Himes author of such popular novels as A Rage in Harlem and Cotton Comes to Harlem. It is easy to see why this project took so long. The authors have done an exhaustive search of archival sources and conducted numerous interviews with Himes's friends and family, resulting in a disturbing portrait of a creative, highly complex man. The authors chronicle his troubled relationship with his parents, his brushes with the law, his life in Europe, his struggles to be considered a "serious" writer, his conflicting views on race relations, and a numbing litany of his affairs mostly interracial. This is a fascinating, highly readable book best taken in small pieces. Recommended for academic collections.Louis J. Parascandola, Long Island Univ., Brooklyn Campus
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780878059089
  • Publisher: University Press of Mississippi
  • Publication date: 5/1/1997
  • Pages: 209
  • Lexile: 1250L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.32 (h) x 0.87 (d)

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