Authors: James Sallis
Intelligence and gambling acumen were two reasons Himes survived. He also survived, not only in prison, but ultimately, for another reason: he became a writer. Prison would turn Chester Himes into a writer and simultaneously deliver to him a lifetime of subject matter.
Writing, Stephen Milliken suggests, gave Himes a foothold on treacherous ground, offering him some degree of mastery over the most painful, even all but unendurable, experiences. Certainly it helped him, if not to control, then at least to channel, his rage. We don't really know what triggered this transformation. In the story “Prison Mass” Brightlights muses on his need for adulation, vowing no longer to seek that adulation as gambler, but as writer.
“I shall pass beneath this earth no common shade.” That was his motto nowâI shall be no
. What was important in life? From his burning thoughts came the answerâambition, achievement, fame.
Himes himself gave several reasons for taking up writing. Not the least was the protection it afforded him. Fellow prisoners respected and superstitiously feared those who wrote. Guards thought twice before killing or too severely beating a prisoner known outside the walls, “or else convicts like Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver would never have gotten out of prison alive.”
Filling the train of endless empty days and years doubtless played some part as well. In
Cast the First Stone
a murderer who's befriended him tells Jimmy Monroe about a writing course he's taking. When Jimmy questions this, saying that he understood writing to require talent, the man responds: “Oh, I don't ever expect to really write any stories â¦ I'm just studying this
for something to do. You know a fellow has to do something.”
When in the sixties Melvin Van Peebles, interviewing Himes in Paris, asked how it was that he became a writer, Chester responded: “I had a lot of free time.”
Brother Joe believed that upon finding himself imprisoned, looking up the long, empty tunnel of his future, Himes “took himself in hand and decided that he had to do something with his life.”
Estelle supported Chester in his ambition. She provided a typewriter, paper, and pencils, helped persuade prison officials to let him work, encouraged him in every way.
Himes says, starkly, “I began writing in prison,”
and goes on to catalog his publications. His first story was published in a black-owned magazine,
, sometime in 1931, but neither a copy of the story nor files of the magazine exist. Other early stories appeared in black newspapers and magazines such as
Atlanta Daily World
, and the
. In 1934 he sold two stories to
. “Crazy in the Stir” was published with only his prison number, 59623, as byline. “To What Red Hell,” a fictionalized version of the 1930 prison fire that claimed over 300 lives, which Himes would depict again in
Cast the First Stone
, soon followed. “After that,” Himes wrote, “until I was released in May 1936, I was published only by
Himes's two stories for the magazine had been accepted simultaneously. “Crazy” appeared in August (“a long-term prisoner in a state penitentiary tells an authentic story about life on the âinside'”), “To What Red Hell” in October. Editor Arnold Gingrich would buy five more from Himes in the period 1934 to 1942; they'd appear alongside contributions from Hemingway, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, Ring Lardner, Ben Hecht, Conrad Aiken, Bertrand Russell, Theodore Dreiser, and Langston Hughes. Exhilarating company for a young convict in an Ohio prison, Stephen Milliken points out. “He was at last, beyond all question, a writer.”
Interestingly enough, Himes's first stories for
were not about blacks. (Himes was not identified as black until 1936, when a sketch appeared on the contributor's page.) They
about what Himes just then knew best, crime and the people who committed it. As critic Robert Skinner remarks, characters in these stories with titles like “The Visiting Hour,” “Crazy in the Stir” and “The Night's for
Cryin'” often resemble Himes, “men with violence deeply imbedded in them,”
men already in prison or half a step away. But, influenced as much by popular “slick” magazine fiction of the day as by anything elseâand despite Himes's admiration of Dashiell Hammettâthey were quite different beasts from the sort of crime stories one encountered in pulps such as
. They exhibit little of the trademark headlong narratives and violence of those magazines, or, for that matter, of Himes's own later work. And while often strong on character and plot development, they remain, the earliest of them at any rate, essentially apprentice work. Swayback syntax peeps out from the corners of uncertain sentences, the clichÃ©s and commonplaces of received wisdom float to the top, a scab of sentimentality forms over them. Himes may have realized this in 1971 when, assembling his anthology
Black on Black
, he passed over all but one of these stories, 1937's “The Night's for Cryin'.”
Yet even as he postured, writing (one assumes) the sort of things he imagined readers (and editors) wanted, Himes, ever intuitive, had begun groping his way toward what would become his real work; the engines are there. He was stretching muscles, trying out this new, deeper voice, finding out just how large a container he might fill. The stories are a kind of laboratory, then. Himes quickly eliminated his more obvious mistakes, Milliken notes, and just as quickly began showing considerable control over his medium; the stories “represent an amazingly rapid progress towards professional competence.”
If early stories are manifestly didactic, if others court clichÃ©s of film and romance fiction, if moments of spare brilliance alternate with doldrums of troweled-in autobiography, soon all this starts cooking down in the stew. The leap from the overwrought and overwritten thickets of “His Last Day” (published November 1932) to “Prison Mass” (March, April, May 1933) with its control, clarity, and complexity is truly impressive.
For all its faults, however (and they are peculiarly Himesian faults), “His Last Day” demonstrates the kind of evocation of fear at its basest, physical level, the reek and swelter of it, that Himes does better than anyone else, calling to mind those nightmarish waking scenes of
If He Hollers Let Him Go
. In “Prison Mass” we encounter early examples of the cadenced, poetic writing we grow to expect from Himes:
A tiny flake of vagrant snow fluttered in through an open window, appearing eerily from the translucent gray of the early morning like a frightened ghost seeking the brilliant cheer of the lighted chapel, and quickly melted on the back of a convict's hand.
and 21 of
Cast the First Stone
closely parallel the first two
stories “Crazy in the Stir” and “To What Red Hell,” even to the point of retaining phrases and sentences, Himes has not only fully rewritten but also fully
the material. These chapters are as structured and precise as the stories are simplistic and wayward. Nothing better illustrates Himes's growing skill.
Not only does Himes learn to write in these stories but, as Franklin suggests, all his major themes, all the engines of his art, surface in them.
There is, for instance, the fascination with grotesques that came to fruition in the Harlem cycle: ogrelike Pork Chop Smith of “Pork Chop Paradise,” half frog, half ape; or the monstrous Black Boy of “The Night's For Cryin'” with his thick red lips, plate-shaped face, and perpetual popeyed expression.
There is, too, this weird, duple integrity Himes's characters so often have. His hustlers and hard cases may represent themselves outwardly as unbreachable and unyielding, and may in fact be so, but the front doesn't carry over to their inner lives. There they become, like all of us, simple Boolean equations of fear and desire. Himes's monsters don't rationalize or dissemble: they know themselves for what they are.
In the account of his Chicago arrest Himes cited his inability to run. That same inability, to flee when flight is the only sane choice, or to act when action is imperative, turns up repeatedly in Himes's characters, as far back as Signifier in “Prison Mass.” The protagonist of “Crazy in the Stir,” driven mad by loss of privacy and the prison's constant din, is forever pulled back from the brink of violence by conditioning, “that queer docility common to prisoners.”
Prison conditioning has so diminished the protagonist of “To What Red Hell” that during the fire he finds himself wholly incapable of functioning.
He heard a voice say: “Get a blanket and give a hand here.” His lips twitched slightly as a nausea swept over him. He said: “No can do,” in a low choky whisper â¦ He really wanted to go up
in that smoking inferno â¦ But he couldn't, just couldn't, that's all.
Similarly unmanned, Jimmy Monroe in
Cast the First Stone
climbs atop a wall to jump to his death but, when lights flash signaling bedtime, docilely climbs down and into bed, boiling with helplessness, frustration, and rage.
Most important perhaps, in the
stories Himes developed his genius for observing and then recording a scene in such physical detail as to completely overtake the reader. These stories also demonstrate a technique Himes would perfect with
Cast the First Stone
and use ever thereafter, a kind of jacking up of reality, amassing physical detail and impressions with such rapidity and to such degree that they collapse into one another, become distorted, almost surreal.
I swung at his shiny face. I missed him and went sprawling over a corpse. The soft, mushy form gave beneath me. I jumped up, shook my hands as if I had fallen into a puddle of filth. Then the centipede began crawling about in my head. It was mashed in the middle and it crawled slowly through my brain just underneath the skull, dragging its mashed middle. I could feel its legs all gooey with the slimy green stuff that had been mashed out of it.
And then I was running again. I was running blindly over the stiffs, stepping in their guts, their faces. I could feel the soft squashy give of their bellies, the roll of muscles over bones. I put my face down behind my left hand, bowed my head and plowed forward.
A moment later I found myself standing in front of the entrance to the Catholic chapel. I felt a queer desire to laugh.
Finally, then, the place of violence in Himes's work.
Nathanael West remarked that he was able to write such short yet intense books because in the United States we don't have to prepare for violence. Violence is our birthright, the very air we breathe. In prison Himes watched fellow prisoners cut, cripple, or kill one another for nonsensical reasons, or for no reason at all. Himes cites two convicts killing one another over their argument as to whether Paris was in
France or France in Paris. (In
The Crazy Kill
Grave Digger tells this same story to an Irish police lieutenant who then tops him, in what musicians would call a cutting contest, with his own absurdist tale of two Irishmen.) Another was murdered for not passing the bread. Once Himes awoke to the sound of a gurgling scream and the sight of blood spurting from a cut throat onto the mattress below. The experience taught him, he said, that people will do anything. And he carried that sense of pervasive, absurdist violence into his mature work, where it became that work's major theme: the violence society lowers against its members, the violence blacks level against blacks, the violence we do against those we love and against ourselves.
For Himes, violence is at the same time matter-of-fact and so intense as to be almost cartoonlike: an inescapable, mundane part of black life as well as a metaphor for the absurdity of that life. When after treading across that carpet of corpses Jimmy Monroe feels “a queer desire to laugh” he points up a fundamental element in Himesian violence. Violence is always edged with humor in Himes. Boundaries dissolve; often we're unable to say where one leaves off and the other begins. We laugh at the woman fused to the wall by a hit-and-run driver and arctic temperatures, clothes falling away to reveal her as a transvestiteâlaugh, then are horrified at ourselves for doing so.
Or this scene from well along in
Blind Man with a Pistol:
The black man walked forward down a urine-stinking hallway beneath the feet of a gigantic black plaster of paris image of Jesus Christ, hanging by his neck from the rotting white ceiling of a large square room. There was an expression of teeth-bared rage on Christ's black face. His arms were spread, his fists balled, his toes curled. Black blood dripped from red nail holes. The legend underneath read:
THEY LYNCHED ME.
One of many subplots in
is that of black journalist Moe Miller, fighting a perpetual war against a giant rat in his home in Brooklyn. The rat even moves traps that Moe sets for it, placing them strategically where they break Moe's toes. When at one point Moe throws his hunting knife at it, the rat clasps the knife in its teeth and rushes him. Moe flees the apartment, telegraphing his wife:
FOR GOD SAKE DO NOT COME STOP RAT HAS GOT KNIFE STOP IN POSSESSION OF HOUSE STOP I AM DROPPING THE NEGRO PROBLEM UNTIL RAT IS CAUGHT STOP.
that this fusion of comedy and violence reaches its apotheosis, moving from there into the Harlem cycle.