His Wonders to Perform 
The legacy of Chester Himes
By Melvin Van Peebles

From Gadfly April 1999


Looking backwards over his shoulder, Chester Himes begins his autobiography, The Quality of Hurt, thusly: "America hurt me terribly, whether rightly or wrongly is not the point. When I fought back through writing it decided to kill me... when America kills a nigger it expects him to remain dead... the desperate struggle for life informed me that the only place where I was safe was in my skin." Another time, in a foreword he wrote for a collection of his short stories and essays, he describes himself as a sensualist whose two main obsessions are Black Protest and Black Heterosexuality. He goes on to say, "I am extremely sensitive to all the humiliations and preconceptions Black Americans are heir to..."

Sounds pretty grim, doesn't it? Fortunately, that was only half of the story, half of the Chester I got to know. (Nothing happens outside of a historical context, now does it? Back then, to a white American, even more so than today, a smiling Black meant buffoon.)

Chester's dour assessment of himself was a classic downtrodden intellectual's gambit of self-preservation. Actually Chester was resilient to the point of ebullience, a trait he tried hard to conceal. The simple truth is that African-Americans often find it expedient, for the survival of their sanity and their self-esteem, to officially appear grim. African-Americans who wished to be taken seriously learned to suppress any hint of joviality, lest they be taken for minstrels.

I'm not exactly sure of the date—it was almost the middle of the decade, 1963 or 1964, somewhere in there—before I ever heard of, or laid eyes on, Chester. It had been a slow week in the mayhem department, which was my specialty, of the Paris-based weekly France Observateur, and my boss, the editor of the feature section, brought Himes up. To have me earn my keep, he had the bright idea of assigning me to interview this guy who had just won some big French crime writing prize.

Anyhow, there I was wandering down this street on the Left Bank trying to match the numbers on my notepad with the right home. Finally I spotted my destination... strange the things that stick in your memory... I remember it was on the ground floor on the west side of a street that ran north and south.

As I started across the road, a little yellow roadster with a rumble seat parked out in front of the address caught my eye. It was beat-up but sturdy, old but still jaunty—old as in mileage, not as in antique. I thought I knew cars, but I had never seen anything like it.

Knock, knock... no answer... I knocked again. The door was opened by a not-quite-medium-built man with European features and caramel-colored skin, a dashing figure in a matinee idol sort of way, his features made even more handsome by several wicked scars lining his face.

"Pardon me, monsieur, I'm looking for Chester Himes," I said in my best French. The man looked at me as if he didn't understand. "Chester Himes," I repeated, this time leaving out the rest of the sentence, figuring maybe my French accent was throwing him off.

"I'm Chester Himes," the man smiled and held out his hand. (Turns out it wasn't my accent, Chester didn't speak French.)

Chester led me inside. Keen reporter that I was, I hurriedly made mental notes as I followed him—probably in his fifties—gait stiffer than his years...

Chester worked in the front room of his apartment. A table, or maybe it was a desk, was placed against the wall. It had a typewriter on it and a neat pile of paper on either side.

He offered me a chair and, simultaneously shaking his head, scowling and chuckling, he took one himself. I studied him as I sat down. I couldn't get a handle on him; he was a mind-boggling mixture of frail and ferocious, the likes of which I had never seen.

"Sorry about the door," he apologized. "I wasn't expecting you."

"The paper said they were going to call and that you would be expecting me," I apologized.

"Oh, they did... but shit, I wasn't expecting you." He grinned. "Hell, brother, I didn't know you were black."

He grinned at me and I grinned at him, and that moment was the start—like they say at the end of Casablanca—"The beginning of a beautiful friendship." Chester was twenty-five years my senior, but notwithstanding that or the fact that I kept putting my foot in my mouth that first meeting, we remained buddies for the rest of his life, until he passed away somewhere in Spain, in the mid-eighties, twenty years later.

Suddenly the ludicrousness of the situation overcame us. We both burst out laughing (not polite white simpers either), head-back, teeth-flashing basic colored barbershop peals of joy.

"Are you alright, Chester?" an English accent called from another room.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm O.K.," Chester choked.

Chester's ladyfriend-cum-watchdog, Lesley, later to become the last Mrs. Himes, a sharp-faced, pretty woman, stuck a startled head in the room just to be sure. Later I learned why Lesley was so surprised.

Turns out Chester was considered cantankerous and was not known for taking to strangers. The truth of the matter is he was a bottom-line, no-bullshit brother and suffered fools badly. He was often impatient with the patronizing literati milling around the hem of his garment, anxious to ingratiate themselves. Chester loved to let his hair down, but he was also a very cautious man and rarely got the chance. I had the privilege, along with Herb Gentry, a black expatriate painter, of passing hilarious hours in Chester's company.

After Lesley's head retreated back into the other room, Chester and I got down to the nuts and bolts of the interview. He pointed to the two neat piles on either side of the typewriter and explained that before he started one of his "detective stories" ("action novels" as he insisted on calling them) he would count out 220 pieces of carbon paper and 440 pieces of typing paper. He would then place a sheet of carbon paper between every two sheets of typing paper so that he would have an original and a copy of each page he completed. He would then put the untouched pile on the right-hand side of his typewriter and begin to bang away. After he finished typing a page, he would put it face down on the pile at his left.

"What's the significance of 220 pages?" I asked, fascinated. "Are you into numerology or something?"

"Numerology my ass," Chester laughed. He explained that his contract with the publisher required that he deliver a manuscript of at least 220 pages. "When the pile on the right-hand side begins to get low I know it's time to start winding the story up."

(Like I said, Chester was a bottom-line kinda guy.)

I pointed to a saucer with a woebegone sliver of toast. "Breakfast?" I queried. He nodded.

Figuring I'd add a human interest touch, I started asking him what he put on his toast, "jam, marmalade, maple..."

"... caviar," Chester cut in, "I like caviar. Shit, it's pretty cheap if you know where to shop for it."

"Well... euh," I staggered back to the main topic of the interview, "What got you into writing mystery novels anyway?"

"Money. Marcel Duhamel... he had translated my first novel If He Hollers Let Him Go into French. I ran into him one day after he had been made the publisher of La Serie Noire, that's the detective series I write for. He was the one who thought my style would be great for detective stories. I didn't see it, but he talked me into it."

"Talked you into it? How did he do that?"

"Like I just said, money... he gave me an advance."

(Like I said, Chester was no-bullshit to the bone.)

I asked him how was it that he became a writer in the first place.

"I had a lot of free time."

"Free time?"

"Seven and a half years of it in the Ohio State Penitentiary for robbery."

I sat there with my jaw flapping in the breeze, staring at the delicately featured, elegantly dressed man sitting across from me.

When I finally regained my composure, I started bitching about another innocent black man being railroaded.

"Innocent my ass," Chester interrupted, "I was guilty as sin! They caught me red-handed. I still had the jewels on me. Originally the judge sentenced me to twenty to twenty-five years."

I started commiserating again. "That's where the scars are from, I suppose."

Chester fingered a gash above his eye. "Maybe, some..." he nodded, "But before I went to jail I was working as a porter in a hotel and I fell thirty, maybe forty feet down the elevator shaft."

"Jesus Christ!"

"Yeah," he chuckled, "another white guy." Chester squinted over at me and observed the obvious, "You don't seem to have a lot of information about me, young man."

I just told him the truth. "No, sir," I nodded, "I don't know shit about you."

Chester wasn't offended; he understood, as I mentioned before, that nothing happens outside of a historical context.

My lack of knowledge was more than some funny story. It was a significant, insidious fact, striking to the core of the African-American artist's dilemma. Himes, this literary giant, had been publishing essays, short stories and novels for over a quarter of a century; the fact that I, a black American, had grown up and gone to college and never once heard his name mentioned in the myriad literature courses I had taken spoke volumes about the walls of prejudice and the barriers of racism. Chester was your basic "invisible man." In the United States, outside of music, we were only allowed one brilliant Negro per profession, and Richard Wright, soon to be dethroned by Jimmy Baldwin, had beaten Chester to the wire in the protest novel department.

Never mind what history did or didn't allow—there we sat, grinning at one another like a couple of Cheshire Cats, the bloody feathers of racism's canary dribbling from our respective chops. Me, a French journalist, and him, an award-winning French writer.

"When were you born?"

"1909, in Jefferson City, Missouri. The youngest of three boys. My mother was a tall regal woman, almost white, and my dad was a teacher, a short bow-legged black man."

We chatted away the rest of the afternoon. On the one hand, he didn't take his "action novels" too seriously, but on the other hand he was proud of breaking the "detective writer" color-barrier. Chester loved theories, he was full of them, the more outlandish the better. All were delivered in a disarmingly straightfaced style. One of his favorite targets was the French, who Chester maintained were really light-skinned colored folks in disguise: "don't they like pigs' feet just like we do? And what the hell do you think tripe is?... just chitterlings by another name!"

I finally had to go home. When he opened the door to show me out, the jaunty old convertible was still parked in the road out front.

"Boy, that car is some piece of work. I never saw anything like it."

"She's mine," Chester said.

Frankly, I wasn't surprised.

I managed to get my hands on English copies of Chester's first three novels. I sat down and read them in the order that they had been published: If He Hollers Let Him Go (1942), Lonely Crusade (1947) and Cast the First Stone (1952). The books were searing litanies of injustices, racial and otherwise, analyses-cum-accusations of American society.

In the first two books, Chester's style was a judicious balancing act, half literary, half hard-boiled, judgmental yet dispassionate, incisively detailed but fast-paced. In his third novel, Cast the First Stone, Chester abruptly checked his tendency toward literary grace and veered toward pure pulp.

On reflection, looking backwards from the detective stories to the earlier protest novels, I realized that the pulp path Chester had taken in Cast the First Stone was the natural and direct precursor to the joyous, "vulgar," uninhibited pure pulp fiction of his later Harlem "detective stories." In fact, it seemed to me that Marcel Duhamel, the French editor who convinced Chester to begin writing his series of "detective novels," was only nudging Chester along the road he had already chosen for himself.

Chester called it like he saw it, and he had seen everything. Chester's writing is for real, and it was no third-hand bullshit gleaned from some secondary source. Not only could Chester "talk that talk," he had "walked that walk." Every sentence of every page is alive with authenticity. But attributing Chester's grip on the reader to street-smarts demeans his writing genius. He was not only streetwise—he was brilliant, period.

To people raised in cushier circumstances, Chester probably seemed cynical and bitter. He wasn't bitter, he was angry—angry because of and about the racism he had suffered. Bitterness has a more diffuse quality; one would have to believe in justice, or Jesus, for that. Of course, Chester longed for justice and was incensed by its absence, but he was too pragmatic to spend his time waiting for the justice-Santa to come down the chimney with a stocking full of equality.

Chester's experiences and keen memory, coupled with his irreverent imagination, enabled him to recount the foibles, follies and folks up and down 125th Street. Chester reinvented Harlem as metaphor for the plight of dark-skinned folks in America.

Chester was like that Flemish painter out of the dark ages, Brueghel the Elder. Brueghel called it like he saw it too, so unflinchingly in fact that doctors today, four hundred years later, have been able to identify medieval maladies from studying the characters that he painted, diseases of which people weren't even aware. Chester saw America unflinchingly too: Hilarious, violent racial antagonism bursting to the surface in the streets of these United States (diseases people claim weren't even there) lay festering just below the pavement of Harlem in Chester's work years ago.

Chester got a big kick out of the detective series, what he called his "action stories." He would sit around with me chuckling over the hilarious adventures he'd put Coffin Ed and Grave Digger, his two cop heroes, through. But I had the impression that Chester had a grudge against his "action stories," that there was something he deeply resented about them. Of course I attempted to solve the mystery, but whenever I tried to broach the subject, Chester's face would cloud up. Then, always gracious with me, he'd say something funny to cover himself and change the subject. Finally I stopped asking, and that's where things stood with me on the subject of Chester's grudge for the next thirty years or so.

Anyway, his detective stories were hugely successful; they not only resuscitated his career, they took it to new heights. Of course, Chester's mere survival was an affront to the literary establishment back home, but he did better than merely survive. In France, his detective novels were such a big hit he became a celebrity. Eventually the news of Chester's stardom ricocheted overseas (and everybody loves a winner). Chester's "action stories" became a big success in America too, so big they even started making movies from them. Then, partly on the coattails of his "detective novels," Chester's serious writings were rediscovered and began to receive the attention they merited.

In 1997, I was contacted by an editor at W.W. Norton who asked me if I would like to write the foreword for a new edition of one of Chester's earlier novels. I didn't realize a thirty-year-old puzzle was about to fall into place.

"Sure," I said, "Which one?"

"Yesterday Will Make You Cry."

"Never heard of it," I told him. (I thought I knew all of Chester's work.)

"Cast the First Stone is the original title of the expurgated version of Yesterday Will Make You Cry," he explained. "Expurgated version?" I came back. "Oh? ... You mean the normal editorial correction, don't you?"

"A little more than that," the editor said. "You'll see. We're publishing the original version of Chester's manuscripts exactly the way he wrote it. That's why we're using his original title too, not the one he had to live with."

(Expurgated version?What the hell was going on?)

The manuscript arrived, and I sat down and started to read.

Blam!... by the second page, I realized what a chump I had been! I had accepted without question Chester's veering toward pulp as his true intention.

On the contrary, the original version of Cast the First Stone, Yesterday Will Make You Cry, is Chester at the top of his game, with literary and pulp sensibilities rolled into one unique style.

Turns out Chester hadn't veered toward pulp, for which incidentally he later became famous, of his own volition: He'd been shoved.

Turns out Yesterday Will Make You Cry had made the rounds of the publishing houses with successive waves of editors and agents imposing "improvement" on the manuscript, forcing him to delete his literary touches. They jammed Chester's head into a toilet of racist preconceptions, pulled the chain and kept pulling the chain... flushing away what they felt were his uppity literary pretensions... forcing him to dumb down his masterpiece before agreeing to publish it.

You think perhaps that saying Chester had his head shoved into the toilet of racism might be euh... too strong a metaphor... think again. What would you call making Chester reduce the literary device of flashbacks, including the back story of Jimmy, the central character's life? What would you call forcing Chester to change the more original manuscript from the reflective third person to the more "natural" (i.e., primitive) first person?

Perhaps Yesterday Will Make You Cry might have been accepted for the literary jewel it was and published in its original form forty-five years ago if Himes had been an unknown, or more specifically if his race had been unknown. Not that the national obsession about race has changed that much down through the years. The blurb copy, twenty years later, for the Signet 1972 reprint of Cast the First Stone begins with the patronizing, "James Monroe was a cool cat... ," and ends with, "a ruthlessly honest novel of a young black's agonizing discovery of his own emotions, his own identity..."

What damn "young black's agonizing discovery"? Jimmy Monroe, Chester's central character, was white! The writer of the blurb (twenty years later) still couldn't leap over the ingrained racial assumptions that all a black writer could write about was another black.

No wonder Chester had a grudge against his "detective stories." How painful it must have been to endure. What a bitter pill. What stomach-turning irony, forced to mutilate your work and then, insult added to injury, having that mutilation become the road to greater fame and fortune.

Finally Chester, long denied his place at the literary table, is getting his rightful accolades.

Chester loved having the last laugh, so I know somewhere out there he's a happy camper. My momma used to always talk about "God and the mysterious ways of his wonders to perform." Now I know what she meant. This is a case in point if there ever was one.