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In his Chester B. Himes (1909–1984), Lawrence P. Jackson depicts the improbable life of the controversial writer whose novels confront sexuality, racism, and social injustice. In absorbing detail, Jackson explores Chester Himes’s middle-class origins, eight years in prison, painful odyssey as a black World War II–era artist, and escape to Europe, where Himes became interna In his Chester B. Himes (1909–1984), Lawrence P. Jackson depicts the improbable life of the controversial writer whose novels confront sexuality, racism, and social injustice. In absorbing detail, Jackson explores Chester Himes’s middle-class origins, eight years in prison, painful odyssey as a black World War II–era artist, and escape to Europe, where Himes became internationally famous for his Harlem detective series. Praised by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., as “one of the towering figures of the black literary tradition,” Himes, author of the bestsellers If He Hollers, Let Him Go and Cotton Comes to Harlem, published twenty literary works over a long career, enhanced by friendships with Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and Carl Van Vechten. Chester B. Himes relies on exclusive interviews and unrestricted access to Himes’s full archives. Jackson restores the legacy of a fascinating maverick determined to etch disturbing portraits of American urban life that remain vivid and contemporary.


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In his Chester B. Himes (1909–1984), Lawrence P. Jackson depicts the improbable life of the controversial writer whose novels confront sexuality, racism, and social injustice. In absorbing detail, Jackson explores Chester Himes’s middle-class origins, eight years in prison, painful odyssey as a black World War II–era artist, and escape to Europe, where Himes became interna In his Chester B. Himes (1909–1984), Lawrence P. Jackson depicts the improbable life of the controversial writer whose novels confront sexuality, racism, and social injustice. In absorbing detail, Jackson explores Chester Himes’s middle-class origins, eight years in prison, painful odyssey as a black World War II–era artist, and escape to Europe, where Himes became internationally famous for his Harlem detective series. Praised by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., as “one of the towering figures of the black literary tradition,” Himes, author of the bestsellers If He Hollers, Let Him Go and Cotton Comes to Harlem, published twenty literary works over a long career, enhanced by friendships with Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and Carl Van Vechten. Chester B. Himes relies on exclusive interviews and unrestricted access to Himes’s full archives. Jackson restores the legacy of a fascinating maverick determined to etch disturbing portraits of American urban life that remain vivid and contemporary.

30 review for Chester B. Himes: A Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Andre

    Author Lawrence P. Jackson says in the acknowledgements, “I have endeavored to write the ‘big book’ that Michel and I thought Chester deserved.” In my estimation he has indeed succeeded in completing a big book that explores the life and work of Chester Himes. The research that obviously went into this definitive work had to be painstaking. The end notes are copious which indicates a careful and thorough examination of Chester Himes. It is fascinating to read about the struggles that Chester end Author Lawrence P. Jackson says in the acknowledgements, “I have endeavored to write the ‘big book’ that Michel and I thought Chester deserved.” In my estimation he has indeed succeeded in completing a big book that explores the life and work of Chester Himes. The research that obviously went into this definitive work had to be painstaking. The end notes are copious which indicates a careful and thorough examination of Chester Himes. It is fascinating to read about the struggles that Chester endured to bring his books to print. He apparently worked up quite a reputation within publishing circles, because he was extremely vigilant about every affront, slight or in his mind unwarranted criticism. Chester Himes was what one would call a ‘race man’ and his novels reflected that. "But what was holding him back was his everlasting resistance to a world that did not have a place for a black artist who didn’t emphasize the value of assimilation." His indictment of America and her treatment of Black people were a consistent theme throughout many of his novels. He was on the scene before Richard Wright and had already published novels to critical acclaim when Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man which opened the eyes of the NY publishing world and they began to look anew at Black authors. It's amazing that Himes didn’t get the full applause until later in his life, although the talent he brought to the page was universally recognized early on. Chester first began writing in prison, having been given twenty years for a simple armed robbery. He ended up doing seven and a half years, and in prison is where he began his writing career. While the biography obviously focuses on Chester's life, the surrounding history of the cities Chester lived in and life for African- Americans in general is explored to great effect. At nineteen years old and looking at twenty years, having lived through a prison fire that killed 322 inmates due to failure to act by the administration, "Writing was one activity that helped him overcome lonely isolation and puzzle through the welter of emotions after the fire.......His efforts to deal with the personal tragedy of incarceration, loneliness, physical vulnerability,....launched his writing career." Himes would send out his short stories to magazines hoping they would bite and he began to have some success, becoming skilled at fictionalizing real life he had watched and experienced. Using characters to express his thoughts on subjects would be become a staple of his writing for decades. Quickly realizing that American whites "wished to read about themselves as forceful decision makers" he began to write prison stories with white protagonists and landed a series of stories in the upstart magazine Esquire. He would leave prison and pursue writing as a career eventually publishing his first novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go to modest success a few weeks after the death of his mother. Himes lived from story to story most of his life filling in the lean times with odd jobs or leaning on the job of his wife to support himself. It wasn't until later in life that he begin to make real money writing and publishing, much of it due to his crime series, featuring detectives Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones, which he is probably most widely known for. The book Cotton Comes to Harlem was made into a movie that was very popular in the early 70's. Himes actually found success in France before really becoming a literary name in his home of America. He lived in France, Spain and other places in Europe beginning in the early 1950's and would never officially live again in the United States. He died in Spain in 1984. This biography is one to place on the bookshelf as you may return to it frequently for reference to the publishing industry, for the atmosphere in France where many African-American artists found refuge, for the conditions of 60's America, for the overall struggle of a Black writer trying to make a living, and insight as to how racism can undergird the process of becoming. I received this review copy from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The book will be available July 11, 2017.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Barry Hammond

    One of the giants of black American culture, both with his literary novels like "If He Hollers," "The Lonely Crusade," "Cast The First Stone," "The Third Generation," "The End Of a Primitive," and his Harlem detectives Coffin Ed Johnson & Gravedigger Jones in his crime novels like A Rage In Harlem, The Real Cool Killers, Cotton Comes To Harlem, and Blind Man With A Pistol, Chester Himes was both reviled and revered during his life. One of the ex-patriots who moved to Paris and later other locati One of the giants of black American culture, both with his literary novels like "If He Hollers," "The Lonely Crusade," "Cast The First Stone," "The Third Generation," "The End Of a Primitive," and his Harlem detectives Coffin Ed Johnson & Gravedigger Jones in his crime novels like A Rage In Harlem, The Real Cool Killers, Cotton Comes To Harlem, and Blind Man With A Pistol, Chester Himes was both reviled and revered during his life. One of the ex-patriots who moved to Paris and later other locations in Europe to escape the worst of American racism, he was also critical of many middle-class people and heroes of his own race in their eagerness to gloss over the worst excesses of racism for "slow progress." The fact that he'd done time in prison as a young man was viewed by some as a mark against him rather than a remarkable life turn-around. After the 1960's and 1970's, when more radical figures like Malcolm X and LeRoi Jones accepted many of his views, he became more prominent but has never really been accorded the full stature he probably deserves. Lawrence P. Jackson has written a very well-researched biography which captures his life in all its complexity, subtlety and contradictions. A great tribute to an astonishing human being. - BH.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Justin

    Good bio about Himes, but it does not talk much about his writing.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Mary

    I need to find a Chester Himes book list and do some more reading. This man was fascinating. The reading level was a little more difficult than I am used to.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Kevin

    Lawrence P. Jackson's absorbing and definitive biography of Chester Himes is essential reading for fans of the prolific African American novelist. Though Himes wrote two outstanding memoirs, Jackson--professor of English and history at Johns Hopkins University--shines as an astute literary critic and compelling biographer. At age 19, Himes was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 20 to 25 years in prison. He started writing short prison stories. When he was paroled early at age 26 in 1936, Lawrence P. Jackson's absorbing and definitive biography of Chester Himes is essential reading for fans of the prolific African American novelist. Though Himes wrote two outstanding memoirs, Jackson--professor of English and history at Johns Hopkins University--shines as an astute literary critic and compelling biographer. At age 19, Himes was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 20 to 25 years in prison. He started writing short prison stories. When he was paroled early at age 26 in 1936, he had already published stories in Esquire. He spent 16 years trying to get his first novel published. A hard-hitting look at prison life and homosexuality, it was rejected and rewritten numerous times. By the time a toned-down version was finally published as CAST THE FIRST STONE in 1952, Himes had already published two other novels. His contentious relationships with publishers, editors and peers marginalized his career as much as the racial and political content of his novels. In the late 1950s, he moved to France and began writing noir mysteries featuring Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. "The two Harlem detectives solving crimes enabled him to depict black urban life, with its rural slave and blues roots, with a kind of opulence and intrigue that was difficult in books with more obvious political meaning," writes Jackson. These mysteries (including COTTON COMES TO HARLEM) brought Himes international fame, financial security and stability. Jackson's outstanding biography is a massive (580 pages) and intimate look at the volatile life and layered fiction of noir expatriate Chester Himes. Jackson's outstanding and intimate biography of Chester Himes is essential reading for fans of noir fiction, and those interested in race relations in history and lives of adversity.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Shirley Hart

    So much history to know; so much psychology to understand; so much sociology to comprehend; so much cultural awareness--Jackson contributes much to the reader in his Chester B. Himes: A Biography.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Rigg

    I mostly knew Himes as the author of potboiler detective novels featuring largely black casts, and I've previously read (and enjoyed) one of those, "Cotton Comes to Harlem." I'd heard Himes was a bit of a character and had disputes with other black writers of the same era, like James Baldwin, and this book by Lawrence P. Jackson was supposed to have the good gossip about the literary scene of the 1940s-60s, especially about black authors of that era. What I didn't know was that Himes started off I mostly knew Himes as the author of potboiler detective novels featuring largely black casts, and I've previously read (and enjoyed) one of those, "Cotton Comes to Harlem." I'd heard Himes was a bit of a character and had disputes with other black writers of the same era, like James Baldwin, and this book by Lawrence P. Jackson was supposed to have the good gossip about the literary scene of the 1940s-60s, especially about black authors of that era. What I didn't know was that Himes started off as more of a serious, literary author, writing about social problems, largely race and poverty, but also interracial relationships, the hardships of prison, and the complications of family life. He became disaffected by life in America and lived abroad in Europe for much of the second half of his life. At first, when he switched to detective novels, he considered it sort of a pandering act, but he eventually was able to include a lot of his social concerns in those novels, just packed in action and suspense and wrapped up in sex and comedy. I often find straight academic biographies to be a bit dry, but this was fascinating, and when Himes' literary career really started getting going, I was turning pages like this was a fiction thriller. The book was also enhanced by dozens of black and white photographs of Himes, his family, and his literary peers. I really enjoyed this book!

  8. 5 out of 5

    Elias McClellan

    Lawrence P. Jackson’s biography of author Chester Himes is a great success. If that statement reads dubious then it is because Himes, the man is no easy subject. Spiteful and self-destructive, Himes was a contemporary of and plumbed the same topics of racial inequity in America as Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. He would not find success until decades after Wright and Ellison's groundbreaking novels. Chester Himes personal struggles as an African American in early and mid 20th century would ma Lawrence P. Jackson’s biography of author Chester Himes is a great success. If that statement reads dubious then it is because Himes, the man is no easy subject. Spiteful and self-destructive, Himes was a contemporary of and plumbed the same topics of racial inequity in America as Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. He would not find success until decades after Wright and Ellison's groundbreaking novels. Chester Himes personal struggles as an African American in early and mid 20th century would make for solid reading. Yet, it is chronicling the turmoil and strife of Chester Himes’ life in letters where Jackson strikes gold. Beginning with Chester’s earliest attempts at short-story publication, (on a typewriter won in a card game) to competition with Hemingway, and ultimately, the rollercoaster of long-form publication, Chester's journey as a writer elevates the biography above simple journal of historical reference. Clearly an admirer of Himes’ work, Jackson remains objective in addressing the half-truths and the self-serving revisions that populate Himes' early autobiographic novels and short stories. If Jackson makes a misstep, it is finale and I blame editorial constraints. Early chapters strain at the seams to contain three and four years but the final chapter encompasses the last decade of Chester’s life. Breakneck in pace, the final act reads rushed. In his introduction, Lawrence Jackson states that he intends his biography as the “big book,” Chester Himes’ life deserves and this is a considerable portrait of the artist. But like best of Chester’s own work, I couldn’t help but wish for just a bit more.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Megan

    I can see the devotion and passion that the author has for Chester B. Himes. I think this book was informative and personal. I think it may be a tad bit too long for me but I think most fans won't have a problem with the length. Would recommend. -Megan

  10. 4 out of 5

    Chris Elder

  11. 4 out of 5

    K.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

  13. 5 out of 5

    Scott Catey

  14. 4 out of 5

    Rusty

  15. 4 out of 5

    Big Al

  16. 4 out of 5

    Alan

  17. 4 out of 5

    Carol

  18. 5 out of 5

    Spenser

  19. 4 out of 5

    Mills College Library

    Biog H657j 2017

  20. 5 out of 5

    Yuan-Ming

  21. 4 out of 5

    Titi

  22. 4 out of 5

    Shaylee

  23. 5 out of 5

    Raven

  24. 5 out of 5

    Blair Daniels III

  25. 5 out of 5

    Dr. Bill E. Lawson

  26. 5 out of 5

    John Dimoia

  27. 4 out of 5

    Youg15301

  28. 4 out of 5

    Clare

  29. 4 out of 5

    City Lights Booksellers & Publishers

  30. 4 out of 5

    Zeke

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