Notes on Chester Himes.
BY TONY WOLK
These notes are provided as annotations to Wolk’s 1972 interview with James Baldwin.
CHESTER HIMES (1909-1984): About midway through The Quality of Hurt: The Autobiography of Chester Himes (Doubleday, 1971), where the year is 1953 and Himes has been in Paris for about a week, his contact to steer him through his first week is Richard (Dick) Wright (1908-1960). As the author of Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), Native Son (1940), and Black Boy (1945), Wright was America’s premier black writer. In 1946, Wright moved to Paris, becoming a permanent American expatriate. James Baldwin (1924-1987) was also an expatriate, having arrived in Paris at the age of twenty-four. As Himes tells the story, he knew of Baldwin only from Baldwin’s review of Himes’ early novel, Lonely Crusade. Meanwhile, Wright had arranged for Himes and Baldwin to meet with him at Les Deux Magots. Wright was angry with Baldwin, having been “instrumental in getting Baldwin an award for eighteen hundred dollars” plus nine hundred more which would “enable him to write his first novel.” Wright’s editor at Harper’s, Edward Aswell, “eventually rejected” Baldwin’s book, which would then be published by the Dial Press (Himes has it wrong, thinking it was Beacon Press) later in 1953, with the title Go Tell It on the Mountain.
Himes describes Baldwin, who was waiting there at Les Deus Magots, as “a small intense young man of great excitability.” Wright appears “in lordly fashion and started right off needling Baldwin, who defended himself with such intensity that he stammered, his body trembled, and his face quivered.” Himes describes Wright as “playing the fat cat and forcing Baldwin into the role of quivering mouse.” Himes then notes that “It wasn’t particularly funny, but then Dick wasn’t a funny man.” What Wright is angry about is Baldwin “showing his gratitude for all he had done for him by his scurrilous attacks.” Baldwin’s defense is that “Dick had written his story and hadn’t left him, or any other American black writer, anything to write about.”
At this point other friends of Wright join them, but that doesn’t deter Baldwin and Wright from “going at one another.” And no one, says Himes, “paid me any attention,” most taking Baldwin’s side. Before long the three of them move on to a Martiniquan café. By now Baldwin is “wearing Dick down” and Himes is getting quite drunk, and the last thing Himes recalls is “Baldwin saying, ‘The sons must slay the fathers.’” Himes thinks Baldwin “had taken leave of his senses,” then adds that much later he had “read Mary Renault’s book The King Must Die, and I was reminded of Baldwin’s remark that night, ‘The sons must slay their fathers,’” and realizes that Baldwin “was right,” adding: “On the American literary scene, the powers that be have never admitted but one black at a time into the arena of fame, and to gain this coveted admission, the young writer must unseat the reigning deity.” Himes also adds that he “used to tease Dick by referring to Baldwin as his son.”
Now, allow me to shift gears and describe this scene from James Baldwin’s perspective. And if that’s not enough, also from John A. Williams’ fictionalized version in The Man Who Cried I Am, both versions prior to Himes’.
James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name (1961; Section 12, part 2, “The Exile”) also describes two scenes for his meeting with Wright in Paris. Note that there had been several meetings between Wright and Baldwin in 1946 back in the States shortly before Wright and his family left for Paris. Baldwin writes of that meeting as being “The last time Richard and I spoke to each other without the later terrible warfare.”
It’s now two years later and Baldwin has also “quit America, never intending to return.” He arrives in Paris and “before I even checked in at a hotel, I was carried to Deux Magots, where Richard sat, with the editors of Zero magazine, Richard crying out, ‘Hey boy!’” and “looking more surprised and pleased and conspiratorial than ever, and younger and happier.” Baldwin takes this meeting as a “good omen,” adding “I couldn’t possibly have been more wrong” .
Soon after, Baldwin has written an essay for Zero with the title “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” Now it’s the very day “the magazine was published, and before I had seen it, I walked into the Brasserie Lipp. Richard was there, and he called me over.” No Hey boy! At which point Baldwin the writer adds, “I will never forget that interview, but I doubt that I will ever be able to re-create it.”
What follows is Baldwin’s version of how Richard accused him of “having betrayed him, and not only him but all American Negroes by attacking the idea of protest literature.” It gets worse: Richard thinks young Baldwin had attacked Native Son, and not just the novel but “his reputation.” Which had never entered Baldwin’s mind. Now comes the moment:
And yet, what made the interview so ghastly was not merely the foregoing or the fact that I could find no words to defend myself. What made it most painful was that Richard was right to be hurt, I was wrong to have hurt him. He saw clearly enough, far more clearly than I had dared to allow myself to see, what I had done: I had used his work as a kind of springboard into my own. His work was a road-block in my road, the sphinx, really, whose riddles I had to answer before I could become myself. I thought confusedly then, and I feel very definitely now, that this was the greatest tribute I could have paid him. But it was not an easy tribute to bear and I do not know how I will take it when my time comes. For, finally, Richard was hurt because I had not given him credit for any human feelings or failings. And indeed I had not, he had never really been a human being for me, he had been an idol. And idols are created in order to be destroyed. [196-197]
It was a “quarrel [that] was never really patched up.” Baldwin ends this segment of “Alas, Poor Richard” with this sentence: “Whoever He may be, and wherever you may be, may God be with you, Richard, and may He help me not to fail that argument which you began in me.”
So goes James Baldwin’s version of the interview at Brasserie Lipp. Remember that Chester Himes’ version in The Quality of Hurt was published ten years later, Himes either not having read Nobody Knows My Name or forgetting Baldwin’s account of the meeting.
Now for John A. Williams’ fictional version of the meeting from The Man Who Cried I Am, a roman a clef (novel with a key). I’ll take the liberty of spelling out the key as it relates to the scene: Marion Dawes is James Baldwin, Harry Ames is Richard Wright, Charlotte is Wright’s wife Ellen, and the protagonist Max Reddick, for the moment, is Chester Himes, who is at dinner with the Ames family. The phone rings, Harry answers, it’s Dawes. “He wants to borrow some money,” says Harry. “We’ll meet him at the café, okay Max?” “He’s got his goddamned nerve,” says Charlotte, “after all the rotten things he’s written about you.” Harry eases the moment, “Can’t let a brother starve, baby. Says he hasn’t eaten in three days.” Harry and Max then head for the café, and the scene unfolds:
Marion Dawes sat huddled at a table in a corner. He was very dirty and he looked tired and bloated, like an exhausted beetle trapped. His round dark face was slack, but he managed to stand and give a weak smile when Max and Harry approached.
Harry said first thing, “Hungry?”
Dawes smiled again and nodded. “But I can manage if you let me have the francs.”
“The meal won’t be deducted from the loan,” Harry said, just short of being curt. They sat down.
Harry then orders “without consulting Dawes, soup, a steak, with fries.” They eat, Max studies the scene, notes that Dawes “was hungry, but he ate neatly, pausing to smile and say, ‘Sure is good.’” Coffee is served and as Dawes is drinking, Harry says,
“How come you’ve been attacking me, Dawes?”
Dawes’ head fell slightly and his thick, unkempt mop of hair glowed dully in the café lights. “Well—,” he began.
“You make it sound as though we know each other. You know that’s untrue. We’ve spoken to each other exactly five times and I spoke more than you. You’ve never been to my home, and I’ve not been to yours…. But why call me to help you after you’ve been running me into the ground? That’s what I can’t understand.”
Dawes voice broke from him high-pitched and sharp. “It’s the duty of a son to destroy his father.” Max watched Harry recoil. Harry then looked Max full in the face….
Gruffly Harry said, “What in the hell are you talking about? I’m not your father.”
Dawes loosed an exasperated gasp that sounded like a hiss, “Harry, well, if you don’t know—you’re the father of all contemporary Negro writers. We can’t go beyond you until you’re destroyed.”
Cautiously, Harry said, “You’re crazy, man. You’ve been hungry too long.
The scene is about over, but not before Max says to Harry, “You’ve been away too long or you’d know you’re the father.” [181-182]
I’ll not pass judgment on the scene. The metaphors of the king who must die and the broken idol are absent and in their place is the necessity of the son to destroy the father. Must we choose? Why not! Chester Himes not grasping Baldwin’s reference till he had read Mary Renault’s The King Must Die is such a concrete memory. Besides, Baldwin has admitted that his memory of the moment was foggy. Add to that my sense, from reading the two volumes of Himes’ autobiography, that his writing evidences his uncanny gift for remembering.
There’s one other moment in Williams’ novel worth noting, just a dozen pages further on. Harry and Max are at a café with a number of hangers-on. The suggestion that Harry might one day return to the States comes up: “‘Maybe I’ll go back one of these days,’ Harry said absently. ‘For a visit.’” Then comes this ironic line:
“With your luck,” one of the group said, “you’ll probably wind up back in Africa and Dawes will wind up the greatest Negro writer ever.”
At which point as I read, I unscrewed the cap of my pen and scrawled in the margin, “No wonder B hadn’t read I am.”
Back to Chester Himes. The Quality of Hurt is a fascinating memoir. Note that by the time Chester Himes wrote it, he was already a well known writer. Perhaps these days Himes is best known for his series of novels with the two black Harlem policemen Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, with titles like The Real Cool Killers and Cotton Comes to Harlem. Not surprisingly, in 1958 Himes won France’s Grand Prix de Litterature Policeiére.
The second volume, My Life As Absurdity (Doubleday, 1972; now a reprint: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1976), is also fascinating. Himes’ writing was taking off thanks to a suggestion from Marcel Duhamel, who had translated Himes’ first novel into French. Duhamel was also the director of Gallimard’s detective-story series, La Série Noire, the only one then successful in France. His suggestion: for Himes to write a detective novel for the series. Himes claimed he didn’t read that stuff, and “besides, right now I need money.” Duhamel says so read a couple of the books in the series. Himes protests that he can’t read French. Duhamel’s reply: “All the better. Read Raymond Chandler. Read Dashiell Hammett—there’s the man to read. He was the greatest writer who ever lived.” Duhamel then outlines the formula:
Start with action, somebody does something—a man reaches out and opens a door, light shines in his eyes, a body lies on the floor, he turns, looks up and down the hall.… Always action in detail. Make pictures. Like motion pictures. Always the scenes are visible. No stream of consciousness at all. We don’t give a damn who’s thinking what—only what they’re doing. Always doing something. From one scene to another. Don’t worry about it making sense. That’s for the end. Give me 220 typed pages.
Those were the books, starring Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, that I mentioned in the interview, the only Himes books I could remember. Later Himes would knock them off in a couple of months (so he says), never mind that he knew damn little about Harlem. His real role model was Faulkner, an exemplar of absurdity like himself: “The French might not have known I was writing Absurdity, but they did realize the books were usually going to be violent and funny in a way they’d never seen before.”