Exploring under-the-radar greats: Chester Himes

Wednesday, August 01, 2007 at 3:00 PM

I dreamed a fellow asked me if I wanted a dog, and I said yeah, I'd like to have a dog, and he went off and came back with a little black dog with stiff black, gold-tipped hair and sad eyes that looked something like a wire-haired terrier. ...I took the dog and got on the streetcar. I liked the little dog; but when I got home nobody else seemed to like it.

Then I turned over and dreamed on the other side.

Even just a few sentences from the opening of Chester Himes's classic novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, demonstrate the power of his voice: direct, often startlingly blunt, yet strangely poetic. I'm a big fan of the book, and while we often highlight works by more famous authors (Shakespeare, anyone?), I'm excited that today we're celebrating Himes, an African-American writer whose 98 th birthday would have been this past Sunday.

If He Hollers... was published in 1946. The main character, Bob Jones, is an African-American shipyard worker living in Los Angeles. Written in the first-person, the novel is a gripping, unflinching look at race relations in 1940s America.

If you're interested in reading more about Himes, check out this brief but excellent biographical essay. It tells the story of how he began his life as a writer: sitting in a Midwestern jail, using the typewriter he bought while serving time for armed robbery. Later on, responding to the poor reception he initially received in the US, Himes moved to Paris, finding fellowship and sanctuary with contemporaries Richard Wright and James Baldwin.

You may also want to browse two more of his novels: The End of a Primitive and Yesterday Will Make You Cry. The latter is introduced by director and Renaissance man Melvin van Peebles, who shares his own perspective on life as an African-American artist in this revelatory filmmaking manifesto.

We love to hear from you. If you have a favorite under-the-radar author you'd like more people to know about, drop us a line -- we may share your story here.


No comments: