150+ essays on literary topics
Up to the age of thirty-one I had been hurt emotionally, spiritually and physically as much as thirty-one years can bear. I had lived in the South, I had fallen down an elevator shaft, I had been kicked out of college, I had served seven and one half years in prison, I had survived the humiliating last five years of Depression in Cleveland; and still I was entire, complete, functional; my mind was sharp, my reflexes were good, and I was not bitter. But under the mental corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles I became bitter and saturated with hate.
Chester Himes’s first stories were written and published in the 1930s while he was in prison. His first semi-autobiographical novels were written and published in the 1940s after his release. The Harlem detective novels for which he is best known (‘the black Raymond Chandler’) came later, in the 1950s when, like James Baldwin and many other black American artists, he had made his home in Paris.
I would sit in my room and become hysterical thinking about the wild, incredible story I was writing. But it was only for the French, I thought, and they would believe anything about Americans, black or white, if it was bad enough. And I thought I was writing realism. It never occurred to me that I was writing absurdity. Realism and absurdity are so similar in the lives of American blacks one cannot tell the difference.
‘Popular fiction, popularly considered narrow, broadened Himes as a writer.’ That is how the difference between the Harlem novels and the work that went before is explained in the introduction to the Penguin edition of A Rage in Harlem, the first in the series, the one that made him hysterical thinking about it. ‘Himes had been a difficult writer – difficult in his bitterness, alienation, obsessiveness, and self-consciousness… Now, however, the narrative conventions of the genre forced him to channel all his preoccupations without betraying them, to proceed by stealth and indirection, to mask his rage as humour.’
But why should a writer have to mask his rage as humour? Who gets the last laugh?
Himes’s first novel, drafted while he was in prison and based on that experience, was published in 1953, by which time he had written and published two more, If He Hollers Let Him Go in 1945 and Lonely Crusade in 1947. Cast the First Stone was, according to a close friend of his, his best book ‘but it was so cut for publication that in that form it is worthless’. Readers agreed and, overtaken five years later by the Harlem novels, it went out of print. It took fifty years for the original manuscript to be re-discovered and published by Old School Books as Yesterday Will Make You Cry.
The novel’s central character, Jimmy Monroe, has a lot in common with the young Chester Himes, except that he is white. The story is told in the third person but always from Jimmy’s point of view. Everything is seen through his eyes. The language reflects his feelings. The style is part literary, part vernacular, the style you imagine Jimmy himself would write in. (Like Himes, he starts to write stories in prison, sends them to magazines and finally has one accepted.) A fire in which hundreds of convicts die, something Himes witnessed while he was serving his sentence, is described vividly with words piled on words.
In the absence of discipline, these men ceased to be human; they reverted into slavering, lustful, wanton beasts. They did the things which they had always wanted to do; they gambled and argued and degenerated, they had that punk they’d always wanted to have. Beginning that night, and during the days following, they ran like packs of wolves, stole from each other and robbed each other with knives at throats in the darkness. They raped each other; they raped the pink-cheeked sailor boys whom they caught alone after dark; they raped the national guardsmen; they would have raped the guards, a thing some of them had wanted to do for a long time, had the guards been present. But most of the guards remained outside the walls during that period.
Nineteen year old Jimmy Monroe’s sentence for robbing a married couple in their home (not his first offence) is twenty years. Harsh perhaps, but not undeserved. His guilt is not in question. The subject of Himes’s novel is not injustice but love, its absence sometimes from home and its presence sometimes in prison.
About a fifth of the novel is retrospective, looking back over the first nineteen years of Jimmy’s life, during which time he accumulates several debts, some of them financial. He has a lot of women, fathers a child and abandons the mother. The other four fifths are about his time in prison and his relationships with other prisoners, varying in duration and intensity from gambling partnerships to love affairs.
In November in 1928 he had gone out and robbed a man and his wife in their home. And now that same sick tightness was inside of him. He kept to his bunk, sullen and uncommunicative and tense. He tried reading, but that only brought his emotions to the surface so that everything made an impression on them. He read of love and life and of people achieving things and finding happiness; and could not take it. He tried writing. He bought a typewriter and began to learn typing. He wrote hysterical short stories, pouring out torrents of illiterate protests. Protests against what? He didn’t know. And all the while, the rooted, immovable, solid prison was getting next to him. It was then that he met Rico.
There had been an earlier affair, with a prisoner called Lively, but that was more one-sided. This is the real thing and the real reason why so many changes had to be made to the original manuscript before anyone would publish it.
After that nothing in all the world was real. It was fantasy and frenzy and delirium. It was dread and apprehension; new and weird and shameful, with its peak in the stars and its depths in slop, but above all indescribably fascinating. Jimmy had never known anyone like Rico, and knowing him was unreality itself.
Homosexual love – and sex – run through the book from start to finish, first as something that Jimmy is only vaguely aware of and finally as something that takes him over. By this stage in the book, the prison has become the human condition, just another place where people live, and the book less about being in prison than about being alive. Prison brings Jimmy and Rico together, then it separates them. That’s life. Difficult.
The last thing you are likely to think when you finish reading Yesterday Will Make You Cry (one of several titles Himes gave his novel while he was trying to get it published) is that Chester Himes needed broadening as a writer.