The novelist Chester Himes (1909–84) did not begin writing seriously until he had been incarcerated at the Ohio State Penitentiary for more than a year. He had become a fan of Dashiell Hammett after reading a serialized version of The Maltese Falcon in his cell. The world outside was in the throes of the Great Depression, and Himes, a prodigious gambler, ironically had more disposable income than he would have had as a free man. So he bought a typewriter on the convicts’ black market, and on a diet of short genre fiction that he read in Black Mask, Cosmopolitan, and the Saturday Evening Post, he set to work producing similar stories of his own.
Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James M. Cain did not invent the crime and detective fiction that was popular around this time, but their modernist sensibilities and careful styling bridged the gap between mass-market fiction and highbrow art. That almost all of this could also be said of Chester Himes makes the frequent absence of his name alongside these proto-noir writers particularly striking. To understand Himes’s fraught position within the hard-boiled canon, it’s important to set aside the many similarities between these writers and highlight one difference: Chester Himes was black.
Thus, while Hammett, Chandler, and Cain are remembered as writers with an original analysis of American society or even modernity itself, Himes is most frequently written about as one whose gaze was turned primarily inward. A representative essay by Thomas Chatterton Williams describes Himes as “obsessed [with] the psychological toll of being ‘black.’” Even in his excellent recent biography of Himes, the prolific writer and academic Lawrence Jackson chooses to read him as a novelist whose gift “ultimately resided with his interior portrait of black life.”
But Himes’s work was always interested in something else. The theorist Fredric Jameson recently claimed that the greater part of modern American literature is tainted by some fidelity to an “abstract intellectual illusion” about the United States: of the organic unity of its people, the inviolability of its freedoms, and the wisdom of its Constitution. Only the detective novel à la Chandler, he argues, was capable portraying America entirely in microcosm, as Americans actually experienced it: atomized, corrupt, and ruled by “naked force and money.”
It was this tension—between idealized America and lived America—that Himes too was trying to articulate. And he was able to do so with considerably less abstraction. Ultimately, Himes argued that the myths of America in macrocosm would always be usurped by the ideology that ruled the microcosmic experience of actually being an American. That ideology was white supremacy.