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Chester B. Himes: A Biography

Chester B. Himes: A Biography

(W.W. Norton 2017; 604 pp.)

A finalist for the NAACP Image Award for Nonfiction, the Stone Award, and the Pen Bograd/Weld Prize, and winner of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, Award for Non-Fiction and the Edgar Award, Chester B. Himes is the only full-length biographical treatment of one of the twentieth century’s most important black writers.

Chester B. Himes has been called “one of the towering figures of the black literary tradition” (Henry Louis Gates Jr.), “the best writer of mayhem yarns since Raymond Chandler” (San Francisco Chronicle), and “a quirky American genius” (Walter Mosely). He was the twentieth century’s most prolific black writer, captured the spirit of his times expertly, and left a distinctive mark on American literature. Yet today he stands largely forgotten.

In this definitive biography of Chester B. Himes (1909–1984), Lawrence P. Jackson uses exclusive interviews and unrestricted access to Himes’s full archives to portray a controversial American writer whose novels unflinchingly confront sex, racism, and black identity. Himes brutally rendered racial politics in the best-selling novel If He Hollers Let Him Go, but he became famous for his Harlem detective series, including Cotton Comes to Harlem. A serious literary tastemaker in his day, Himes had friendships—sometimes uneasy—with such luminaries as Ralph Ellison, Carl Van Vechten, and Richard Wright.

Jackson’s scholarship and astute commentary illuminates Himes’s improbable life—his middle-class origins, his eight years in prison, his painful odyssey as a black World War II–era artist, and his escape to Europe for success. More than ten years in the writing, Jackson’s biography restores the legacy of a fascinating maverick caught between his aspirations for commercial success and his disturbing, vivid portraits of the United States.

Reviews: Publisher’s Weekly 13 March 2017; Kirkus Review 15 May 2017; Starred review, Booklist, 1 June 2017;  Maureen Corrigan, “New Chester Himes Biography Reveals a Life as Wild as any Detective Story,” NPR 26 July 2017; Thomas Chatterton Williams, “Liberation Struggle,” Harper’s Magazine August 2017: 88-93; Kevin Canfield, “The Outsider,” San Francisco Chronicle 30 July-5 August 2017: 28, 31; Starred review, Library Journal, August 2017: 90; Clifford Thompson, “Scenes from a Hard-Boiled Life,” Wall Street Journal 26-27 August 2017: C3; Michael Jeffries, “The Rage in Harlem, and Beyond,” New York Times Book Review 27 August 2017: 18; “The Black Novelist History Forgot,” Washington Post 1 September 2017; Jerry Ward Jr., “Review of Lawrence P. Jackson’s Chester B. Himes: A Biography,” Journal of Ethnic American Literature 8 (2018): 118-122; Adam Shatz, “Writing Absurdity,” London Review of Books 26 April 2018: 10-15.