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Chester B. Himes

A Biography

Lawrence P. Jackson


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Winner of the Edgar Award for Best Critical/Biographical Work

Finalist for the PEN America/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography

The definitive biography of the groundbreaking African American author who had an extraordinary legacy on black writers globally.

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.

Praise For Chester B. Himes: A Biography

A riveting, one-of-a-kind tale of a writer who saw the subject of race from odd, revealing angles.
— Clifford Thompson - Wall Street Journal

Chester B. Himes is a bracing journey through the life of an uncompromising writer.

— Michael P. Jeffries - New York Times Book Review

Fascinating…Jackson [is] a fluid writer.
— Thomas Chatterton Williams - Harper's Magazine

Makes a convincing case for a writer who's always been something of a tough sell…Jackson memorably characterizes Himes' great gifts as a writer.
— Maureen Corrigan - NPR

Jackson’s book—big, intelligent and unflinching—is what literary biography looks like when it’s done right.
— Kevin Canfield - San Francisco Chronicle

— Alex Belth - Esquire

Dr. Jackson has presented a much needed view of an important Harlem writer. I had the pleasure of knowing Chester and most of the folk he knew. He was fun. He was good looking. And he was a wonderful story teller. Chester struggled, as most writers do, with being himself. But when he opened the special door to ‘Chester,’ we all could peep inside to a special genius. He was old and I quite young when we met. He had a flashlight to let me see the way down what could have been a dark road. Chester Himes is to writing what Miles Davis is to the trumpet, what John Coltrane is to the saxophone, what lips are to love. I am so glad this research has been completed. Chester deserves this sun to cast his shadow over the library that is the hope of black Americans.
— Nikki Giovanni

W. W. Norton & Company, 9780393063899, 624pp.

Publication Date: July 25, 2017

About the Author

Lawrence P. Jackson is Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of English and History at Johns Hopkins University. Author of Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius, The Indignant Generation, and My Father’s Name, he has been published in n+1 and Harper’s. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

Coverage from NPR