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Himes, Chester]. Sallis, James.

ISBN 10: 0802713629 / ISBN 13: 9780802713629
Published by New York: Walker, (2001.) dj, 2001
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Hardcover first edition - First US printing. A definite biography of the complex and under-rated African American writer who is best known for his Harlem cycle crime novels by a writer who is himself an acclaimed poet, novelist and critic. Photographs, list of works by Himes, notes, index. 337 pp. Fine in fine dust jacket (a new copy.). Bookseller Inventory # 29435

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Bibliographic Details


Publisher: New York: Walker, (2001.) dj

Publication Date: 2001

Binding: Hardcover

Dust Jacket Condition: Dust Jacket Included

Edition: 1st Edition

About this title


Chester Himes's novels and memoirs represent one of the most important bodies of work by any American writer, but he is best known for The Harlem Cycle, the crime stories featuring Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. His writing made him a major figure in Europe, but it is only recently that his talents have been acknowledged in the country that spurned him for most of his life, though his work is recognized as being on a par with that of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Jim Thompson.

In this major literary biography, acclaimed poet, critic, and novelist James Sallis explores Himes's life as no writer has attempted before. Combining the public facts with fresh interviews with the people who knew him best, including his second wife, Lesley, Sallis casts light onto the contradictions, self-interrogations, and misdirections that make Himes such an enigmatic and elusive subject.

Chester Himes: A Life is a definitive study not only of the life of a major African-American man of letters, but of his writing and its relationship to the man himself, drawing a remarkable, deeply affecting portrait of a too often misunderstood and neglected writer. This is a work of high scholarship and of penetrating and passionate insight, a rare conjoining of two fine writers-and as much a work of literature as any of their novels.


Penzler Pick, May 2001: In James Sallis's long-awaited biography of novelist Chester Himes, he reveals that his own crime fiction career was partly inspired by the older writer's example. Admiring Himes's work ever since he first encountered it, Sallis began to haunt used bookstores in order to turn up more of it and eventually dedicated one of his Lew Griffin titles to Himes, while making the author of Cotton Comes to Harlem and Pinktoes a character in another.

Researching and producing a life of a fellow author is homage of a vastly greater order. It is a full-time, obsessive commitment that seldom turns out as expected. First viewing Himes as a sui generis author of savagely slapstick ghetto crime comedies, Sallis came to regard his subject instead as "America's central black writer." "It is exceedingly strange to know so well a man one has never met," Sallis begins. Yet a fully rounded portrait of Chester Bomar Himes, the Missouri-born, middle-class rebel and prison veteran, much of whose life was spent as an angry black man in European self-exile, was not an easy one to paint, even for someone as sympathetic as this biographer.

Born in 1908, Himes was a 19-year-old college dropout when he began serving what would be seven years of a 20- to 25-year jail sentence for burglary. "I grew to manhood in the Ohio State Penitentiary," he would later write. While behind bars, he managed to sell two hard-boiled stories to Esquire. Bought by legendary editor Arnold Gingrich, these "authentic" tales of a real-life convict appeared in a magazine that featured such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In 1936, at the age of 26, Himes was paroled and from then on embarked on a writer's path, though there were many obstacles, real and perceived, awaiting him. Whether moving from a stint in the WPA Writers Project to a utopian community in Ohio, or from the fringes of the Hollywood labor force to the lesser ranks of the Communist party, Chester Himes came more and more to regard himself as "a man without a country."

Even at Yaddo, the famed New York state writers' colony where he had a fellowship in 1948 (and lived across the hall from Patricia Highsmith as she worked on her first novel, Strangers on a Train), he was dissatisfied. Soon joining such fellow African American expatriates as Richard Wright and James Baldwin in France, he began to establish a reputation in Europe that would eventually precede him home.

"It is exceedingly strange to know so little, finally, about a man with whom you have spent so much time," Sallis winds up admitting ruefully at the end of his introduction. Readers of Chester Himes: A Life will know much more than they did when they began this highly intelligent if idiosyncratically assembled volume. --Otto Penzler

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