To fans of detective and crime fiction, the works of Chester Himes are well known throughout the world, particularly his novels set in Harlem featuring the detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. Yet, many casual readers may not be aware of the importance that Chester Himes’ brother, Joseph Himes, played both in the course of Chester’s career as a writer and in the eventual housing of his papers at the Amistad Research Center.
When Joseph was injured as a result of an explosion during a school science experiment, young Chester witnessed the refusal of doctors at a local hospital to treat his brother due to Jim Crow laws. In his autobiography, The Quality of Hurt, Himes wrote: “That one moment in my life hurt me as much as all the others put together.” Himes channeled that early anger, as well as his later experiences in prison for armed robbery into an oeuvre of works that was filled with what his bibliographers, Robert E. Skinner, Michel Fabre, and Lester Sullivan, described as “frightening pictures of black protagonists doomed by both the white racism that surrounds them and the self-hate and disgust that chokes their own souls.”
Chester Himes authored sixteen novels during his lifetime, as well as a two-volume autobiography and various shorter fiction and essays. His books found a worldwide audience through their wide publication not only in the United States, but in South America, throughout Europe, and in Asia. Himes found his greatest success through his French publishers, who kept his works in print for many years and released unpublished stories and novels. Himes lived the last 30 years of his life in France and Spain, where he met critical success as well as a lesser degree of racism that he had experienced in the United States during his younger days.
The manuscripts for many of Himes’ earlier works are housed in the James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale University’s Beinecke Library. Himes donated these early manuscripts through the encouragement of fellow writer Carl Van Vechten, with whom Himes corresponded. Following the death of Chester Himes in 1984, Yale expressed interest in his remaining papers. However, Joseph Himes had donated his own papers to the Amistad Research Center the year before and wished to have his brother’s papers in the same institution as his. It was through Joseph’s influence and financial support that Chester’s widow, Lesley Himes, eventually donated the Chester Himes papers to the Amistad Research Center.
The Chester Himes papers contain correspondence, legal and financial records, family documents, photographs, hand script and typescripts of Himes' writings, and collected articles and reviews. Half of the collection is comprised of an extensive correspondence between Himes and various individuals, including fellow writers, publishers, literary agents, friends, fans, researchers, and others. The collection is currently being re-housed and a new online finding aid to the collection will be available soon.
Images from the Chester Himes papers. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.