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From the Stacks: Contraband to Souvenir, the “San Quentin copy” of Chester Himes’ Pinktoes

Amistad’s “From the Stacks” blog series has focused on unique or interesting copies of books housed in the Center’s library collection. However, this edition features a copy of a book found within a small archival collection, the Kenneth Hansen Letters, and related to Amistad’s current exhibition on novelist Chester Himes.

Chester Himes’ literary career began with a series of short stories written while incarcerated as a young man in the Ohio State Penitentiary during the early 1930s. He would go on to write seventeen novels, two collections of short stories, and two volumes of autobiography. One of his mid-career novels was Pinktoes, which was originally published by Olympia Press in Paris in 1961. It was republished in a paperback edition by Dell Publishing in 1966, and it is one of the Dell paperbacks that found its way into San Quentin State Prison thanks to a teacher working at the prison.

Kenneth Hansen’s letters regarding the copy of Pinktoes.

Kenneth Hansen worked as an educator in San Francisco, teaching in local schools, as well as in the California penal system. In the early 1970s, he wrote a series of letters to one of Chester Himes’ publishers and his literary agent seeking to forward a copy of a book to the author. In his earliest letter to publisher William Morrow & Company, Hansen wrote that he had taught at San Quentin and used Himes’ books in his classes, noting the “less than enthusiastic response” from prison officials. Hansen noted, however, “the men were quite enthused and among the things done to preserve the book itself (soft-cover) was to add a hard cover” due to the fact that “it is quite difficult to keep paper items intact when one can only stuff them in pockets.” Writing next to Rosalyn Targ, Himes’ literary agent, Hansen further elaborated: “The book here has a hard cover put on it by the convicts in the print shop. Their civilian foreman turned it in as contraband….”

Hansen eventually wrote directly to Chester Himes sending the book as a “souvenir” to its author. The Dell edition was originally issued as a softcover with red wrappers. The copy received by Himes had been rebound in a brown buckram book cloth, with trimmed edges, new endpapers, and even headbands. The rebinding was done so well that without Hansen’s letters and bibliographic information about the Dell paperback edition, it would be hard to tell the book had been rebound in the prison print shop.

Kenneth Hansen’s letters regarding the copy of Pinktoes.

Unfortunately, neither the Hansen collection nor the papers of Chester Himes contain any copies of Himes’ letters to Hansen, although Hansen’s last letter provides evidence that Himes received the book and responded. The book and Hansen’s letters were donated by family members of Himes’ wife, Lesley, following her passing in 2010.

Although Himes devoted few pages to his prison years in the early volume of his autobiography, it is not unreasonable to consider the extent of his own reading while in prison. His time there certainly influenced his writing as a number of his early short stories and his 1952 novel, Cast the First Stone, were based on his time as an inmate. Surely, Himes would have appreciated Kenneth Hansen’s efforts to introduce his incarcerated students to Himes’ writing and he likely understood the troubles Hansen encountered with the prison administration after doing so.

The “San Quentin copy” of Chester Himes’ Pinktoes represents a full circle from Himes’ beginnings as a writer while in prison to an author whose work was used as part of prison education efforts yet faced censorship within the facility. To learn more about Chester Himes, visitors to the Amistad Research Center can explore our current exhibition “Lonely Crusade: The Life and Work of Chester Himes,” which is on display now through December 23, 2017..

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