The focus of this article is The End of a Primitive, the novel that marks Chester Himes's transition from a writer of protest to one of crime fiction. Drawing on archival research carried out in the United States, I advance two arguments. Firstly, the story told in the autobiographical Primitive is, in part, that behind Himes's leaving America for Paris in 1953. The novel, I argue, inaugurates a writing of exile that is continued in Himes's crime fiction, a writing through which, because of his literal and figurative distance from America, Himes came to feel more strongly his sense of national – that is, American – identity. Secondly, in Primitive Himes presents the reader with a formal breakdown of sorts, one that “clears the way” for the crime fiction (which, my archival research shows, Himes had begun writing before Primitive was finished). This breakdown – of the protest novel conceived in generic terms – also predicts the trajectory of Himes's hard-boiled crime novels. By signalling the generic exhaustion of protest fiction through the failure of “good” form, Primitive, as the end point of Himes's more generic protest writing, also anticipates the movement of the crime stories towards formal or generic dissolution, an indication, I suggest, of Himes's late belief that literature was in general an ineffective catalyst of social–political change.
(Online publication February 19 2010)
Oliver Belas received his Ph.D. from the University of London in 2008. His research interests are in the areas of twentieth-century African American literature, literary theory, and genre writing (in particular, science writing, crime and science fiction). Oliver has delivered conference papers on Octavia Butler and Chester Himes, and he is contributing to and coediting a forthcoming volume entitled Rethinking Genre: The Politics of Cultural Form.
My thanks to the AHRC, for Ph.D. and travel funding, and BAAS, for additional travel funding. Special thanks also to Carmelita Pickett at Emory. The following archives were examined: Michel Fabre archives of African American arts and letters, Emory University Manuscript Collection 932, Special Collections and Archives Division; James Weldon Johnson Collection, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (Van Vechten Correspondence, Box A, He-Hols; Richard Wright Papers, JWJ MSS 3, Series II Correspondence: Personal Correspondence); Henry Lee and Mollie Moon Papers, SCM 92–63, Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library. The Fabre archive had no fixed indexing system. Folder names follow box numbers; unnamed folders are numbered as they were found (e.g. “Emory, [box] 2, [folder] Himes Fabre”; “Emory, [box] 8, [folder] 3). Van Vechten folders were periodized (e.g. 1948–51); folder references, therefore, are excluded (therefore [date], Yale). References to Wright Papers: [date], Yale, RW, [box number], [folder number]. All references to Moon Papers from box 3, folder MG342, Family Correspondence – Henry Moon and Chester Himes 1937–1942 (therefore [date], Schomburg).