- "Saying things on paper that should never be written":Publishing Chester Himes at Doubleday
I realize that I am saying things on paper that should never be written, but I have the feeling that I am reentering a nightmare that I had hoped was over with forever.Chester Himes to William Targ, 4 April 19541
Chester Himes described the months surrounding the publication of his first novel If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945) in an oddly enjambed, often quoted, poetic paragraph from his autobiography The Quality of Hurt. The passage is all that he has to say in the 1972 memoir about a period of more than two years, from late 1943 until spring 1946:
I lost myself in sex and drunkenness and I didn't even vote for Roosevelt after all. I wasn't registered in New York State. I almost lost my wife, too. She came to New York and found me deeply involved in so many affairs that she tried to take her life. I was shocked back to normalcy, what was normalcy to me, and when I came to, If He Hollers Let Him Go had been published and well received. The book was considered by the editorial committee for Doubleday, Doran's George [End Page 283] Washington Carver Memorial Award of twenty-five hundred dollars, but it was rejected because one of the women editors said it nauseated her. Instead a novel called Mrs. Palmer's Honey was given the award. To add insult to injury, the advertising copy that appeared in the Saturday Review of Literature for Mrs. Palmer's Honey referred to my novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go, as a "series of epithets punctuated by spit." The whole episode left me very bitter …(76–77)
This autobiographical paragraph helps form our classic portrait of Himes the lusty, angry man, a portrait often taken at face value by Himes scholars and biographers. The passage rather casually touches issues such as adultery, Jean Himes's near suicide, a nauseated female editor, and a wartime novel written by a white woman about a black domestic. Less flatteringly, the recollection appears to characterize Himes's crude gender politics, what one critic, writing about Himes's first novel, more bluntly called his "phallocentric assumptions" (Ikard 299). But in reality, Himes flirts with his reader in the 1970s, catering to their ideas about sex and deliberately obscuring the relations of production surrounding the novel If He Hollers Let Him Go.
An examination of the publication history of his first novel helps to explain Himes's biased and truncated portrait of these years in his autobiography, a period marked by editorial debates about Himes's deployment of sexual violence as a political strategy, and, ultimately, by the publisher's expurgation of the novel. In order to address this double censorship, this essay reconstructs Himes's timeline between September 1944—when Himes arrived at his cousin Henry Lee Moon's in New York—and the winter of 1946, when Fannie Cook's novel Mrs. Palmer's Honey was presented to the American public by the same publisher as Himes's novel. An attempt to reconstruct Himes's life between 1944 and 1946 is necessarily a creative process because there are no existing repositories of Himes's correspondence from this period.2 In place of Himes's own limited words on the subject, we can instead look to the publication history of If He Hollers Let Him Go to draw out more fully how Cook's success and Himes's failure (in his own eyes, at least) reveal both the racial and gender dynamics at a major US publication house like Doubleday, as well as the conflicts simmering in American Left liberalism.
Ten years after his publishing career began, Chester Himes got his chance with a New York publisher when he won a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, arguably the most progressive fellowship arrangement ever set up to benefit African-American intellectuals and artists and to improve educational conditions for black [End Page 284] Americans in the US. Upon winning the award, Himes gushed to the acting fellowship program director, "I can truthfully say that this is...