- On Chester Himes and Success
It is those who are successful, in other words, who are most likely to be given the kinds of special opportunities that lead to further success.—Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success
In his introduction to Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995), Barack Obama recalls the circumstances surrounding his decision to write a memoir as a fairly young law student, following his election as the first black president of Harvard Law Review. The publicity around his election "testified less to my modest accomplishments than to Harvard Law School's peculiar place in the American mythology, as well as America's hunger for any optimistic sign from the racial front—a morsel of proof that, after all, some progress has been made" (xiii). The calls from publishers come as a consequence of the evidence of success—a concept that Dreams is notably ambivalent about—and the wedding of that individual instance of success to the concept of "progress" on a broader "racial front." What begins as a structured plan for a series of essays on race relations then evolves into a memoir that "speaks to those aspects of myself that resist conscious choice and that—on the surface at least—contradict the world I now occupy" (xiv).
The transition to memoir marks in this instance a notable shift away from the individual agency and self-reliant work ethic presumed to attend individual success. Memoir-writing, in Obama's conceptualization here, involves presenting a record at odds with conscious choice, personal effort, and the end result of recognizable achievement—a record that chooses instead to account for that which the memoir's ostensible protagonist had no control, and thus for which no real credit can be claimed: inheritance, race, geographical location, family history, diasporic dispersal. Yet the protagonist's eventual, apparent success and rather unequivocal American story of upward mobility to the Senate and the presidency do indeed affect readerly reception of Dreams from My Father; these developments have also contributed to the popular articulation of a somewhat oversimplified understanding of "post-racial" times. It is worth considering, then, how the story of an individual protagonist's success functions within the muddling contexts of race, class, and economic inequality—particularly within a literary critical environment normally very quick to treat stories of success and upward mobility with skepticism for their simplicity, their frequently positive endings, and their therapeutic, feel-good, even audacious, hopefulness.
The coincidence of Obama's inauguration with the 2009 centenary of Chester Himes's birth brings to mind very different conceptualizations of success, race, socioeconomic and educational progress in the United States, and the black author's relation to each. Given the significant differences between Himes and Obama in terms of historical and personal background, racial identification, and the notably different times in which each author's bildung occurred, to think critically about Himes in 2009 nevertheless frequently brings Obama, as an author, comparatively to mind. For both authors, the moment in which the author confronts publication also directly implicates the establishment of a writing identity within a position representative of progress across a vaguely defined racial front. At a pivotal moment in Chester Himes's 1955 novel The Primitive, later published in unabridged form in 1997 as The End of a Primitive, Himes's novelist-protagonist, Jesse Robinson, learns from his editor that [End Page 263] his publishers have dropped the option on his manuscript. Hoping that Robinson might shift direction in his prose style, the editor wonders aloud why he doesn't "write a black success novel? An inspirational story?" since, as he suggests, the "public is tired of the plight of the poor downtrodden Negro" (124). Robinson wryly observes, of the possibilities for a black success novel, that he doesn't "have that much imagination," to which his editor replies "How about yourself ? You're certainly a success story. You've published twelve novels that were very well received" (124). But the conversation falters and ends awkwardly on precisely the problem of defining and narrating "success"—alongside Robinson's own dubiousness regarding the relevance of concepts like success to his fiction and...