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  • Everybody's Noir Humanism: Chester Himes, Lonely Crusade, and The Quality of Hurt
  • Justus Nieland (bio)

Like Chester Himes, James Baldwin helped invent the noir sensibility at mid-century. In 1949, a young Baldwin published "Everybody's Protest Novel," a famous indictment of so-called social protest fiction and its most influential, most monstrous progeny, Richard Wright's Native Son (1940). Critics generally regard this essay as a rejection of the Marxist politics of Wright's naturalism—its "insuperable confusion" of literature and sociology—and an endorsement of psychological complexity in the Jamesian mode (Baldwin 19). Baldwin's verdict? Fewer pamphlets, more novels. But the essay also crafts a surprising noir archive of sentimental politics, one that aligns the "theological terror" of Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and the tragedy of Bigger Thomas with liberal Hollywood's postwar penchant for social problem pictures and the lurid prose of James M. Cain (Baldwin 15). As Baldwin stumps for fiction devoted to the "disquieting complexity" of the human being, he condemns the violence done to humanity by the "spurious emotion" of sentimentality joining far-flung cultural products: "Both Gentleman's Agreement [dir. Elia Kazan, 1947] and The Postman Always Rings Twice [dir. Tay Garnett, 1946] exemplify this terror of the human being, the determination to cut him down to size. And in Uncle Tom's Cabin we find the foreshadowing of both" (Baldwin 15, 14, 16). Unlike properly psychological fiction, Baldwin insists, protest novels are "fantasies, connecting nowhere with reality, sentimental; in exactly the same sense that such movies as The Best Years of Our Lives [dir. William Wyler, 1946] or the works of James M. Cain are fantasies. . . . The aim has now become to reduce all Americans to the compulsive, bloodless dimensions of a guy named Joe" (20).

In joining the "violent inhumanity" of nineteenth-century novels like Stowe's to that of their hard-boiled descendants like Wright and Cain, and to Hollywood's new glut of anonymous, statistically average Joes, Baldwin anticipates recent critical arguments about the shared sentimental genealogy of the hard-boiled novel and the film noir—the despairing turn towards sociological realism in postwar Hollywood that French film critics discovered on the heels of the Nazi Occupation, and at the dawn of the American Century (14). 1 Noir is of course an infamously fuzzy category, a broad discursive formation that consolidated at midcentury, but stretched long before and after its French invention. Paradoxically, the terms of Baldwin's essay sharpen this point by obscuring the matter even further: in 1949, the fiction of Cain, Stowe, and Wright, and the films of Wyler and Kazan, would be perceived as being part of a widespread, vaguely noir sensibility, extending across media, and defined for Baldwin by a shared inhumanity—a noir humanism.

In this essay, I consider Himes's own "social protest" novel Lonely Crusade (1947) in a broader constellation of noir humanism—a phrase I use to describe a particular convergence of psychologizing tendencies at midcentury. Noir humanism yielded a universalizing, quasi-anthropological picture of the human condition as marked by pervasive emotional insecurity, and in Himes's work more particularly, by the violence of sentimental categorization and the exclusionary political formulas of postwar U. S. democracy. Himes's place in the noir tradition is well established, secured by the French publication of his "Harlem Domestic" cycle in Gallimard's legendary Série noire, and critically cemented by many superb recent critical studies. 2 Less well-understood [End Page 277] is the role of Lonely Crusade in Himes's noir vision as it crystallized in the postwar period. Often described as Himes's most accomplished or complex novel, a damning kind of praise that has probably helped consign the book to critical oblivion, Lonely Crusade is a messy book, ideologically speaking. Himes put it more bluntly in The Quality of Hurt : "Everyone hated it. . . . The left hated it, the right hated it, Jews hated it, blacks hated it" (221). 3 Or better, it was hated differently by different groups. Its fundamentally antagonistic affect gave the lie to postwar democratic consensus from the beginning, and put Himes on the path of expatriation by setting his unsettled feelings...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1945-6182
Print ISSN
1062-4783
Pages
pp. 277-293
Launched on MUSE
2011-09-23
Open Access
No
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