- Dear Chester, Dear John: Letters between Chester Himes and John A. Williams
In 1967, John A. Williams published The Man Who Cried I Am, a complexly fictionalized chronicle of African American intellectual history from the 1930s through the mid-1960s. The novel's chief protagonist is the black writer and sometimes expatriate Max Reddick, a character in whom Chester Himes and Williams himself are merged. Williams's identification with Himes was informed by both his reading of Himes's work and his friendship with the older novelist. Himes, for his part, may never have imagined Williams and himself as kindred souls. But during a decade-long correspondence in the 1960s and 1970s, Williams was able to elicit from him some of his most frank and coherent autobiographical narration, and the two sustained a conversation about such shared preoccupations as revolutionary violence, expatriate life, sex and marriage across the color line, and, above all, the struggles of the black writer during the middle decades of the twentieth century.
Dear Chester, Dear John: Letters between Chester Himes and John A. Williams, edited by Williams and his wife, Lori Williams, is a record of this important dialogue. After leaving the U. S. for Europe in 1953, Himes returned occasionally for brief visits, and during one stay in the early 1960s, he and Williams met and hit it off at Carl Van Vechten's apartment. From the beginning, Himes praised Williams's work and took an interest in his life. Furthermore, as Gilbert H. Muller writes in the collection's foreword, Himes called upon Williams to "protect and advance [his] interests in the United States" (xi). Williams helped Himes to make contacts with prospective agents and publishers, to find an American attorney to handle his divorce, and even to search for cans of Tabby Treat, the American-made cat food favored by Himes's cat Griot.
On his own initiative, Williams also worked to build and secure Himes's literary reputation in the U. S. He resented that Himes was languishing in relative obscurity while certain less prolific and rigorous writers of his own generation were lavishly celebrated. "When I think of you with I don't know how many goddamn novels under your belt," Williams wrote to Himes in 1962, "I get furious for the shit that Jimmy B[aldwin] is trying to skate through on. My count shows you far out of sight on the number of novels my group has written" (6). Williams was then working on a critical study of Himes and several other black writers, and Himes lent his help by recounting his life in a single long letter (which has since become a valuable source for biographers) (14-29). Although Williams never published his study, he drew upon Himes's life narrative to write "Chester Himes Is Getting On" (1964), a New York Herald Tribune article in which he aimed to halt the willful forgetting of Himes in the U. S. Williams's most impressive effort along these lines came in 1970, when Amistad, the black studies journal that he co-edited, published his very lengthy and wide-ranging recent interview with Himes. Muller notes that the interview, which appears in Dear Chester, Dear John as an appendix, "did much to bring Himes to the attention of both the literary establishment and a new generation of African American writers" (xii). [End Page 523]
But even as Williams sought to move Himes from the margin to the center, both writers criticized the conditions of black authorship in a U. S. literary culture diminished by racial ideology and its market concomitants. They reproached those who would name a single black literary standard-bearer for every generation or historical moment. Such "king-makers" (185), as Himes called them, fostered a special kind of rivalry among black writers. In one exchange, Williams mentioned his conflicts with Amistad's publisher, Random House, and Himes supposed that most of the problems stemmed from the company's "regarding Ralph Ellison as the oracle...