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Mapping Chester Himes: Southern California and Social Realism

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Cover for 1949 Signet Books edition of 'If He Hollers Let Him Go'

In the history of Literary Los Angeles, Raymond Chandler was perhaps the first author that skillfully mapped every corner of the city within his narrative framework. Another writer that mapped Los Angeles with the same veracity as Chandler, is the seminal African-American author Chester Himes. This week L.A. Letters looks at two Himes books' "If He Hollers Let Him Go," and "Lonely Crusade," and examines how he candidly mapped Los Angeles and the social relationships that defined the city.

"If He Hollers Let Him Go" was chosen by the LA Weekly in January 2013 as the greatest Los Angeles novel ever written. Among many positive attributes of the book cited by the Weekly is that "Himes' novel is as unwieldy as this city is." Published in 1945, the narrative is set in the wartime Los Angeles of the early 1940s. The story travels all over southern California to places like the shipyards in San Pedro, the Dunbar Hotel, and Lincoln Theater on Central Avenue, a movie palace in Downtown L.A., the wealthy African-American district of West Adams and other points in between, like Sunset Boulevard and Sepulveda on the Westside of the city.

In each of these sites the book's African-American protagonist, Bob Jones, a shipyard worker, is "relentlessly plagued by the effects of World War II racism." We observe both the way he is treated in different settings, and his interior monologue reacting to the world around him. Early on in the book Jones reflects on the Japanese internment camps: "I was the same color as the Japanese and I couldn't tell the difference. 'A yeller-bellied Jap' coulda meant me too. I could always feel race trouble, serious trouble, never more than two feet off. Nobody bothered me. Nobody said a word. But I was tensed every moment to spring." The underlying tension described here by Jones is a guiding theme in the book and it plays out again and again whether it's on the job with his coworkers, or he's out at an exclusive restaurant with his fiancé.

A Foreword of the book written in 2002 by the award-winning "New Yorker" writer Hilton Als characterizes the story arc as "a portrait of race as an economic and psychosexual prison -- or padded cell. The novel takes place over a period of four days, during which its hero, Bob Jones, a shipyard worker in Los Angeles, faces a number of calamities: he is hoodwinked out of his job, framed for a rape, beaten up by white workers, and antagonized by the police. His light-skinned fiancé refuses to help him escape, and Jones's only way out is to join the Army."

Throughout each of these struggles the protagonist reflects on where he is geographically within the city, and how the established social relationships are a force larger than he is. In one instance he recalls being pulled over while driving with his significant other: "We got the traffic ticket just as we were coming into Santa Monica. Two motorcycle cops pulled up and flagged us down. They rolled to a stop in front of us, stormed back on foot, cursing."

Lincoln Theater on Central Avenue, once known as the Apollo of the West, makes an appearance in Himes' novels | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Lincoln Theater on Central Avenue, once known as the Apollo of the West, makes an appearance in Himes' novels | Photo: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Als goes further to say that "Jones' fear is predicated less on these events than on a fascination with his own marginalization. While he is concretely persecuted for being black, Jones seems, at times, more affected by the persecution he intuits, by the racism that he observes and absorbs like a dirty sponge." The existential struggle grows bigger and bigger as the story continues. Throughout the book Himes demonstrates an intimate understanding of the unspoken rules which govern each neighborhood, whether he's reflecting on a condescending waiter in an exclusive downtown restaurant, or the wealthy father of his fiancé in West Adams.

Beyond his insightful narrative and ability to characterize social relationships, another factor that sets Himes apart is his boldness. Both "If He Hollers Let Him Go" and "Lonely Crusade" contain incisive social criticism that few African-American writers dared to utter during the 1940s. In the early stages of Himes career he was in the elite company of novelists like Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, as an author critiquing race relations in America. By the 1950s and beyond James Baldwin and others carried on this courageous work, but during the late 1940s, Himes set an important precedent with his ability to tell it like it is in terms of racial politics.

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"Lonely Crusade" picked up the torch from "If He Hollers Let Him Go." Published in 1947, two years afterwards, this work is twice as long as the earlier book, clocking in at nearly 400 pages. The story is again set in wartime Los Angeles, and anchored by a misunderstood young black man protagonist named Lee Gordon. Though "Lonely Crusade," was not as critically acclaimed as "If He Hollers Let Him Go," it maps the social relationships and racial politics of the city with the same effectiveness. James Baldwin described it by saying: "Mr. Himes undertakes to consider the ever-present subconscious terror of the black man, the political morality of American Communists, the psychology of union politics, Uncle Tomism, and the relationships between Jews and Blacks. The value of this book lies in its efforts to understand the oppressed and oppressor and their relationship to each other."

"Lonely Crusade" visits many of the same places described in "If He Hollers Let Him Go," like Central Avenue, Downtown Los Angeles and San Pedro, but it also travels to Pasadena, Boyle Heights, City Terrace, and Culver City. Similar to how he does in the earlier work, Himes vividly describes the landscape, underlying racial politics of each area and the existential angst alive during the 1940s. A great example of this can be seen in his characterization of City Terrace: "On both sides were vacant lots also overgrown with weeds. Beyond, going up the hill toward the reservoir, lived Mexicans, and going down towards City Terrace Drive, lived Jews. Several families of white Southern migrants lived on the cutoff circling down behind." In the paragraphs following, he describes the relations between the groups and how the social climate is shaped by the topography of the neighborhood.

Opening of the Jewish Cultural Center in City Terrace, 1947 | Photo: Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Opening of the Jewish Cultural Center in City Terrace, 1947 | Photo: Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Another example of his powers to capture the landscape, sociology, and existential angst from this work includes the Los Angeles River. Himes writes, "At twilight she stood on the Sixth Street Bridge over the Los Angeles River valley, looking down at the railroad tracks. Darkness came and she still stood, and then she found herself walking aimlessly through the city again. Men spoke to her, cars pulled up and slowed, but she did not notice." This passage describe the wife of the protagonist in a moment of despair and how her interaction with the city facilitated her angst. Throughout the book Himes uses the neighborhoods of Los Angeles as accessories to tell the story of race relations and tension in the city.

Furthermore, the dialogue between characters also pulls no punches. In the time of the Cold War and McCarthyism, Himes was uncensored and wrote about conditions in southern California without sugarcoating anything. Himes will never be accused of wearing rose-colored lenses.

In retrospect, it makes sense that "If He Hollers Let Him Go," is considered one of the greatest L.A. novels ever. Himes was ahead of his time and captured the spirit of the city with the same critical analysis that John Steinbeck captured California in "The Grapes of Wrath," and social historians like Carey McWilliams and Mike Davis did in their nonfiction Los Angeles studies. The scholar Stacy Morgan, in his book, "Rethinking Social Realism: African American Art and Literature, 1930-1953," considers Himes a pioneer of African-American social realism. Himes' work is also lauded by the critical race studies scholar Frantz Fanon in his classic work, "Black Skin, White Masks."

By the mid-1950s, Himes moved to France and lived the last three decades of his life there and in Spain where he finally died in 1984. In his later years, he wrote a series of Harlem Detective novels that outsold most of his earlier works, though most critics consider his two L.A. novels much more powerful and complicated.

Chester Himes characterizes Los Angeles geographically and racially as well as any writer ever has. These two books in particular are brilliant period pieces that offer crystal clear pictures of wartime southern California. On page after page, neighborhoods and sites are mapped and described with brutal honesty. Himes had a unique ability to both craft a compelling narrative and capture the underlying spirit of the region. Salute to Chester Himes for being one of the greatest novelists to ever write in the landscape of L.A. Letters.

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