4 janvier 2016

ENG - Chester Himes and James Thurber: a deja vu feeling

While reading Pinktoes and Plan B, I experienced a kind of deja vu feeling. It related to sudden collective movements in both novels: in Plan B, the war between whites and blacks, and in Pinktoes between black women and white women. My conclusion was that the text of Pinktoes and Plan B (Himes) bears a surprising analogous resemblance to the 15 thumbnails of The War between Men and Women (James Thurber).

The mode of narration used by Himes, characterized by the abruptness of the movements and the visual descriptions, constitutes a literary form most suitable to express sudden, explosive movements. There is always a momentum - a group pursues another, a group flees another - and sudden reversals.

"In Pinktoes, after a rumor is spread, according to which [Mamie Mason] only seeks to mongrelize the white race, a newspaper mentions ‘massive raids by black women on all white men.‘ The second phase of the war is marked by the radicalization of the positions of white women. As worthy ‘descendants of the pioneers who conquered the Redskins’ they assert themselves determined to ‘fight fire with fire’ and turn to the most diverse means to become black. Panic then overtakes black women. Racial antagonisms are affirmed in large movements where opinions and actions of the protagonists are illustrated in the extreme. There is no longer room for the individuals; only remaining are generic categories such as ‘black women’, ‘white women’, ‘all white men over forty years’. 

The same phenomenon can be seen in Plan B. After the massacre of dozens of blacks by the police, whites are horrified. Their collective guilt is reflected in different ways: extravagant blood collection, public atonement, personal and official mourning events. When the inquiry reveals that the massacre began after the death of three policemen killed by a black sniper armed with a mysterious gun, the situation is reversed. ‘Trepidation supplanted their orgy of guilt. Why should they feel so bad about a few blacks being killed by the police when all of their lives were in danger? Trepidation grew to anger. Were they asking too much to feel safe in their own country, their own homes, living their own lives? Hadn’t they done enough for the blacks who were imposed on them by their ancestors? Did they bring the blacks here from Africa? […] Inevitably, this resentment aroused strong, exaggerated hostilities on both sides of the color line." 
From Sylvie Escande, Chester Himes, l'unique, L'Harmattan, 2013.

The Google search does not reveal any connection between the two authors. It is likely that they never met. The author Himes, meanwhile, could not but know James Thurber, a famous New Yorker writer and cartoonist in the 1930’s.

The biographical elements they have in common separate them more than they link them: both of them studied at the University of Ohio in Columbus - Thurber fifteen years before Himes. He has given a very funny account of his studies in one of his short stories, University Days. Thurber was white - the only blacks in his books are servants speaking a colourful language. In The Third Generation, Himes’ autobiographical novel, one can clearly see the absolute separation that existed between white and black students. If the two authors shared an unremarkable university career, their subsequent paths logically diverged: a journalistic career for Thurber, crime and the Ohio State penitentiary for Himes.

Still, an intimate fact may have played a role: Thurber had lost an eye as a child, the victim of an arrow shot by his brother. We can see in two Himes’ novels the weight of his guilt after the accident that blinded his brother Joe, during a chemistry manipulation that the latter should never have performed alone (Yesterday Will Make you Cry, The Third Generation).

Most important, the two authors have in common a fantastic and surreal sensibility that allows them to identify, under the false pretences of the world, lines of force and violent clashes.

On the Google Images of The War Between Men and Women we can see, among other Thurber drawings and photos of the film that was shot, some thumbnails of the series. They have a distinctive number (in Roman numerals) and a very short caption.

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