26 février 2018

ENG - The invention of Harlem - 1: How Himes got to know the city

Evita recently asked on this blog the following question: "How authentic is Chester Himes’ Harlem? I understand that he never actually lived there, however there is an abundant description of addresses, bars / clubs (real or fictitious); the fashions and hairstyles, songs and dances sound particularly accurate. Harlem seems to be at that time a unique microcosm in the United States. Could it be inspired by another city, or memories, or is it an entirely fictitious neighborhood that one reads in its novels?"

The question calls for a balanced answer. Yes, Himes is very familiar with Harlem and his physical and social geography. Other places and characters also inspire him, however, mainly those of Cleveland, the city where he spent his youth and ended pimping and gambling. Above all, in his crime novels, Harlem is a mixture of realism and invention, which makes possible the improbable: a city separated from the white world where two black policemen make the law. The last two novels of the Harlem domestic novels (Blind Man with the Pistol, Plan B) will destroy this construction and will give another image of Harlem, dominated and crisscrossed by whites.

Himes is not a Harlemite. He was born in the South and spent his teens in Cleveland. He discovers Harlem in July 1940, at the age of 31. He stays there for several days and sleeps one night in the famous Theresa Hotel, at the crossroads of 125th Street and 7th Avenue. After the war years spent in California, he moves to New York with Jean, his wife. He lives in Harlem between September 1944 and November 1945 and between January and June 1947 and eventually, occasionally, between the spring of 1952 and his departure for France, on April 3, 1953. Between these stays, he resides most often in Brooklyn, in the Bronx and in the New England properties where he and Jean work as caretakers. In 1972, Himes recalls his happiness when walking the streets of Harlem: "I was going down south [...] beyond Fat Man's bar on the 155th, Eddie's chicken restaurant and Lucky night club, and all the hairdressers, restaurants and beauty parlors that served the lottery barons, the numbers racketeers and the black bourgeoisie  who lived on 140th St and the neighboring streets. I would take 145th St to Brother 'Lightfoot' Michaux's Harlem Temple, then headed south again, into the neon jungle of 7th Avenue, Harlem's main street (which I've always considered the land of dreams), past the Renaissance dance hall, Small's Paradise Inn and Dickie-Wells Restaurant & Bar. "[1]

For the most part, however, his discovery of Harlem is subsequent to his exile in France (1953). In 1955, from the end of January to mid-December, Himes spends 10 months in New York. He lives in Greenwich Village but cruises Harlem and becomes impregnated with the city: "It was at that moment that I really made my acquaintance with Harlem: its geography, the way of life of its inhabitants, its mobsters, its vices, its slang, its absurdities. I acquired all this knowledge unintentionally. Perhaps it saved my life later because it allowed me to write the novels that appeared in the Série Noire at Gallimard Editions in France."[2] It is interesting to note that Himes then doesn’t have any detective novel in mind. The crucial meeting with Marcel Duhamel, the director of the Série Noire, will only take place in 1957.

1 Edward Margolies and Michel Fabre, The Several Lives of Chester Himes,       p. 53-54.

2 Chester Himes, Regrets sans repentir, Paris, Gallimard, 1979, p. 224.

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