Adulé par les Français, considéré même par Giono comme un écrivain plus important que Dos Passos ou Hemingway, il est toujours lu mais méconnu par la critique. Pourtant, il nous dit tant de choses : sur les rapports entre littérature et littérature de genre ; sur l’histoire des Noirs ; sur le paradoxe de l’écrivain noir américain ; sur l’évolution des États-Unis qu'il analyse avec lucidité et pessimisme… Ce blog essaie de mieux le connaître et de lui rendre la place qui est la sienne.
Plusieurs sites américains sont (totalement ou partiellement) consacrés au Pénitencier d'Etat de l'Ohio et, notamment, à l'incendie qui le ravagea le 21 avril 1930, lundi de Pâques. On y trouve des photographies dramatiques du pénitentier en feu et des centaines de cercueils alignés.
Chester Himes était détenu dans ce pénitencier lors de l'incendie. Il avait été condamné en 1928 à une peine de 20 à 25 ans de prison après un cambriolage à main armée. Une de ses nouvelles, Vers quel enfer de flammes ? (1934), raconte l'errance désespérée d'un prisonnier, impuissant à sauver ses co-détenus. Himes l'a reprise ultérieurement dans son roman de prison Hier te fera pleurer, dont le titre original est Qu'on lui jette la première pierre. (Voir sur ce blog l'article "De Qu'on lui jette la première pierre à Hier te fera pleurer" - Nov. 2014.)
Au début du 20e siècle, le Pénitencier d'Etat de l'Ohio avait la réputation d'être une prison modèle et moderne. La réalité a cependant toujours été différente. Au 19e siècle, une épidémie de choléra avait fait 121 morts chez les prisonniers. Dans les sites (voir ci-dessous), on voit que si l'incendie de 1930 a été volontairement allumé par des prisonniers pour détourner l'attention d'une tentative d'évasion, les causes de sa propagation sont la surpopulation du pénitencier (le nombre de détenus était deux fois supérieur à la norme), l'absence de dispositifs de sécurité et de procédures d'évacuation. L'incendie a fait 322 victimes.
Après l'incendie, une commission des libérations conditionnelles, créée en 1931, a examiné le cas des prisonniers et a décidé la libération de 2000 d'entre eux, parmi lesquels Himes, qui a retrouvé la liberté en 1936, après huit ans d'emprisonnement. Le fait qu'il ait déjà publié des nouvelles dans des revues à grand tirage a été considéré par la commission comme une preuve de réhabilitation.
On several American websites (see below), one can find articles about the Ohio State Penitentiary fire - Easter Monday fire - on April 21, 1930. They are illustrated by some extraordinary photographs (the penitentiary on fire, the caskets in the improvised morgue).
Chester Himes was a convict in the penitentiary at that time, having been sentenced to 20 to 25 years in 1928. One of his short stories, To What Red Hell (1934), is related to this fire. It shows the disarray of a convict, running to and fro in a desperate attempt to rescue other inmates. Himes used it again later as a chapter of his prison novel, Yesterday Will Make You Cry, initially titled Cast the First Stone.
"From the dormitory windows they saw the fire trucks come through the stockade gates. They heard the clang of bells, the motor roar. They saw convicts running across the yard, the sudden surge of Negro convicts from the wheel barrow company,carrying blankets in their arms; then the white convicts from the dining room company. Guards came running. Everyone was running." (beginning of chapter 8).
At the turn of the 20th century, the Ohio Pen was presented as a modern model prison. From the start, however, the reality was quite different. In the 19th century, a cholera epidemic killed 121 inmates. The websites articles (below) reveal that even if prisoners may have initiated the fire as a means of diversion to protect their escape, the extreme overcrowding of the penitentiary - the prison population exceeded twice its capacity at the time of the fire - and the lack of safety devices and emergency procedures were the main causes of the extension of the fire, which caused 322 deaths.
After the fire, the Ohio Parole Board was established in 1931. It eventually decided the release of more than 2,000 prisoners. Himes was one of them. He was released in 1936, after 8 years in the Pen. He had already published short stories in several popular magazines, which was considered by the Parole Board as a token of rehabilitation.
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.