Best of Baltimore — How they do it: 'Chester B. Himes: A Biography,' best book
Apr 11, 2018 | 12:24 PM
Johns Hopkins professor Lawrence Jackson talks about his book "Chester B. Himes: A Biography." (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
Readers who know the name of the Harlem Renaissance author Chester B. Himes — if they know it at all — associate the writer with classic detective novels. (The best-known, "Cotton Comes to Harlem," became a 1970 movie starring Redd Foxx.)
Johns Hopkins University professor Lawrence P. Jackson set out to change that by publishing a meticulously detailed look at Himes' life and work that was 10 years in the making. "Chester B. Himes: A Biography,"portrays the groundbreaking novelist as a rebel who grew up in a middle-class African-American family, spent nearly eight years in prison and then lived abroad for most of his life. It was in Europe that Himes befriended — and alienated — such seminal figures as Malcolm X and Richard Wright.
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"I think Chester Himes' reputation should be based on his serious novels," Jackson said. "His second novel, 'Lonely Crusade,' tackles issues like unemployment and segregated housing that remain fault lines in America today. The book also includes a finely etched, emotionally searing portrait of a black marriage that asks how any marriage can survive when both partners are systematically degraded."
There are signs that Jackson's lonely crusade on behalf of Himes may be attracting new disciples. The 2017 biography received thoughtful coverage by such publications as The New York Times and National Public Radio, was a finalist for a PEN America Literary Award and won the 2018 Black Caucus of the American Library Association's Literary Award for Nonfiction.