Tuesday, April 29, 2008

John A. Williams and Chester Himes

Another cold and rainy morning. I'm sick of it. I thought I was living near the District of Columbia, Washington DC, and not Seattle, Washington. Ugh.

Spent the morning reading a collection of letters between writers John A. Williams and Chester Himes. I recall as a child being introduced to both these writers by my mother. One summer we were taking a road trip to New York. My father was driving while my mother sat in the front seat of the car laughing her head off while reading a Himes' novel. Undoubtedly, I picked up the novel behind her, which I was inclined and allowed to do. As a child, I was permitted to read anything that I wanted to, provided I consented to discussing the book with my mother after I read it. So you can imagine the type of trouble I got into with my English teachers for reading literature that was not age appropriate. But that is another story for another blog.

Years later, while on the faculty of the University of Rochester, I arranged a colloquia and invited John A. Williams to speak. Williams' papers are housed at the university. They seemed of little or no importance to the faculty until I brought to their attention the value of having Williams' papers there, or so it seemed. An hour before I was to meet Williams and his wife Lori for dinner, my computer ate, devoured, extinguished, did something to my introduction of Williams. I was so crushed because I finally in my own way wanted to give Williams his due. Williams, like Baldwin, held a prominent place in my mother's mind as one of the most formidable Black writers of his generation. So I was not only letting down Williams, but in some way my mother too. Luckily, at the time I had committed most of Williams' biography and works to heart, having re-read all of his work in print in preparation for my introduction, and had spent hours in his papers at the University of Rochester skimming through boxes and boxes of personal correspondences, letters to the utility companies, post cards, etc. While I did not necessarily give Williams his due, I am certain that he was not terribly disappointed. We had a good evening, the reading was excellent, and almost everything came off without a hitch; except the university had neglected to cut a check for Williams' honorarium. Having read more than enough about Black writers not getting paid, I was very uncomfortable telling Williams that I did not have a check for him at the end of the reading. But I promised my first born to him if I did not get the check. (Williams was kind enough to correspond with my child months before the reading). I got Williams' honorarium mailed off to him and did not have to give up my first born (not that Williams and Lori even wanted another child to raise).

In reading the correspondences between these two men, I am intrigued by their mobility throughout Europe, Africa, and the United States. Men, who it seems, moved every few months trying to find ideal conditions under which to live and write, and how difficult it was for them to find a place where they could settle down. The challenges with agents and editors appear to be so daunting it's sheer wonder that either Williams or Himes was able to get any writing done.

But both writers have given us bodies of work that are incredible and attest to their commitment to the craft despite the obstacles. If you haven't picked up any works by Williams or Himes in a while, please do.

7 comments:

E. said...

I will definitely do that.

Sidenote: It could be worse weather. Virginia had 3 tornadoes yesterday and tonight in Michigan its supposed to drop close to freezing. YIKES.

M. L. Simms said...

I know about those tornadoes in Virginia; although I live a couple hundred miles north of where the tornadoes hit, the high winds hit us too.

Mozart Guerrier said...

In terms of Baldwin& other writers who left the country or traveled to other places... I think it strengthened their writing skills because they say you have to distance yourself from the culture before you can actually write about it. Great Post

Randall Horton said...

Wow, a wonderful and interesting story. Thanks for posting this.

M. L. Simms said...

I agree with mozart about the need to leave the country to gain a better, if not different, perspective. Baldwin's self exile was precipitated by his strong belief that he would kill someone or get killed. Himes stayed outside of the country for economic reasons. He only wanted to support himself as a writer, and he found that he could not do this in the States. Besides, Baldwin, Himes, and Wright achieved a marked degree of celebrity status in Europe.

Randall Horton said...

This is true, but once Richard Wright left the United States he was never the same writer. He never achieved, not only the same level of success, but his work never quite connected in terms of readership like he had hoped. I love his critique of the Western world in "White Man Listen," in which he theorizes about race and what it means to be black in a white dominated world. In the biography on Ralph Ellison, Arnold Rampersad goes into detail on Ellison's observations on Himes (they did not get along) and Wright...In Ellison's perspective, the move killed Wright as a writer. He felt he was socially disconnected to the issues that he was so passionate about and led him to write some brilliant work (in my opinion). I think there is validity to that, however he did not like Himes work, and I love Himes...so I part with Ellison on that note....

M. L. Simms said...

Randall, I'm just reading your post from May 9, 2008. Although I like Ellison, he and Wright also fell out. So I take his criticism of Wright with a grain of salt. I think that it is unfair to expect a writer not to evolve. And although Wright stopped writing perhaps the same type of fiction and nonfiction that he did in the states, with the strains of social protest, existentialism, and naturalism,the work that he did while residing in Paris is just as good, in my opinion. I'm reading "Father's Law" right now, and it is just as engaging as "Native Son." But it is a different novel, and Wright is no longer toeing the line of the Party. For me, Wright's later works exemplify his true ideology and talent, for he is not subjected to the discourse of communism and the constraints of the Party. In these works, I can hear the true Wright, unadulterated.