Doing Time in/as “The Monster”: Subjectivity and Abjection in Narratives of Incarceration



Chester Himes’s most commercially successful novels were those featuring his Harlem detectives Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones. His creation of this surreal, violent, and “dark” series of detective novels, however, was the indirect result of the seven years he spent in prison, or rather, the result of editors’ squeamish reactions to the novel he wrote in response to his prison time. Begun in the 1940s, variously entitled Black Sheep, The Way It Was, Yesterday Will Make You Cry, Debt of Time, and Solitary, Himes’s first novel was published in 1953 (after six years of revisions) as Cast the First Stone.1. The novel was written in the Richard Wright protest-naturalist style, one of five similarly styled novels Himes wrote between 1945 and 1955. More so than any of the other five, this novel was butchered by editors at Coward McCann, who “deliberately and relentlessly” erased the complexity and “artistic aspects” of the novel to form a “hard-boiled prison novel” (Gerald and Blumenfeld 9). Yet it was this “hard-boiled” quality that eventually prompted Marcel Duhamel, the editor of La Serie Noire for Gallimard, to request that Himes try his hand at detective fiction: “start with a bizarre incident, any bizarre incident, and see where it takes you,” Duhamel told him, instructing also that he avoid “excessive exposition” and “introspective characters” and focus on the comical, violent actions of Harlemites (Margolies and Fabre 98). The result was a blend of gritty realism, surrealist absurdity, and satirical comedy that won Himes’s For the Love of Imabelle. the Grand-Prix de la de littérature policière in 1958.


Racial Identity Black Culture Racial Focus Prison Life Prison Experience 
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© Kimberly S. Drake 2011

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