By A. Robert Lee
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Extra info for Designs of Blackness: Studies in the Literature of African-America
The South graduates from actual geography to a site in imagination, to remembrance, a South which his fiction from Uncle Tom’s Children (1938) to The Long Dream (1958) will confirm he ‘can never really leave’. This double current holds for American Hunger. For all the reality of its windswept shoreline and stockyards, and even its black South Side, Chicago strikes him as citied unreality, miasma. ’ He refers, insistently, to ‘my excessive reading’, to ‘stabs of writing ... full of tension, frantic poverty and death’.
31 The Quality of Hurt takes Himes to his meetings in Paris with Richard Wright and James Baldwin, to Spain (he describes a tetchy encounter with Robert Graves in Mallorca), and to London where he found the petty racism especially depressing (not least on account of being with a white woman). During his time with Alva Trent, the source of ‘Elizabeth Hancock’ in a novel long available only in French, Une Affaire de viol (1963),32 another kind of fugitive self-chronicle came into play: he helped write her (still unpublished) autobiography, The Golden Chalice.
It registers an itinerant, often angry and volatile writer’s life. First, however, is the light it throws on his writing, whether the steady output of fiction like Home to Harlem (1928) as given over to ‘ragtime and blues’, Banjo (1929) with its sailor portsof-call and odysseys, Banana Bottom (1933) whose speech and peasant life came out of his own Jamaica, and Gingertown (1932), whose stories include ‘Brownstone Blue’ as a perfect vignette of 1920s cabaret Harlem, or of poetry like Harlem Shadows (1922) which, however lyric, at the same time catches the tougher idiom of street and tenement.
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