Pulping the Black Atlantic:Race, Genre and Commodification in the Detective Fiction of Chester Himes

  • William Turner

Student thesis: Phd


The career path of African American novelist Chester Himes is often characterised as a u-turn. Himes grew to recognition in the 1940s as a writer of the Popular Front, and a pioneer of the era's black 'protest' fiction. However, after falling out of domestic favour in the early 1950s, Himes emigrated to Paris, where he would go on to publish eight Harlem-set detective novels (1957-1969) for Gallimard's La Série Noire. Himes's 'black' noir fiction brought him critical and commercial success amongst a white European readership, and would later gain a cult status amongst an African American readership in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Himes's post-'protest' career has been variously characterised as a commercialist 'selling out'; an embracing of black 'folk' populism; and an encounter with Black Atlantic modernism. This thesis analyses the Harlem Cycle novels in relation to Himes's career, and wider debates regarding postwar African American literature and race relations.Fundamentally, I argue that a move into commercial formula fiction did not curtail Himes's critical interest in issues of power, exploitation, and racial inequality. Rather, it refocused his literary 'protest' to representational politics itself, and popular culture's ability to inscribe racial identity, resistance and exploitation. On the one hand, Himes's Harlem fiction meets a formulaic and commercial demand for images of 'pathological' black urban criminality. However, Himes, operating 'behind enemy lines', uses the texts to dramatise this very dynamic. Himes's pulp novels depict a heightened Harlem that is thematically 'pulped' by a logic of capitalist exploitation, and a fetishistic dominant of racial difference. In doing so, Himes's formula fiction makes visible certain anti-progressive shifts in the analysis and representation of postwar race relations. My methodology mirrors the multiple operations of the texts, placing Himes's detective fiction in relation to a diverse and interdisciplinary range of sources: literary, historical, and theoretical. Using archival material, I look in detail at Himes's public image and contemporary reception as a Série Noire writer, his professional correspondence with French and U.S. literary agents, and his private thoughts and later reflections regarding his career. This methodology attempts to get to grips with a literary triangulation between Himes's progressive authorial intentions, the demands placed upon him as a Série Noire writer, and the wider ideological shifts of the postwar era. By exploring these different historical, geographical and literary contexts, this thesis offers a wide-reaching analysis of how cultural and racial meanings are produced and negotiated within a commodity form.
Date of Award1 Aug 2011
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorBrian Ward (Supervisor) & Peter Knight (Supervisor)


  • African
  • Pulp
  • Expatriate
  • American
  • Detective
  • Fiction
  • Noir
  • Hardboiled
  • Atlantic
  • Black
  • Himes
  • Chester

Cite this