Academic Novel: The Third Generation


Chester Himes.  The Third Generation. 1954. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1989.

“..for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.”  -Exodus 20:5

Chester Himes’s The Third Generation happens to be the third Himes novel that I’ve read, after If He Hollers Let Him Go, and Cotton Comes to Harlem.  (The latter was made into a classic film directed by Ossie Davis). The Third Generation has more in common with the political indignation of If He Hollers Let Him Go, than with the detective novels such as Cotton Comes to Harlem. Himes is rightly celebrated as an innovator in detective fiction, and he took his experiences in the streets and in prison and lent them to his crime stories.  Both The Third Generation and If He Hollers Let Him Go depict the precariousness of life for black Americans in an era when the legal and political rights of black people were severely limited, and the possibilities of fully-realized black citizenship remained in question.  (Not to say that the question has been definitively settled today either.)  Both novels were published after WWII, and both mention, among other things, the disillusionment of a people as they realized that service in war time had not helped improve their political status at home.

The Third Generation tells the story of a Southern black family in the early 1900s living and working among the black colleges of the south.  Professor William Taylor, the patriarch of the family, is an expert metallurgist and blacksmith who works as a professor of industrial education.  Through the course of the novel the family moves to several different schools and locations to follow his career, including to black colleges in Missouri, Mississippi and Arkansas.

Looking at biographical sketches of Himes’s life one finds that The Third Generation is a heavily autobiographical novel in many ways.  Like Professor Taylor in the novel, Chester Himes’s father also taught industrial education at black colleges in the South, and their family moved as often as the Taylor family does in the book. Like Lillian Taylor, Himes’s mother was also a light-skinned woman whose deep ambivalences about her black lineage rubbed off on her children.  Like Charles in the novel, Himes’s life was also beset by a series of horrible misfortunes.  Himes’s brother suffered an accident from a chemistry experiment, similar to the one depicted in the book which left the character’s older brother William permanently blind.  Like Charles, Himes also dropped out of Ohio State University and fell in with the hustlers, whores and gamblers of Cleveland.  And like Charles, Chester Himes also experienced a near-fatal plunge down an elevator shaft as a young man, an accident that left him with crushed vertebrae and several broken bones.  He never completely covered from these injuries, spending the rest of his life in chronic pain.   Himes served eight years of a twenty year prison sentence for armed robbery in the Ohio State penitentiary, and upon his release moved out to Los Angeles to work on the docks (the material for If He Hollers Let Him Go).  He eventually left the country to live in Paris among the black expatriate community there, where he began his publishing career in earnest.

The Third Generation begins with William and Lillian Taylor and their three boys, Thomas, William, and Charles, moving from Professor Taylor’s teaching post in Missouri, to a new position at a small black college in Mississippi (based on Alcorn A&M where Himes’s father taught.)  Himes’s use of third person narration allows the narrative to float in and out of the consciousness of all of the characters, giving us insight into the circumstances that brought William and Lillian together, as well as exploring the growing consciousness of their young sons.  But mostly the story follows the youngest son Charles as he adjusts to life in the different places where his family lives.

Of course, the reason that I am writing about this novel is because of its depictions of black higher education.  Perhaps the best source for the historical background that frames the book is James Anderson’s The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935. In that book, Anderson describes the hunger for education among the former slaves of the South and the way in which black educators, many of them self-taught under slavery, helped to found black schools and colleges.  One important point that Anderson emphasizes is that “both schooling for democratic citizenship and schooling for second-class citizenship have been basic traditions in American education,” and that these types of schooling often co-existed.  While industrial education was a means of providing training for black laborers in the South, that education often de-emphasized the type of humanistic thought that would lead to questions about the social status of black Americans.  In the novel, Himes depicts the governor of Mississippi as a supporter of black higher education (strictly separate, of course), and the governor spends time at the college and gets to know the professors.  But the governor also warns Professor Taylor against teaching students the wrong things, particularly teaching them about materials coming from a militant association in the North that puts out a magazine edited by “a fiery, angry writer, revered among the Negroes as a great messiah, and feared and hated by whites throughout the South.”   The reference is to W.E.B. Du Bois, the NAACP, and the Crisis magazine that Du Bois was editing at the time.

Look through the criticism on the academic novel, and you will see a heavy emphasis on the genre’s Anglo-American heritage. Through the 19th century and into the 20th century the default idea of the college student was that of a young man (presumably white and presumably wealthy) who, in his late teenage years, is living away from the bourgeois home for the first time.  In England the first academic novels tended to be set in Oxford or Cambridge, or in the United States among the Ivy Leagues.  However the story of the post-WWII university in the U.S. is the story of an expansion of higher education to working class students, racial and ethnic minorities and women.  With measures such as the G.I. Bill, with the establishment of new regional colleges, and with the development of community colleges, more working class students were brought into contact with the university.

Novels such as The Third Generation and Sutton Grigg’s Imperium and Imperio provide us with depictions of higher education among the historically black colleges founded in the late 19th century, schools with a mission to educate the children of former slaves.  In Himes’s case he sought to depict the so-called “Third Generation” to which he belonged, the generation of young people coming of age in the early 20th century, the sons and daughters of the sons and daughters of slaves.  In one section Himes describes what these institutions meant for the students and professors at these schools:

“Professor Taylor liked it there.  In spite of the indignities there was a certain inalienable dignity in the work itself, in bringing enlightenment to these eager young black people.  It wasn’t as if they could come there with the easy assurance of an upper Bostonian enrolling in Harvard.  For what they learned, they and their mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers paid in privation, in calico in January, corn-pone diets and pellagra deaths.  Professor Taylor was one of them, a little short, black, pigeon-toed bowlegged, nappy-headed man; he’d come from the same background with the same traditions; he was just more fortunate” (68).

As far as the Taylor family goes, much of the novel’s tension comes from the struggle between Professor Taylor and his wife Lillian, who is more or less the “tragic mulatta” figure in the novel, though it would be a mistake to reduce her only to that.  Lillian is traumatized by her liminal position between the black and white communities.  She feels that she is white enough that she should be allowed to live as a white woman and she takes risks by going into town and passing for white.  In one scene she goes to a white dentist, and upon leaving his office runs into a black friend who calls her “Lillian” and the dentist storms out into the street and calls the police to have her arrested.  It is only Professor Taylor’s good relationship with the governor that saves them from further trouble.  Lillian also tries to groom her boys for respectability, clamping down on their manners, and lamenting the fact that the smooth straight hair of the childhood gave way to the rough, kinky hair of their adolescence.  She even blames William for bringing them to Mississippi in the first place where she and her sons would be darkened by the harsh summer sun, and her boys would be made wild by the unrefined rural life of the place.

As the boys grow older they move off from the family, and William and Lillian’s marriage further deteriorates until they are living separately by the end of the novel.  William unfortunately loses his job as professor and has to take on work as a waiter in order to make ends meet.  Charles makes a run at going to college at Ohio State but eventually drops out and falls into a life of crime, and gets caught passing bad checks all over Cleveland.

The novel is not merely a sociological document of a particular time and place in black  history, but it is also full of aesthetic pleasures of Himes’s writing, such as his depictions of the lush landscape of the South and the exuberance of the people who live there, or his depictions of the shenanigans that the young Taylor boys manage to get themselves into, or the wrenching fights between Lillian and William that make the home an awkward and unpleasant place for them and the boys alike.  Throughout the novel we see the Taylors adjusting to the technological and political changes of the times, seeing the first cars take over the road, playing records on their new phonograph machine, witnessing the passing of The Great War, seeing the new fashions of the 20s take over, and living through the emotional joys and pains of their lives.

The Taylors desperately try to hold on to their personal dignity as they suffer the indignities of living in a society designed to restrain and subordinate them.  In the naturalistic ending to the novel we see the characters beaten down by forces beyond their control.  There are several factors that contribute to Charles’s downfall in the end: guilt over the injury to his brother, his own physical damage, and the emotional scars of the hatred between his parents are among them.  Eventually his life veers into a degradation that his family tries unsuccessfully to help him avoid.

I will admit that at 350 pages this can be a tedious novel to work through.  The language is always clear and engaging, but there are points at which the narrative bogs down with perhaps more details than we need.  Despite whatever flaws the critic might find in it, the novel is an important book about black education, and a rare look at the lives of a striving black academic family in the early years of black higher education.  The Third Generation is an example of the literary accomplishments achieved by an intelligent, resourceful and scrappy writer who defied the odds to become a great artist, and whose body of work deserves a prominent place in American literature and rewards the intelligent attention given to it.

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