My impression was that the book then just faded from view and Himes (especially after Lonely Crusade two years later) fell into obscurity. But that turns out to be not quite right. Foreign publishers decided that the book could sell outside the United States. The English edition (Falcon Press, 1947) had no qualms about announcing the novel’s theme of racial conflict. On the cover (left) the main character appears to be a slave being beaten by angry white people. Danish and French editions soon followed in translation.
In 1949 the editors at Signet, the high-end American paperback publisher, decided that a large untapped audience for the book existed in the United States. It might be said that the paperback “emphasized the sensational aspects of interracial sex in the book,” to quote Graham Hodges in the foreword to the 1987 edition. But Himes made interracial sex one of the novel’s main themes. And the cover illustration (left), which accurately depicts one of the novel’s critical scenes, is no more sensational than the text itself.
Himes probably didn’t make much on the paperback edition, maybe a few thousand dollars. But his literary reputation wasn’t hurt, since just about any author -- or so it seems, anyway -- whose books could sell wound up in paperback. And printings ran into the hundreds of thousands. So it’s a good bet that Himes had more readers in 1949 than in 1945. Signet cranked out another printing in 1950. Then Berkley Books obtained publishing rights, with its first edition (left) appearing in 1955.
Possibly because Himes’s Harlem crime stories began to sell well in paperback, Berkley was back in 1958 with another edition (left) of If He Hollers Let Him Go. Both the Berkley covers play up the theme of sexual confrontation. The first depicts a bare-chested black man and a well-dressed young white woman in a scene that has no counterpart in the book. The second comes closer to the text. The blonde is much too good-looking, but her expression of lust and hatred captures her attitude in the book.
Finally, to take the story up to 1959, English Ace published a paperback edition (left). Himes was popular in Europe by this time, so its appearance is not surprising. As usual, the cover is misleading. The blonde looks cheap but impossibly sexy in her low-cut dress. The black guy seems more worried than aroused. I think I’m safe in saying that the description of the novel’s protagonist -- “a coloured boy lost in a white man’s world” -- would have made American readers cringe, even fifty years ago.
By 1960 Himes was becoming a popular genre writer. Appreciation of his work as a serious novelist, however, remained small. Yet his book with the greatest claim to literary excellence, If He Hollers Let Him Go, might have also been the one with the largest audience. Appearing in eight editions over fifteen years, as many as a million copies were in print.