Thoughts on Yesterday Will Make You Cry (Daniel Carlson)

By on February 27th, 2018 in Blog Posts


A very interesting book and one that begs the question of exactly what kind of book it is. Prison story? Treatise on race in depression-era America? Love story? Or something else entirely…

I believe (and this is informed by quotes from Himes) that the race of the protagonist is a bit of a red herring. While it’s tempting – especially when reading through a post-1950s lens – to search for an agenda in the book, one that addresses Himes’ portrayal of the autobiographical main character as white, it seems that the answer is a far more pragmatic one: in the years after publication, Himes said that this was done solely to make the work more attractive to book and magazine publishers. It seems that it was enough that the author was black: having a black protagonist – in addition to homosexual relationships – at its core was simply too much. I wonder if Himes, had he lived long enough to see the book published in its original form in 1999, might have re-thought that decision. 

It’s a more interesting book to me when it deals with the idea of adaptation. On the outside, Jimmy lived something of a larger-than-life existence. He did as he pleased. He slept with who he pleased. He worked once place, then worked in another. Money seemed to drop from the heavens and he spent it the way people blessed with good fortune often do. But, faced with an unexpectedly harsh sentence for a non-violent offence, he’s thrown into, well, a prison. He doesn’t lose everything – his family and disability payments are characters throughout – but he loses access to everything he had frittered away on the outside. But Himes, through personal experience, delivers a completely believable arc of adaptation as Jimmy adapts to prison life, at the same time learning to relate to the world around him as an adult. Whether in relationships with guards, fellow inmates, his role in the block gambling rings or management of the softball team, Jimmy evolves into a far more functional member of society – albeit a prison society – than he’d been on the outside.  

But for me, Yesterday Will Make You Cry is, at its core, the story of a man – Jimmy – in search of intimacy, in search of love.  Himes, who spoke in detail about the autobiographical nature of the book, writes tenderly of Jimmy’s relationships with Walter, Lively and, finally, Rico. On the outside, Jimmy speaks of “whores” and women who he’s “gotten with” but, with the exception of a girl he spent an afternoon walking around with as a teenager, seems to have nothing even approaching fondness for any of them. But with Walter, Lively, and Rico, we see Jimmy evolve. It’s not only to do with the raw feelings he has for them – which one would assume he’d felt for women on the outside – but with how he processes their feelings for him. From tentative steps with Walter, we end up with a three-dimensional relationship with Rico, one where Jimmy finally understands the meaning and value of sacrifice. It’s here that the setting of the prison is the most critical for me: without the constraints and walls, Jimmy would’ve walked. But here he learns to work through emotions, past uncomfortable feelings and sensations.

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  1. Hi Dan!
    I too had some of those questions about race, and about what if any agenda Himes may have had for his treatment of it in this novel. Then I just stopped thinking and enjoyed the novel too. Your note about the comment Himes made about that is interesting (that it was purely for commercial reasons to write a white protagonist). Seems like the kind of no nonsense comment he would make.
    I had not thought of your core interpretation–that Jimmy grew as a man in strength and determination, through survival within the constraints of prison life, to finally become strong enough to make sacrifices for love. Feels very authentic and true.

  2. HI Dan,

    I love this line: “But for me, Yesterday Will Make You Cry is, at its core, the story of a man – Jimmy – in search of intimacy, in search of love. ” I agree that, both before he is imprisoned and after, he is on this search and one of the ironies, deeply felt, in the book is that he finds that intimacy right as he is being released from prison. On the one hand, it is as if he now has the personal, emotional depth to lead a different life outside of prison. On the other, he will never again see Rico, the man he loves in such a complex and passionate way. In some ways, the book is “portrait of the artist as a young man” since he also finds his way as a writer–with intimacy a necessary precondition, perhaps, of being able to write, with empathy, of others. Best, Cathy

  3. Daniel,

    You wrote about what kind of book this is – a prison story, a story about race, or about love? I think what’s beautiful about this novel is that it weaves in various themes and experiments with the queer identity in a way that is shocking for the time period. He writes of men who are in love but who are not gay, of butches and femmes and fags and of a world in which gender was not sex; but where gender was whatever people made of it. His novel obscured all of my expectation, but I found it shocking that I hadn’t yet read it.

    – C

  4. Interesting that you ask “exactly what kind of book it is. Prison story? Treatise on race in depression-era America? Love story? Or something else entirely…” I find that this novel embodies many different “kinds” of stories and lessons in order to teach us a lesson. That lesson may be that things aren’t always as they seem and that even in the darkest of time you can still find light and life. Chester Himes does an excellent job of making sure we understand that because in a place where love is not supposed to grow, it does. In my opinion you’re spot on by saying there is much to take from this one novel.

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