Baldwin, James 1924–
Baldwin is a black American essayist, novelist, short story writer, and playwright. His work consistently reveals a moral purpose: to make art reflect a sense of reality and clarity, rather than the falsehood of illusion. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
Swollen (655 pages), meandering, awkwardly colloquial, and pretentiously elevated by turns, [Just Above My Head] agitatedly contains four or five major themes that never are brought into coherence with one another. Dealing with experiences that clearly have meant a great deal to Baldwin, it is a novel stuck halfway between life and art, with none of the originality or fatefulness of either.
The mélange of themes I mentioned includes family relationships, religious passion and its repudiation, homosexuality, heterosexuality, and the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Baldwin's narrator, one Hall Montana, is in many respects his alter ego in a damaging sense. This is especially so in the bitter anti-white strain that runs spasmodically and inelegantly through the book …, although there is one section, an apologia for homosexuality that seems quite unrelated to the rest of the novel but at least has an eloquence lacking everywhere else, in which Baldwin's taking over for his fictional character seems appropriate….
Montana is "trying to piece together this story … attempting to stammer out this tale" and to do this he has "had to strip myself naked." Now such authorial rhetoric as this ought to alert us not to the potential profundity of the book but just the opposite, to some imaginative debility, specifically an inability to absorb one's materials and transform them into fictional existence. And indeed...
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In many of his earlier novels James Baldwin showed that he … was a distinguished craftsman. But in Just Above My Head, though he reverts to the fruitful matter of his first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain, the phenomenon of American black evangelical Christianity, he has lost the touch he showed there and in Giovanni's Room….
[The] plot, if there is one, has no focus.
The book is artless—by which I mean without craft. The stories of Julia and Hall are interesting; that of Arthur might have become interesting. But Baldwin neither brings them together, nor develops them seriously. Worse, the novel wears its theme on its sleeve. It is quite openly trying to tell us that the sexual differences, distinctions and hang-ups of the late Sixties and the Seventies are as wrong and pointless as the racial ones that preceded the era of sexual concern. In other words the differences between gay and straight are no more important or interesting than those between white and black.
I am in total agreement with that sentiment, and did not even squirm too much while reading the pages of explicit lovemaking between Arthur and Crunch, his boyhood friend, Jimmy, the lover of his maturity, or Guy, the Frenchman he has in between them. The homosexual passages are disturbing in a way that the equally explicit heterosexual ones are not. But this is not because the reader is biased or squeamish, but because Baldwin has committed an artistic error. All these scenes are narrated in the first person by Hall, Arthur's elder brother. He is actually a participant in the straight scenes, so the reader does not mind a slight whiff of pornography in their description. But he also narrates the homosexual scenes…. In addition to unjustified narrative voyeurism, the novel also suffers from repetition, especially obsessive harking upon such topics as body odours. Final verdict: more fart than art. (p. 14)
Paul Levy, "American Giants" (© copyright Paul Levy 1979; reprinted with permission), in Books and Bookmen, Vol. 25, No. 3, December, 1979, pp. 13-15.∗
In his famous essay, "Everybody's Protest Novel," published in Partisan Review in 1949, when he was only twenty-four, Baldwin announced his determination to reject the pattern of protest that a Negro writer in America was expected to follow. Instead of depicting the black man as "merely a member of a Society or a Group" who has been condemned by the white oppressors to poverty and ignorance, Baldwin chose to understand him as "something resolutely indefinable, unpredictable." (p. 73)
In that bold refusal to be manacled to the racial shibboleths of the "protest novel," Baldwin even felt free, during his expatriate years in France, to write a novel about white homosexuals, Giovanni's Room, in the first person, if only to prove that he could do without the black-and-white chessboard on which black fiction played out its predictable despair. Yet Giovanni's Room was an act of bravura, not an interesting novel. Baldwin's true and magnificent voice could be heard in his essays and in autobiographical stories like "Notes of a Native Son," his poignant memoir of the summer of 1943, when his father died during a bloody riot in Harlem. Even after he returned to America in the early 60's, in eager response to the civil-rights movement and the rise of black nationalism, he seemed, in the lamentative reflections about race of The Fire Next Time, to speak out of the privacy of his mind and heart rather than as the "voice of his people." Although it prophesied a terrifying apocalypse, the essay was distinguished by its lucid dignity. It was, however, the last time he would keep his distance from the anger and hatred he had warned against in his precocious attack on the protest novel.
Despite his effort to establish his black identity, the extremist blacks would not forgive Baldwin his past. Toward the end of the 60's, Eldridge Cleaver included a vicious attack on Baldwin in Soul on Ice…. (pp. 73-4)
In the face of Cleaver's castigation and the savage—and envious—diatribes of other black nationalists, Baldwin's stubborn independence caved in. It was hard to believe that the paranoid hysteria of No Name in the Streets (1972)—a curious requiem for Martin Luther King, Jr., in which Baldwin renounced King's credo of nonviolence and celebrated the guerrilla tactics of the Black Panthers—came from the same sensibility which, twenty years earlier, had declared that "the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society, they accept the same criteria … they both alike depend on the same reality." By this point he could even bring himself to praise Soul on Ice and justify Cleaver's assault on him as "a necessary warning."...
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No one today excels James Baldwin in the writing of invective. His art is nourished and sustained by an unquenchable rage. He is, essentially, a prophet, with a prophet's ear for the cadences of desolation. Those cadences inform his long new novel, Just Above My Head, which is principally concerned with the life and times of a gospel singer named Arthur Montana….
Arthur is a homosexual, like his creator. He finds himself doubly alienated from American society: for most of his short life he is afraid to tell even his closest friends about his feelings. He is something of an emotional cripple…. Yet the nature of Arthur's despair is never seriously examined, although it is constantly referred to. His trip to the abyss is disposed of in a couple of paragraphs. Baldwin rages, and rhapsodizes, and editorializes, but seldom gets down to the proper business of the novelist, which is to establish character and incident. The reader is told about Arthur's misery, and is indeed lectured at on the subject, but that gigantic sorrow remains undramatized—except, to be fair, when Arthur is singing. Baldwin, not surprisingly, writes superbly when his people are making music.
The narrator of Just Above My Head is Arthur's elder brother, Hall. Hall's method of telling the story is neither laconic nor suggestive: it is repetitive, explanatory, hectoring, and prone to flights of lyricism that are not always...
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Baldwin is so experienced an essayist, and Hall Montana so convenient an observer, that Hall's rhetorical social commentary takes an unwanted precedence over the story of Arthur Montana [in Just Above My Head]…. Arthur's life never seems as vivid as Hall's, though clearly the younger brother is meant to be the novel's hero. Nor does Julia Miller, the child preacher who must suffer incest and the fathomless guilt of matricide, ever seem a real person until she becomes a stable adult, and one of Hall's best friends. (p. 49)
The reader feels that no sin can go unforgiven, no matter how many social wrongs remain unrighted. It is an achievement to construct acceptance out of suffering and...
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Just Above My Head is a large work which concerns itself with many things and treats each of them with great reverence. There are no ready-made formulas for drama here. The images and voices of this book come so completely to life that, once submerged, the reader might expect to come across one of the characters or places on the streets of his own world. At the onset one is led to believe that Hall Montana, the omniscient narrator, is about to embark on a self-cleansing confessional rendering of the life and early death of his brother, Arthur. But Baldwin smoothly transforms the novel into a rigorous dissection of the narrator's memory—a study of the individual as affected by experiences as they occur and by...
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