Study Guide

Just Above My Head

by James Baldwin

Just Above My Head Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

Just Above My Head was on the best-seller list of The Washington Post for thirty-seven weeks but did not make the best-seller list of The New York Times. The novel received widespread critical attention because Baldwin was one of the most famous writers of his day. Most reviewers were respectful but unenthusiastic. Darryl Pinckney, for example, wrote a long review of the book for The New York Review of Books, calling it “flat and didactic” but acknowledging that Baldwin was, as always, effective in describing “the maddening halfway house that the black man finds himself in late-twentieth-century America.”

The consensus seemed to be that the book did not fulfill its ambitious design. It was too long, but it did not seem complete. One of the major problems frequently pointed out concerned its complex structure. The whole story is supposedly told from the point of view of Hall Montana, the narrator, yet he frequently describes events at which he was not present, including the most intimate sexual encounters between a man and a woman or between two men. How is Hall supposed to know what other people had been thinking and feeling in such situations? In several places Baldwin tried to explain away this obvious flaw by having Hall say that he was only imagining what went on, but if he was only imagining what went on in some situations, how are readers to know when his narration is reliable and when it is not?...

(The entire section is 402 words.)