Blues for Mr. Baldwin

Just Above My Head

by James Baldwin
Dial, 597 pp., $12.95

James Baldwin
James Baldwin; drawing by David Levine

James Baldwin, born in Harlem in 1924, became a boy preacher when he was fourteen. He left the church when he was seventeen and transformed himself into a writer of extraordinary rhetorical refinement, but there remained in his style, in his baroque sense of grievance, the atmosphere of the pulpit. In works like The Fire Next Time (1963), an exalted rhetoric rushes out, as in a sermon, to meet the bitterness of American life.

In 1948, when Baldwin was twenty-four, he was seized by what appears to have been a claustrophobia of the spirit and went to France, from which he has never really returned. Exile freed him to contemplate his homeland. Notes of a Native Son (1955), a collection of essays striking in their subtlety of language, shows a mind deeply knowledgeable about the psychological costs of racism and skeptical toward the ideological complacencies and inherited ideas that define so much of the analysis of the racial conflict on both sides.

Moralistic fervor, a high literary seriousness, the authority of the survivor, of the witness—these qualities made Baldwin unique. In his best work, he is drawn to the ways in which life can go wildly wrong, to examinations of the damage done the individual by society. Another bloodied stone is always waiting to be turned over. A sense of mission has guided Baldwin’s development as a writer. He was truly born with his subject matter, and yet for a long time his work showed a feeling of distrust for the promises of “pure” literature, a sense of its impotence, both personally and as a political weapon. In his youth Baldwin wanted to be identified not as a black but as a writer. It is a conflict he has never resolved.

Just Above My Head is a long and ambitious novel in which we find again many of Baldwin’s obsessions. He returns to the Harlem and the church of his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953); to the homosexuality of Giovanni’s Room (1955) and Another Country (1962); and to the social and political outrage that has inspired all his work. Whether the visions of the past are still vivid is another question.

Hall Montana, the narrator of Just Above My Head, tells the story of his dead brother Arthur, a celebrated gospel singer, and in so doing Hall hopes to make sense of his own life, shatter his grief. Arthur was called “the Soul Emperor,” and Hall was his manager. When the novel opens, Arthur has been dead two years, of a heart attack in the basement men’s room of a London pub. Hall is tolerant, loving, grateful for children and wife, filled with memory and family feeling, and also schooled in the hardships of being black. His voice, however, is not very fluent and this makes for something of a strain in such a long work. The…

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