Go Tell It on the Mountain

the first edition dust jacket of Go Tell it On the Mountain (1953)

  • Author:  James Baldwin  (1924-1987)
  • Rank:  98
  • Published:  1953
  • Publisher:  Laurel
  • Pages:  221  (Laurel paperback)
  • First Line:  “Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father.”
  • Last Lines:  ” ‘I’m ready,’ John said, ‘I’m coming.  I’m on the way.’ “
  • ML Edition:  Gold hardcover
  • Film:  1984  (TV film, dir. Stan Lathan)
  • Acclaim:  Modern Library Top 100 Novels (#39), Time ALL-TIME list
  • Read:  Summer, 1998

The Novel: This is why I prefer fiction to memoir.  The memoir field has exploded over the last ten years as so many writers feel the need to inundate us with (often exaggerated) tales of how awful their childhood was and how they’ve managed to turn it around and write a book about it.  But fiction is full of books like that too, but through fiction the writers feel no need to defend their portrayals, to justify the stories they choose to tell and those they choose to ignore and there is no one to create a clamor about how they’ve been treated unfairly.  In fiction you are allowed to expand on what happened and separate it from who you have become.  This is why I find biographical criticism to be the least useful tool at looking at a novel.  I don’t care what actually happened (any more than I care what might have happened to any of the memoirists).  I want to know what you are able to write.

There is no question that a considerable portion of the story of Go Tell It on the Mountain comes directly from James Baldwin’s life experience.  His biography is simply too similar to that of John.  But that is only a framework upon which the novel hangs, and this novel is so much more than a simple tale of a younger Baldwin.  It takes The Bible, reshapes stories to match young John and his life.  We have the downfall of Ham, the wrestling between Jacob and the angel, the potential sacrifice of Isaac, all re-shaped into 1930’s Harlem and a young man pushed by an abusive father.

The question of sin, whether it be original sin or later versions haunts the novel to its very core.  This is strictly Old Testament.  We can see that early on in the novel: “There was sin among them.  One Sunday, when regular service was over, Father James had uncovered sin in the congregation of the righteous.”  And where the sins are in this book, there is no forgiveness, none of the New Testament Christian mentality: “He lived for the day when his father would be dying and he, John, would curse him on his deathbed.”  The first part of the novel introduces us into the harsh religious world in which John is indoctrinated by his brutal father, Gabriel (not his biological father as we will learn), ending with the full force inside him of the power of God when he sees his family walk into the church: “John knew it was the hand of the Lord that had led her to this place, and his heart grew cold.  The Lord was riding on the wind tonight.  What might that wind have spoken before the morning came?”

The second part of the novel, “The Prayers of the Saints”, is ironic in its very title, as we hear the prayer of John’s aunt, father and mother, all of them deeply flawed, all of them living with their own secrets.  Baldwin, without stepping away from the third person narrative, gives individual voices to all three of these characters, establishing the roots of how they came to Harlem, how they have dealt with God and pain and death.  We understand how John could have come from this family, how it has shaped him into this young man who would hate his father with such ferocity.  Though it is his first novel, we can see the writer that Baldwin will become, the kind of man who would title a book The Fire Next Time (coming from a line from an old spiritual: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water, the fire next time”).  It is the anger underneath the narrative that gives Baldwin his strength, the kind of authentic voice that would influence angry writers from other cultures, who have different backgrounds than Baldwin, but whose writings share that anger (notably Philip Roth and Salman Rushdie).

In the third, and final, part of the novel, we come back to John who is coming through an intense spiritual experience: “And something moved in John’s body which was not John.  He was invaded, set at naught, possessed.  This power had struck John, in the head or in the heart; and, in a moment, wholly, filling him with an anguish that he could never in his life have imagined, that he surely could not endure, that even now he could not believe, had opened him up; had cracked him open, as wood beneath the axe cracks down the middle, as rocks break up; had ripped him and felled him in a moment, so that John had not felt his wound, but only the agony, had not felt the fall, but only the fear; and lay here, now, helpless, screaming, at the very bottom of darkness.”  John has felt God, has felt the power in him that he has sensed from his father.  And it is still that Old Testament God, right up until the end of the novel.  Even John seems to know it.  “I won’t never forget,” he says towards the end of the novel.  “May God forget me if I forget.”  May God forget me.  Even at the end, in this novel, there will be nothing about forgiveness.

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