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"He got the steep side of the mountain to climb."
on 5 March 2011
This was my second reading of James Baldwin's initial novel, first read 40 some years ago, and it rang even more powerful the second time around. Baldwin is the essential chronicler of the Black American experience, in all its anguish. The novel was first published in 1953, and was primarily set in mid-Depression Harlem, with flashbacks to the rural southern antecedents of the main characters, reaching all the way back to the days of slavery. It was Florence, who must have been approaching 60, whose mother was a slave and who "lost two children to the auction block." Baldwin only briefly sketches Florence's mother, but this slender fact seemed to explain so much of the tragic and often dysfunctional family life of the descendents of those families which had been forcibly broken up.
Religion is a major theme in the novel; that particular raucous, tambourine shaking, speaking-in-tongues spirituality espoused in store-front churches that set out the folding chairs before the service. It sure does help to know the Bible to understand many of the references. If I found any weakness in the novel, and perhaps it is a personal weakness instead, it was the lengthy passages of pure "preachin'", but I persevered, knowing that it really did give the flavor of an authentic experience. Baldwin depicts a world of good and evil, with the church as the vehicle to salvation, but he is also relentless in describing the hypocritical lives of the preachers, especially Gabriel, who "falls" and falls again. Although the church is featured as the one solid bedrock that can help anchor family life, I agree with another reviewer who points out that the anchor impeded Black economic development by promising the otherworldliness of "pie in the sky," which distracted the believers from taking actions that would remedy the injustices that society imposed, as the legacy of slavery lingered.
The novel unfolds around John, the 14 year old son of Elizabeth, who is married to Gabriel. Florence is Gabriel's older sister. In part I of the book, the stage is set; all the characters are introduced, and the drama centers around the knifing of John's younger brother, Roy. In this section we learn that John is illegitimate, and that Gabriel loves his own son, Roy, more, and has pinned his hopes of salvation on him. Yet it is Roy that seems to have the "mark of the devil" on him, no doubt reflecting the same mark on his father. It is in the second part, by far the largest portion of the book, that Baldwin tells the story, each in a separate chapter, of the three principal adults: Gabriel, Florence, and Elizabeth. These portraits are dazzling, and Baldwin has immense narrative power, revealing one aspect of their lives in a sentence or two, and then several pages later explaining how this occurred. The women "who have born the weight of men," no doubt literally and metaphorically, come off the better, and the stronger. Gabriel's hypocrisy is not as all-encompassing as, say, Elmer Gantry, for he does truly struggle with the demons within. All the characters did indeed have the steep side of the mountain to climb.
There are many scenes whose depiction can take your breath away. One that I found particularly strong was a down south revival, with 20 or more preachers. The night is when the young Gabriel makes his mark as a preacher. Afterwards, the preachers partake of a banquet. They are seated separately, upstairs, the women serve them. They tell ribald jokes, and even ridicule one of their servers who had been gang-raped by whites. That woman would become Gabriel's first wife, but the insights he might have gathered from his fellow preacher's conduct did not endure.
For those who have a copy of the collection of photographs entitled The Family of Man it is impossible fo
r me to look at the picture on page 129, the black woman laying on the bedcovers, the black man sitting on the edge, each in deep middle age, obviously talking about "their troubles," without thinking that this is a picture of Gabriel and Elizabeth Grimes.
Finally, in terms of foreshadowing, one wonders when Baldwin wrote this book if he anticipated his own fate. Florence's husband dies, and is buried in France, during what was once called "The Great War.". Baldwin could no longer stomach the anguish that he depicted, eventually seeking solace in France. He is buried high on the hill, at St. Paul de Vance, overlooking the Mediterranean. A wonderful 5-star plus read, especially again.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on January 29, 2010)