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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)
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on 24 February 2003
James Baldwins first novel, in which he deals with issues he had with his father, religion and his sexuality, though it is definitely not a autobiographical account of his life.
It concerns a young black boyin harlem called Johnny Grimes, destined to become a preahcer like his father, but he has doubts, and struggles with a hatred for his father, and an attraction towards an older boy in the congregation. However, the narrative jumps from him through the novel, and we learn about the past of his father, his mother and his auntie.
This is a wondefully emotive and affecting book, with an underlying sense of sadness running throughout, written in a beautifully lyrical style.
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on 24 February 2008
Despite everyone telling me what a powerful book this was and what a life changing impact it had on them and their views I found this not to be the case. Perhaps I just lack the context of growing up the civil rights era though. That's not to say this is by any means a bad book. It's an interesting read detailing the lives of various members of one family, the mistakes they make and their turning away and return to the Lord. The complex father son relationship is especially well written about and contains perhaps the most autobiographical part of the novel. It shows their fallings and explains their harshness, the characters are engaging and it paints a vivid picture of the black community in America during the early to middle twentieth century particularly with their relationship to the church.
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on 28 October 2009
Go Tell it on the Mountain was the first novel published by well known writer James Baldwin. Loosely based on his own life, it tells the story of John, a 14-year-old boy and his family growing up Christian and African-American in Harlem, New York. The novel examines the hypocrisy of many church followers--a woman who has a child out-of-wedlock with a man she loves seems much less sinful than a fervent preacher with a hidden bastard.

The novel also looks at domestic violence, gender relatons, and of course, racial relations. I don't believe there were any white characters in this book, but there was racism all the same. People called each other racial epithets, some women used bleaching creams to try and look whiter, and they discriminate against each other based on the hue of their skin.

James Baldwin knows how to tell a tale. On some level, I empathized with every character. Baldwin has been criticized by making "uneducated" peoples' thoughts too poetic, but it makes the prose lovely to read--and who's to say you must be educated to be poetic? It's very different from Giovanni's Room, the other James Baldwin work I've read. I'd definitely recommend it as essential American literature.
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on 16 September 2009
Having just read this book, I realise that it is possible to be a little over enthusiastic. So, I shall try to stand back far enough to give a proper critique.

The book is simple, yet complicated. It deals with the lives of four main characters, but focused on John - a teenage boy. The book discusses their journeys and histories, and how these come to impact one another, as well as how previous `sins' stay with.

Also, in these stories you learn about black segregation, racism, family pressures, as well as an examination of the black church (I say that as a white Englishman, the lines may be less obvious in the USA).

It can at times be difficult to follow, as the story jumps around a bit; but this is overcome with the beauty of his prose. It, even after many years, maintains a hard-edged electricity about it. This is true for both dialogue and the narrative. You can feel the rhythmic pulses in their speech, and the narrative, glides; painting wonderful imagery through use of metaphor. In some ways this is a collection of poems. A very beautifully written book and one I would recommend to everyone.
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A powerful, agonising, coming of age story of a 14 year old black boy in 1930's Harlem. He is struggling with his transition to manhood, and raging against both his heavenly and earthly fathers. His father is a preacher and we learn of his past, that of his his mother and aunt, and their ancestry in slavery. I had never previously read a book which so closely took me to what it must feel like to be black and descended from slaves, and to be bound to loathe and distrust white people for that.

I felt I wanted to follow Johnny Grimes into his house at the end, to discover what became of him and his family.
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on 13 May 2014
Having seen in London black American writer James Baldwin's play The Amen Corner, which was absolutely brilliant and beautifully acted, I went on to read Go Tell it on the Mountain, his semi-autobiographical novel. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of black people's struggle for equality in the USA before the Civil Rights movement.
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on 15 June 2014
book about the struggle of a young black teen boy against his fanatic religious father. What first seems to be as a fight of a boy against the will of its parents result in a flash back of all characters, pretending to serve the Lord but they all have sinned more in life than young John probably will ever do.
Although 60 years old, it reveals that not much has changed and that most fanatic religious people most of the time or the most hypocrite sinners
beautiful story, but expected more of the end
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on 24 June 2013
A classic novel which reminds us of the iniquities of segregation in the US. Baldwin's lyrical language
strongly influenced by gospel church and the bible still works His characters are strongly drawn and the central relationship between stepfather and stepson drives the plot. The denouement is a bit too long, but it was his first novel. It stands the test of time.
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on 19 March 2015
In 1998, the Modern Library ranked this book 39th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Time Magazine included the novel in its 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.

People in our group said that it was very well written and challenging, ‘absolutely brilliant’, ‘the most rewarding book I have reads for some timer’ ‘strong characters’ but also ‘hard going.’

I have read it twice, the second time after an interval of about forty years. The first time was when I knew little about racism and felt that black people ‘had a chip on their shoulder’.

The novel takes place in 1935, only 73 years after Emancipation so the characters are only slightly removed, by one or two generations, from their slave ancestors. John has internalised this racism, directing it against his own people and hence himself.
It jumps about, using flashback episodes to recount the lives of John's parents and aunt and to link this urban boy in the North to his slave grandmother in an earlier South.

There is an obsession with what is perceived to be ‘sin’. John "sinned his hand" (masturbated) and, in his eyes, his home is dirty, irredeemably filthy. The air of the church reeks permanently of "the odour of dust and sweat"; the family surname, Grimes, connotes a dirtiness handed from one generation to the next.

Musing on his father’s hatred of white people, he thinks that they surely do not read their Bible every night or go to a holy church; yet he has difficulty imagining them burning in hell for eternity. Some white people have been friendly to him at school, including teachers. Thus, he feels certain that white people are kind and will honour him when he distinguishes himself. His father, however, claims that all whites are wicked and deceitful and that God will "bring them low." However, he recalls reading about the atrocities committed by whites against blacks in the South. He realizes that, in fact, he doesn't dare enter any of the shops from which white ladies emerge, that this is not his world—that he could grow to hate these people.

John is illegitimate and Gabriel loves his own son, Roy, more. John thinks, there must be something wrong with him that causes his father to hate him so. His reaction is natural: he returns his father's hate but also hates himself for doing so and further hates himself for provoking his father's hate. Did Baldwin write this as therapy?

John’s wrestling match with Elisha echoes Jacob's wrestling match with the angel of the Lord in the Bible. To wrestle with the Lord's anointed (Elisha has been saved) is a portentous experience for John yet the struggle is also coloured by the attraction John harbours for Elisha. Its overtones are as erotic as they are religious.

John's "cruel choice" to follow the narrow path, renounce the things of this world and join the saints, or to strive for worldly success is linked to his conflict with his father. John feels the pressure to follow his father, to please him and to prove himself by virtue and piety. But he despises his father deeply. He realizes that his father is "God's minister, the ambassador of the King of Heaven," and that he, therefore, cannot "bow before the throne of grace without first kneeling to his father." We read, "On his refusal to do this had his life depended...."

One reviewer suggested that its structure was like sonata form in music, with the first part equivalent to the exposition, the tarry service/reminiscences/religious transformation as development, and the post-service elements as the recapitulation, with some of the tensions now resolved or altered; the novel's being split into three parts, the middle one its most complex.

All of the major characters, Florence excepted (effectively a heathen in Gabriel's eyes, who has not attended church in years before the night of the tarry service), have biblical names though it's difficult to view his calling the least angelic character Gabriel as anything other than ironic.

Churchgoing was an all-day affair then, as it is still is in many of what we now call ‘black-led churches’. Sunday school, morning service and the rest of the day are taken up. They provide a solid bedrock that can help anchor family life but they also foster an escapist, otherworldly of “pie in the sky,” which distracts people from taking actions that would remedy the injustices that society imposed, as the legacy of slavery lingered.

I was surprised to hear a pastor with the title ‘Father’.

On his fourteenth birthday, he fears that the awakening of his sexuality might lead to him being left behind at the Rapture.

I still find it odd when black people call their hair ‘kinky’.

"Florence's Prayer" takes us back to the South into slavery times, establishing ties between the action of the present (1935 New York) with a larger history of bondage, Reconstruction, and the Great Migration northward. John and his siblings are grandchildren of slaves and have uncles they will never know, born into slavery and separated from their mother. John is the first member of his generation to be born in the North, to know nothing of the South but what he has learned from stories. Baldwin himself, when he wrote Go Tell It on the Mountain, had never been to the South.

Just as Abraham viewed Ishmael, Gabriel saw John as an illegitimate usurper to the legitimate son, Roy’s, rightful inheritance. A nearer Biblical parallel is Jacob who usurped brother Easu's place.

Gabriel was the fatherless son of a freed slave; his own biological sons are either betrayed by him or betray him like the prodigal son. John was the son who accepted the Christian faith and later rejected it. Gabriel’s life hasn’t been easy so it’s possible to have some sympathy and not judge him too harshly if you haven’t grown up having had to watch our friends and neighbours raped or lynched. His hatred of white people has some justification.

I didn’t like the bit where the older preachers were leering at Deborah.

When Gabriel sees the castrated black soldier, hew feels impotent. Race touches on sexuality. White people’s obsession with the sexuality of black men is also echoes in Royal’s taunt, I bet he’s got a big one.’ The emasculation of the black man is part of a lynching as is the rape inasmuch as white men know they can have their way with a black girl and get away with it. In the short story,
No wonder that some black people internalise their hatred.Florence hates her brother, she hates her own blackness and uses skin whiteners despite her husband telling her that "black's a mighty pretty color".
Others externalise it. Gabriel tells his family that white people can never be trusted, that all white people are "wicked," and that God will "bring them low." Richard nurses an abiding hatred for white people and educates himself so that no white person will be able to talk down to him.

The final chapter, the threshing floor, is difficult because it portrays some sort of psychological and/or mystical experience and uses imagery from the Book of Revelation.

What is the value of this religious awakening? Is the only choice available to young black men between the perdition of the street and a retreat from reality? John wants to be unlike his father but how long will he look forward? The novel doesn’t say but for Baldwin himself this optimism lasted merely three years.
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