TOP 500 REVIEWERon 11 October 2017
I read James Baldwin's first novel, "Go Tell it on the Mountain" (1953) in 2012 in a book group devoted to Black Voices in literature. I have just read the book again as part of a reading group without any particular focus in its themes. Rereading the book reminded my of my friends in the Black Voices group and resulted in a moving reunion over dinner. I loved this book when I first read it and on the rereading.
Baldwin's novel is set primarily in a storefront African American Pentecostal church in Harlem in 1935 during the Great Migration. The book includes many backstories and flashbacks between life in Harlem and elsewhere in the North and life in the South. Baldwin's book explores the role of religion in African American life, North and South, and in American life. The book also offers a portrayal of race relations in the United States, both North and South, through the first half of the 20th Century. The novel has an autobiographical component and is in part a coming of age story.
The primary character in the story is John Grimes, who has just turned 14 when the story begins. The story describes John's difficult relationship with his family, including his father Gabriel, a deacon at a Harlem storefront church called the Temple of Fire Baptized, and formerly a fiery southern preacher. Other characters in John's family include his mother, Elizabeth, and Florence, Gabriel's sister and thus John's aunt. Each of these three people spent their early years in the South and ultimately found themselves in Harlem as part of the Great Migration. There are a host of other important characters in the book, including several other children of Gabriel and Elizabeth and Elisha, 17, a preacher at the Temple of Fire Baptized and John's friend, to whom John appears to have a sexual attraction.
The book is in three parts. The first part "The Seventh Day" sets the stage for the book. It takes place in the Grimes' poor apartment on John's 14th birthday as his younger brother, Roy, comes home with a stab wound. Stabbings and violence run through the novel and through the Grimes family. As the story unfolds, it develops that Gabriel had an earlier son, Royal, a wild young man, who died young from a stabbing in the throat. The family life is harsh and tense and filled with seething tension.
After a scene of violence in which Gabriel strikes his wife, the scene shifts for the lengthy second part of the book to the Temple of Fire Baptized for the Saturday evening service. It is the expressed wish of the family that John, a quiet, small, intelligent boy will find God and be saved.
Part two of the book, "The Prayers of the Saints" is the heart of the novel. The "Saints" are Gabriel, Florence, and Elizabeth together with other praying women who are faithful in their church attendance.. As they pray that Saturday evening, the minds of John's family members are filled with flashbacks of their earlier lives and relationships to each other. They grew up against a backdrop of racism, but there is much more to each of their stories.Each of the three carry heavy burdens, and none more so that the preacher, Gabriel, with a heavy secret life of guilt and sin. Their stories are vividly told and poignant.
In the final part of the book, "The Threshing Floor", John has his epiphany and salvation experience. This experience is ambiguous in character and the reader is left in skepticism about whether one would wish for such an experience or rely upon it if it happened. Baldwin describes it vividly. In a sleeting March early morning following John's conversion experience, family tensions again rise to the fore, especially in the continued angry and hateful relationship between John and Gabriel.
The book is written in a heavily omniscient third person narrative, as the narrator explores in depth the lives and secret places in the hearts of all the characters, including particularly John. The narrator's language is highly formal, elaborate, and literate full of detail, extensive description, repetition, and force. In the dialogue passages Baldwin captures the language and speech pattern of the African American South. The book is replete with Biblical allusions.
The novel shows remarkable insight into its characters, into racism, family relationship, and religion. Baldwin shows a deep appreciation for ambiguity. The books tone varies from the harsh to the compassionate. The religious themes are the strongest and most complex in the book as Baldwin explores the difficult relationship between the religious life and human sexuality. As a young man, Baldwin himself left the church where he had been an adolescent minister and never again professed adherence to any organized religion. Much the book portrays religion as sexually repressive, superstitious, and hypocritical. There is a suggestion as well that the African American churches discouraged their adherents from addressing the woeful discrimination against them. Yet there is a sense of mysticism and wonder in this book and of piety beyond the formalities. Baldwin portrays the church and the religious search with sympathy and understanding.
This book was an outstanding choice for a book group focused on Black Voices, for a more generally based book group, and for individual, private reading and thinking. The novel will bear repeated readings. It took a long time for me to find this book. "Go Tell it on the Mountain" is widely regarded as an American classic, and so it is. It deserves the accolades it has received and more.