Go Tell it on the Mountain

Go Tell it on the Mountain
© 1953 James Baldwin
272 pages

A young man faces an enormous choice at a presumed-to-be-uneventful prayer meeting, and at this crossroads of his life,  the reader  experiences the choices of his kin whose lives brought him there.   Go Tell it on the Mountain is a semiautobigraphical novel by James Baldwin, which follows a family from the Deep South to Harlem, who are grounded, inspired, and dominated by fervent Pentecostalism.  It’s a story where the characters, not a predefined plot, dominate – in their personalities and in the intensity of their struggles.   The Baldwin figure, John Grimes, is coming of age  – newly distracted by women, at odds with his father (his stepfather, we later learn) over the patriarch’s strict religiosity,   and torn between the expectations demanded on him as the oldest son and what he wants to do. He is of age, and must begin to choose, for himself, whether he will follow the straight and narrow – or the winding, winsome Broadway down into hell.  This is is a choice faced by others before him and alongside him, and much of the novel shifts to telling the stories of John’s mother, father, stepfather, and aunt before returning to him again.  These characters are linked by race and religion,   frequently combining hatred for whites with burning religious zeal –  something decidedly odd for me to read,  having grown up in a mixed-race Pentecostal church.    Hypocrisy is a common element, especially in the life of John’s stepfather Gabriel,   who attempts to transform himself from a skirt-chasing drunk into a man of God – but is taunted by his sister, who declares that a man’s heart is never changed, but remains as it was.  As we’ll see, a zeal for preaching holiness doesn’t necessarily translate into living   I don’t know enough about Baldwin to understand fully what he’s driving at in his treatment of character, morality, and religion,  but anyone who has a few decades under their belt can appreciate that  the way of discipline and virtue has no guardrails: it is very easy to wander off the path, even for those who  want to stay on. I found Gabriel the most sympathetic character in the novel despite his mix of severity and moral cowardice. 

Kindle Highlights:

“Now you just remember,” Elder Peters said, as kindly as before, “you’s talking to your elders.”
“Then it seem to me,” he said, astonished at his boldness, “that if I got to look to you for a example, you ought to be a example.”

“Ain’t no such thing,” said Sister McCandless, “as a little fault or a big fault. Satan get his foot in the door, he ain’t going to rest till he’s in the room. You is in the Word or you ain’t—ain’t no halfway with God.”

“I thought I married a man with some get up and go to him, who didn’t just want to stay on the bottom all his life!”
“And what you want me to do, Florence? You want me to turn white?” This question always filled her with an ecstasy of hatred. She turned and faced him, and, forgetting that there was someone sitting in the parlor, shouted: “You ain’t got to be white to have some self-respect!”

“Deborah,” he asked, “what you been thinking all this time?” She smiled.
“I been thinking,” she said, “how you better commence to tremble when the Lord, He gives you your heart’s desire.”

And because it was stuck in my head the entire time I read this novel, here’s Mississippi John Hurt’s “You Got to Walk that Lonesome Valley”.

Now mother walked that lonesome valley
Now mother walked, she walked it by herself
Well there ain’t nobody else could ever walk it for her
She had to walk it, she had to walk it by herself

You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley
Well you gotta go by yourself
Well there ain’t nobody else gonna go there for you
You gotta go there by yourself

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
This entry was posted in Classics and Literary, Reviews and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Go Tell it on the Mountain

  1. Cyberkitten says:

    I have ‘Another Country’ by Baldwin which I’m hoping to get to this year.

    • You’ve read him before, I think? He’s not on my ‘of interest’ list, but I’ve heard his name enough that I figured I should try him.

      • Cyberkitten says:

        No. I haven’t read him. He seems like an interesting person from what I’ve seen of him during interviews. I like the way he constructs arguments.

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