Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Book Review: Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin (1953)

Cover of the paperback reissue of Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin, 1953. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

James Baldwin, 1963.
James Baldwin’s first book was 1953’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, a novel about an African American family living in Harlem. Set in 1935, the novel’s main character is John Grimes, who turns fourteen on the day that the action of the novel occurs. Go Tell It on the Mountain opens on the Saturday of John’s birthday, and then, as his family prays in church, we flash back and get the background stories of John’s mother, stepfather, and aunt. 

Go Tell It on the Mountain is an impressive first novel, as Baldwin channels the voices of many different characters. By presenting their back stories these characters become more fully fleshed out. There are elements of autobiography in Go Tell It on the Mountain: Baldwin’s family structure mirrored that of John Grimes, as they both have preacher stepfathers who they have very difficult relationships with. (Baldwin himself was a junior minister as a teenager.) Baldwin could have taken the easy way out and just made Go Tell It on the Mountain a roman a clef, as many first novels seem to be, but by telling the story from multiple perspectives, he makes it a more compelling book.

While I admired the skill and artistry of Baldwin’s writing in Go Tell It on the Mountain, I must confess that the novel didn’t fully connect with me emotionally. Part of it was the suffocating Pentecostalism of the characters. I understand that Go Tell It on the Mountain is a novel that is heavily informed by religion, and part of the point of the novel is that the characters’ lives are deeply connected to religion. However, the Pentecostal experience, where people have vivid religious visions, see the Devil’s work around every corner, and separate the world into those who are “saved” and those who are “not saved,” is quite foreign to me. Personally, I find it a very narrow lens with which to view the world, and one that doesn’t leave much room for ambiguity in life.

I wanted to like Go Tell It on the Mountain more, because I’ve enjoyed Baldwin’s other writing, (I reviewed Baldwin’s books The Fire Next Time and No Name in the Street earlier in 2016) and it has a reputation as a classic novel. I’m still glad I read it, in part because it was the first work of a major American writer.

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