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James Baldwin once described his novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, as "the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else."1
To understand why James Baldwin is one of American literature's most renowned writers, you should begin with his first book, Go Tell It on the Mountain. This semi-autobiographical novel, published in 1953, offers many insights into Baldwin's life and introduces the reader to important reoccurring themes in his work. It remains one of Baldwin's most celebrated books and is considered one of the great American novels of the 20th century.
Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin tells the story of fourteen-year-old John Grimes, a boy growing up in Harlem in the 1930s. John is the oldest of four children, and the novel takes place over the course of his fourteenth birthday. The book is largely a coming-of-age story as John tries to navigate his family dynamic, his changing body, and his spiritual confusion.
The novel takes place in one 24-hour period. However, Baldwin uses flashbacks and shifts in perspective to reveal other characters' pasts, including Gabriel, Elizabeth, and Florence.
The book is divided into three parts, with the second part again divided into three sections. Each part is narrated in the third person, and Baldwin shifts the focus to different characters in each section.
Some important themes include religion, race, violence, family, guilt, and sexuality.
Go Tell It on the Mountain is a semi-autobiographical novel. It is loosely based on Baldwin's own childhood growing up in Harlem and his relationship with his religious and violent father.
What else do you know about the biography of James Baldwin that you can see referenced in Go Tell It on the Mountain?
Part One is told from the perspective of fourteen-year-old John Grimes. He wakes up on his birthday, musing about his family's Sunday church routine and contemplating for the first time the long-held assumption that he will become a preacher like his father. John worries, however, that his religious conviction is not strong enough. He worries about his sins, his inability to pay attention in Sunday school, and his sense that he does not feel the same joy he sees others experiencing during the services.
Although it is his birthday, John doubts that anyone in his family will remember the day's significance. His doubts seem to be confirmed as his siblings bicker over breakfast and his mother sends him off to do his chores. But, after cleaning the house, John's mother, Elizabeth, presents him with a few coins and tells him to buy himself something for his birthday.
After some consideration as he wanders the streets of Harlem, John chooses to use the money for a movie ticket even though his father forbids it, and he worries that a member of the congregation will see him as he enters the theater.
John returns home to find that his younger brother, Roy, has been injured in a fight. Gabriel, John's stepfather, tends to the boy with uncharacteristic gentleness; that is, until he turns his aggression on his wife, blaming her for not keeping a close enough eye on her son. He slaps her, causing Roy to defend his mother. Gabriel then beats his injured son until Florence, his sister, intervenes.
The section closes with John arriving at the church to clean before the Saturday night service. Elisha, an older boy and youth minister John greatly admires, joins him.
Part Two of Go Tell It on the Mountain is divided into three sections.
This section is told from the point of view of Florence, John's aunt. It takes the reader back in time as Florence remembers growing up with Gabriel. Their mother was formerly enslaved and, after losing several children to auction or death, she pours all of her hopes into her only remaining son, Gabriel. Florence resents her mother's favoritism towards Gabriel as he does not appreciate the opportunities given to him and instead spends his time causing trouble. Finally, Florence leaves her family to move to New York.
This section is told from Gabriel's point of view and takes the reader back in time to recount when Gabriel was saved after Florence's departure for New York motivated him to stop drinking and begin preaching. Following the death of their mother, a woman named Deborah, who the community shunned following a brutal rape, begins to support and care for Gabriel. Eventually, the two are married.
Cries of worship interrupt Gabriel's thoughts, and he worries that they are coming from John, his stepson. The thought that John might be saved before his own biological son irritates Gabriel. This leads him to remember an affair with a woman named Ester, who bore his illegitimate son before she died in childbirth.
The point of view shifts to John again, who is attempting to pray. However, his thoughts continue to drift towards questioning the nature of salvation and his relationship with his stepfather.
Elizabeth's story begins after the death of her mother. Her father, who ran a brothel, is considered an inappropriate guardian by Elizabeth's aunt. Despite Elizabeth's protests, the aunt takes the young girl away with her. Later, Elizabeth falls in love with Richard, a young man working at a grocery store, and the two leave for New York together. Elizabeth becomes pregnant, but Richard is arrested on suspicion of robbery. Although he is not convicted, Richard is beaten for refusing to sign a confession, and he kills himself before Elizabeth can tell him that she is pregnant.
The section ends back in the present, as Elizabeth watches John on the floor of the church in the middle of a religious experience.
Part Three of Go Tell It on the Mountain returns to the perspective of John, who is in the midst of a religious experience. Through a series of hallucinations, John finds salvation and is finally filled with the religious joy he has been seeking.
As the group leaves the church to walk home, Florence confronts Gabriel about a letter revealing the existence of his bastard son and promises to tell Elizabeth his secret. Meanwhile, John speaks with Elisha as they continue to walk home.
The following is a list of important characters in James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain.
John Grimes is the novel's protagonist. Other key characters are Gabriel, Florence, and Elizabeth.
Their singing caused him to believe in the presence of the Lord; indeed, it was no longer a question of belief, because they made that presence real.
At the beginning of the novel, John experiences a series of religious doubts, and he worries that he does not feel the same joy that he sees others experiencing in the church. In this passage, John watches as worship transforms his fellow churchgoers, and while he still does not feel what they seem to feel, the way it transforms them makes him sure of God's presence.
It was not only colored people who praised John, since they could not, John felt, in any case really know; but white people also said it, in fact had said it first and said it still. It was when John was five years old and in the first grade that he was first noticed; and since he was noticed by an eye altogether alien and impersonal, he began to perceive, in wild uneasiness, his individual existence.
John does well in school, and his achievement is recognized by teachers and other members of his community. For John, this recognition represents a way for him to distinguish himself from his father and make his own way in life. The above passage is interesting because it illustrates an important difference between John and his father, Gabriel. John embraces the praise he receives from his white teachers, perhaps as a way to rebel against his father's insistent animosity towards white people. On the other hand, it also illustrates John's belief that the praise he receives from white people is somehow more valid than recognition from Black people in his community.
The rebirth of the soul is perpetual; only rebirth every hour could stay the hand of Satan.
In this passage, Elisha is overcome by the power of the Lord on the threshing floor. Gabriel is woken from his reverie by Elisha's shouts, and one of the Sisters rises to help Elisha pray. The idea of the perpetual need to rebirth the soul highlights the constant necessity of the church in the community. It also refers to the importance of the community in assisting with this ceaseless rebirth. This is demonstrated as Sister McCandless helps Elisha to pray in this scene.
His mind was like the sea itself: troubled, and too deep for the bravest man's descent, throwing up now and again, for the naked eye to wonder at, treasure and debris long forgotten on the bottom—bones and jewels, fantastic shells, jelly that had once been flesh, pearls that had once been eyes. And he was at the mercy of this sea, hanging there with darkness all around him.
As John tries to pray on the threshing floor, he is overcome with hatred for his father and the desire to foster and embrace this hatred, even wishing that his father will die. Because of the turbulence of his thoughts, John finds that he cannot pray. Although he is at the mercy of his evil thoughts, he realizes that he doesn't mind; he is sure that, somewhere in his confusion, there is something he needs to discover.
Religion is central to the novel. The title itself comes from an old African American spiritual song, and the names of several characters, such as John and Gabriel, carry biblical connotations. The plot of the novel centers around John's path to salvation as well as the other characters' experiences with religion.
Many characters share complicated family relationships, but the central family conflict is the father-son relationship between John and Gabriel. Although John does not know it, Gabriel is not his biological father, and this complicates their relationship. The novel also demonstrates many variations of familial relationships. This includes the relationships between Gabriel, Florence, and their mother and those between Elizabeth, her father, and her aunt.
The character's understanding of religion and sin also plays an important role in familial relationships. John's status as a bastard child and his mother's as a woman who had a child out of wedlock are used by Gabriel to affirm his authority and moral superiority over them, despite having fathered a bastard child himself. In John's religious experience at the end of the novel, he gains a degree of clarity on these family dynamics. Gabriel appears in his vision, and John stands up to his father for the first time. Finally, John sees Gabriel for who he truly is, a sinner himself.
Although not as central to the novel as in Baldwin's other works, race is an important theme in Go Tell It on the Mountain. Gabriel, in particular, demonstrates hostility towards white people, while John sometimes contradicts these views. There are also many examples of racially motivated violence, such as Deborah's rape and Richard's beating.
In many respects, Go Tell It on the Mountain is a coming-of-age story that follows the physical, emotional, and spiritual growth of John. Although the novel covers only 24 hours in John's life, his spiritual experience at the end of the story is a clear marker of moving into life as a man.
There is a proliferation of violence in the novel. Much of it is perpetrated by Gabriel, but other examples include Roy's knife injury, Deborah's rape, and the beating and suicide of Richard. Many of these acts of violence are racially motivated.
Many characters deal with significant guilt throughout the novel. John feels guilty about the sins he believes he has committed, Gabriel feels guilty for his many transgressions, and Elizabeth feels guilty for not preventing Richard's suicide.
Sexuality is an important theme in the book, and it is closely related to ideas of guilt, violence, and religion. There are also undertones of homosexuality, including the eroticized portrayal of Elisha and John's thoughts of the older boys at school.
1 Rosset, Lisa. James Baldwin: Author. Grolier Inc., 1991.
The title of James Baldwin's novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, comes from an old gospel song of the same name. It refers to spreading the word about the birth of Christ.
According to Baldwin himself, Go Tell It on the Mountain was the book that he needed to write in order to come to terms with his childhood, particularly his troubled relationship with his father.
James Baldwin wrote the novel Go Tell It on the Mountain.
Go Tell It on the Mountain was published in 1953.
Go Tell It on the Mountain is the coming-of-age story of fourteen-year-old John Grimes, a boy living in Harlem, New York City. It takes place over the course of one day, but includes flashbacks that take the reader back in time to learn about the different members of the Grimes family.
Where does the title Go Tell It on the Mountain come from?
It comes from the an old gospel song of the same name.
What autobiographical elements can be found in Go Tell It on the Mountain?
Elements of Baldwin’s childhood in Harlem and his relationship with his father.
What is the name of John Grimes’ mother?
What is Part Two of Go Tell It on the Mountain called?
The Prayers of the Saints
When and where does Go Tell It on the Mountain take place?
In Harlem, New York City, in the 1930s.
How many parts is Go Tell It on the Mountain divided into?
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