Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin’s first published novel, tells a passionate story closely paralleling the author’s own family background. It focuses on John Grimes, a black boy growing up in a religious home in Harlem under the stern hand of his preacher father, Gabriel. The action of the novel takes place in 1936, on John’s fourteenth birthday, with sections detailing previous events in the lives of John’s aunt Florence, his father, and his mother, Elizabeth.
Florence is a strident and bitter woman who left her ailing mother and irresponsible younger brother to come North. She married a man named Frank, who abused and abandoned her, and now she approaches old age feeling empty, living alone, and sharing in the life of her brother’s family.
Gabriel, her brother, had been a wild young man, but he repented, became a preacher, and married a fallen woman named Deborah. Succumbing to temptation, however, he impregnated a young woman he worked with and then refused to acknowledge his paternity. He watched his son Royal grow before his eyes and heard of the boy’s violent death in a knife fight. Gabriel drifted in despair, his wife passed on, and he came to New York to begin a new life. There he met Elizabeth.
Elizabeth was nine when her mother died, and, because her father ran a brothel, she went to live with her aunt in Maryland. There she fell in love with a young man named Richard; they moved to New York....
(The entire section is 587 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Go Tell It on the Mountain describes a long day in the life of John Grimes, who awakens on his fourteenth birthday as the novel opens. He hopes that someone will remember that this day in March, 1935, is a special one, his day. Only his mother remembers; she gives him a chance to be by himself for the day.
During the day, John, who is given to introspection, ponders his life and what he wants to make of it. Religion and art are the two contradictory impulses that seem to war for control over his future. The spiritual and physical attraction he feels toward Brother Elisha, a young preacher in his church, also torments him.
John comes by his ambivalence naturally. It is a condition perhaps destined for him by the nature of his birth. He is the illegitimate son of Elizabeth and Richard. His mother seeks solace for her misery from religion, but her lover, John’s father, self-taught and street articulate, favors art over the ignorance of Christianity. Consequently, the child of their union is torn between the sensual life of the artist and the more ascetic life of a preacher and leader. The conflict is further symbolized in his attraction to Brother Elisha, who becomes his spiritual father in ways that his step-father, the Reverend Gabriel Grimes, cannot. John’s plight is developed not through dense plotting but rather through a psychological portrait of him and his family.
What action there is arises from recollection. The novel is divided into three parts. The first, “The Seventh Day,” is an exploration of John’s psyche. For readers to understand fully this complicated young man, Baldwin must explain his family history. Part 2, entitled “The Prayers of the Saints,” includes, therefore, the stories of his family elders. Florence, his stepaunt and Gabriel’s sister, bitterly resents her wayward brother, who as their mother’s favorite avoids the labor and drudgery that is a daughter’s due. “It became Florence’s deep ambition to walk out one morning through the cabin door, never to return.” When her mother falls mortally ill, that is...
(The entire section is 860 words.)
Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Set in Harlem in 1935 and spanning approximately twenty-four hours, James Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, depicts John Grimes, a poor African American youth, on the threshold of accepting Jesus as his savior. Baldwin presents John’s story, a Bildungsroman, in three sections. Section 1 begins on John’s fourteenth birthday. His mother Elizabeth gives him money to buy himself a present. Away from home, John experiences the sensuousness of the temporal world. Walking idly around the city, John enjoys freedom from the religious strictures imposed by his parents. However, even as he appreciates this freedom, he knows the world is full of evil temptations. He stands on the threshold between secular experience and Christian salvation. In the evening, John goes to church, where he’s joined by Elisha, his enthusiastic and warmhearted Sunday school teacher, a boy only slightly older than John. Church elders arrive and ask John if he is ready to be saved. John is ambivalent but drawn to the prospect. Focused on John’s salvation, the elders begin praying, chanting, and singing.
Section 2 tells, in flashback, the stories of Florence, Gabriel, and Elizabeth. Though raised a Christian, Florence is a skeptic. As the Latin root of her name (flora) suggests, she is like a flower: temporal, uninterested in metaphysical questions. Her primary concern is material gain, so she leaves the rural South to find a husband to provide her a better life. Her mother and brother Gabriel beg her to stay, but Florence refuses. Justifiably, the townspeople believe Florence thinks that she is too good to marry somebody “down home.” In the North, she marries Frank, a good-natured man satisfied with being a simple laborer. His inability to improve their lifestyle leads them to separate after ten years of marriage. Florence never remarries.
A carouser in his youth, Gabriel is saved at twenty-one years of age after a night of drinking and whoring. Outwardly, his conversion appears sincere. He becomes a stern evangelist, preaching heartlessly of God’s retribution for sinners. Baldwin’s use of the name “Gabriel” is ironic. In the Bible, Gabriel is an...
(The entire section is 902 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
It is John’s fourteenth birthday, but he does not feel pleased. He is worried that no one will remember his birthday or help him to celebrate it in any way. He is surprised when his mother, Elizabeth, recognizes the special day and offers him two different kinds of gifts. The first is money; the second is the opportunity to spend the day without interference from the rest of the family. He can be alone if he chooses.
John has already accomplished the chores to which he is assigned, so he is free to experience uninterrupted adult events. He decides to go to the theater in Harlem, across Sixth Avenue, which he feels is an adventure. For John, it is a mature and independent thing to do. Even this decision, however, is not made without reflection; for him, it represents a kind of release from the protectiveness of his mother, in whom he finds a sense of security. It also represents, however, a release from the tyranny that he experiences from his stepfather, Gabriel, in whom he no longer has any confidence or trust. He has always felt that Gabriel favors his own children, such as John’s stepbrother, Roy.
When John returns home from the theater, he encounters a family tragedy. Roy has been injured in a race-oriented gang war. Stepfather Gabriel, as usual, does not blame Roy and, when he focuses his anger on Elizabeth, Roy defends her. Although John realizes that he is not the cause of this event, he is also not surprised when Gabriel takes out his anger on him as well, repeating his frequent criticisms of John. It is time for church, and John leaves the house to meet with the young preacher, Elisha.
Elisha is seventeen, and John is drawn to him, not only spiritually but also physically and emotionally. Elisha seems to provide many havens and refuges for John. During the church service this day, John is prayed for by other members and has a “peak experience,” a religious conversion or redirection. He then formally offers himself to God.
John’s church experience also includes the prayers of his family members. Each prayer reveals much about its speaker, as well as implying reasons for each speaker’s different relationship with John. During the service, John turns away from Gabriel, and Elisha gives him a kiss on his forehead. Since his stepfather does not seem to affirm his conversion, John looks increasingly to both Elisha and Elizabeth for the affirmations he...
(The entire section is 986 words.)