James Baldwin was one of the most versatile and influential artists of the post-World War II generation, creating memorable short stories, novels, plays, essays and children's books. Go Tell It on the Mountain was his first published novel, and many critics feel that it is has stood as his best. It is a traditional bildungsroman, a novel tracing the psychological and spiritual development of its central character, John Grimes.
In the first chapter, John's family life, ruled by anger, poverty and guilt, is explored, leading to the fifth chapter, when, after night's religious service, John is accepted into his church's community because he has undergone a seizure-like conversion, writhing on the floor and speaking in foreign tongues. The middle chapters give the background stories of his aunt, his father, and his mother, who migrated to New York from the South and endured various difficulties that are reflected in John's life.
There is a strong autobiographical aspect to the novel, as many of the details in John's life mirror those in Baldwin's life, including his impoverished upbringing in Harlem, his angry vitriolic father, his fascination with an older male church member and his religious conversion at age fourteen. Explaining how writing his first novel helped him come to terms with the troubled he faced growing up, Baldwin said, "Mountain was the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else."