Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Harlem. Predominantly African American neighborhood in New York City’s Upper Manhattan. Harlem is the scene of the real-time narrative of the novel, an urban community in which the lives of the central characters intertwine. Harlem is also symbolic of the historic northward migration of African Americans seeking escape from the Jim Crow South in the early twentieth century. As a physical marker of historical transition, Harlem symbolizes an ambiguous free space for the Grimes family, providing the sanctuary of a black-defined neighborhood in America, but also signifying restricted space on another level for the characters. For example, when John Grimes and his biological father, Richard, try to create a life outside the boundaries of Harlem, they must struggle with external racial barriers and internalized mental barriers to do so.
*American South. As a region, the South resonates with symbolic importance in the memories, prayers, and visions of the novel’s characters. None of the real-time action of the novel occurs in the South; however, the South is symbolic of the psychological and historical origins of the Grimes family and other key characters. The South also works symbolically on other levels. It signifies the legacy of slavery in American history, with all of its physical, mental, spiritual and political implications for the characters, for African American history, and for the...
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The Rise of Harlem
The Harlem area of New York City, where the Grimes family resides, is internationally famous as a predominantly African-American neighborhood with a rich cultural history spanning back to the beginning of the twentieth century. The first great wave of blacks started migrating to New York in the 1890s. Like Gabriel and Florence, this was the generation that had been born after slavery ended in 1865, the children of freed slaves in the South—a generation with a greater sense of freedom than any before them. Between 1890 and 1910, the black population in New York City tripled.
At first Harlem was planned as an upscale neighborhood for wealthy blacks, but an economic depression in 1904-1905 cut off money for investment and development. Huge apartments that were meant for wealthy families were cut up with makeshift walls or rented to several families to live in together. Blacks arriving in New York City almost always ended up in Harlem, where they were allowed a degree of peace they were not given anywhere else. They migrated from the South, where Jim Crow laws made it legal to keep blacks at economic disadvantage and where violence against blacks was left unpunished. They arrived from Panama, where thousands of workers from the West Indies had been transplanted to...
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The setting of this novel—the impoverished part of New York known as Harlem, and more specifically the storefront church within the Harlem community—was undoubtedly a key reason for the book's popularity upon its first publication, giving intellectuals an inside look at a world not many of them had known. This setting may be the reason some people read Go Tell It on the Mountain today, even with the inner city well documented by television cameras. The important thing about this setting, though, is that it is integral to the personality of the characters, affecting them and being formed by who they are. The adult members of the Grimes family, for instance, all came to New York for different reasons.
Florence came first, thirty years earlier, rebelling against the limitations put on her as a woman; Gabriel to escape the deaths of his illegitimate son and his barren wife; and Elizabeth came with hope and love for Richard. The fact that three such diverse characters end up in the same small section of town says much about how narrowed opportunities for African-Americans were. Similarly, the fact that they all attend the Temple of the Fire Baptized despite their different reasons (Florence in despair, Gabriel to control and Elizabeth with true religious devotion) helps define the narrowness of the options each character has.
John is a true son of New York. He goes to Central Park to feel...
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Go Tell It on the Mountain employs many of the techniques of autobiographical fiction. The author's natural familiarity with the characters and with their milieu leads to heightened subjectivity on the characters' parts, for the autobiographical author is more comfortable dealing directly with his characters' thoughts. Thus, the reader gets the characters' stories from the inside, and is much more intimately connected to them than to characters in a more conventional, objective narrative form.
Baldwin also makes extensive use of flashbacks, compressing the lives of his characters into one day by having them remember events from the past.
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If Baldwin's fiction seems suffused with social issues, they are there primarily because they exist in the lives of his characters. Baldwin writes first about the human problems associated with living in the modern world, about the difficulty of balancing the pressure to conform with the need to establish an individual identity, about the inflexibility of Western culture, and about its inability to accommodate the individual when the individual differs from the norm. Since the characters in Go Tell It on the Mountain are black people deeply involved in religion, their concerns are centered on the church's inability to solve worldly problems and on the political and socioeconomic situation of blacks during the 1930s and 1940s (the novel is set in 1935, but is autobiographical and chronicles Baldwin's experiences in the 1940s).
The blacks' socioeconomic trap, set up by the dominant white society, works several cruel ironies on the inhabitants of Harlem. Forced to adopt the values of white society, these people find themselves betrayed by hope. In an attempt to conform and thereby succeed, they must deny their culture, their own deep-seated values, even their blackness. All energies focus on escaping from the harsh setting of Harlem, and yet there seems to be no permanent escape. Sex, drugs and alcohol, and religion are the only generally available escapes this novel offers its characters. To try any other route is to court disaster by stepping across...
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Compare and Contrast
1935: America was, like most of the world, in the midst of a long economic depression, which began with the collapse of the stock market on October 29, 1929 and lingered into the early 1940s.
1953: The United States economy finally absorbed the returning veterans from World War II reaching the lowest unemployment rate since the war ended in 1945.
Today: The stock market reaches new highs every month, which keeps production high and unemployment low.
1935: Adolph Hitler, having become the chancellor of Germany two years earlier, began exercising the dictatorial control that would eventually lead to the extermination of millions of Jews as part of his government's "Final Solution."
1953: Josef Stalin died. He had ruled the Soviet Union since 1928, and there are unconfirmed estimates that his government killed as many millions of citizens as were killed during the Nazi Holocaust.
Today: Mass murders by governments against various ethnic groups continues, including 250,000 killed in Bosnia in 1995 and 150,000 Tutsi civilians killed in Rwanda.
1935: Crime syndicates that established their power during Prohibition (1920 to 1933) continued to do battle with the government, making legends out of criminals such as Al Capone, John...
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Topics for Further Study
The adult characters in this book have moved to New York from the South, a move that was common among blacks m the early decades of the twentieth century. Choose a major northern industrial town, such as Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, or New York, and research the migration patterns of blacks to that city. Explain such details as how many people came from what states and how their arrival affected the city's political structure.
Storefront evangelical churches like the Temple of the Fire Baptized portrayed are a staple of American religion. Find out about one and report on its history, its structure, its membership, etc. If you live in a place that does not have any small churches like this one, do your report on a television ministry or one that is conducted over the internet.
While spiritual hymns represent an important part of church life in this novel, the greatest musical influence seems to be when John, as an infant, is transfixed by the blues music that is playing in the hall of Florence's building. Explain the historical relationship between gospel music and blues, showing the evolution of each.
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James Baldwin, Author, a videocassette from the Black Americans of Achievement collection, available from Schlessinger Video, 1994.
James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket, a video-cassette, available from California Newsreel, 1990.
My Childhood: Hubert Humphrey and James Baldwin. Videocassette of a 1964 motion picture from Benchmark Films, 1989.
The View From Here: A National Press Club Address by James Baldwin. Audio cassette available from Spoken Arts, 1988.
James Baldwin: An Interview with Kay Bonetti is an audio cassette available from American Audio Prose Library, 1984.
James Baldwin, an audio cassette from Tapes for Readers, 1979.
The Struggle, by James Baldwin. This is a record album from Buddha Records, #BDS2004,1960.
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What Do I Read Next?
Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison's 1992 novel Jazz takes place in Harlem in the 1920s and gives a stylized sense of how the community felt and operated.
James Baldwin is even more respected as one of the great essayists of his time than for his fiction. The comprehensive collection The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985, offers the best of Baldwin's works in one huge volume.
In December 1971, Baldwin appeared on the television show "Soul" with young rising poet Nikki Giovanni, known then for her militant stand on racial issues. The transcript of their conversation about the state of race relations in America was published as a book in 1973 titled A Dialog. A similarly interesting conversation, also transcribed to book form in 1971, is A Rap On Race, which renders the exchange between Baldwin and white anthropologist Margaret Mead.
In 1989, after James Baldwin's death, Simon & Schuster published a collection of essays, poems, and memoirs about him from writers whose life he had touched. The collection, James Baldwin: The legacy, contains short works by such well-known authors as Toni Morrison Amiri Baraka William Styron
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Shirley Allen, "Religious Symbolism and Psychic Reality in Baldwin's Go Tell It On The Mountain" in CLA Journal, Vol. XDC, No 2, December, 1975, pp. 173-99.
Richard K. Barksdale, "Temple of the Fire Baptized," in Phylon, Vol. 14, 1953, pp 326-27.
Robert Bone, "James Baldwin," in The Negro Novel in America, rev. ed, Yale University Press, 1965, pp 215-39.
Granville Hicks, "Go Tell It On The Mountain," in Literary Horizons: A Quarter Century of American Fiction, New York University Press, 1970, pp 87-90.
James de Jongh, Vicious Modernism: Black Harlem and the Literary Imagination, Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp 5-33.
Edward Margolies, "The Negro Church James Baldwin and the Christian Vision," in Native Sons: A Critical Study of Twentieth-Century Negro American Authors, J. B Lippin-cott Company, 1968, pp 102-26.
J. Saunders Redding, "Go Tell It On The Mountain," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, May 17, 1953, p 5.
For Further Studv
Robert A. Bone, "The Novels of James Baldwin," in Tri-Quarterly, Winter, 1965, pp. 3-20.
Bone suggests that in Go Tell It On The Mountain Baldwin "approaches the very essence of Negro experience" and presents a "psychic drama"...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Baldwin, James. Conversations with James Baldwin. Edited by Fred Standley and Louis H. Pratt. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. The conversations are the widest-ranging collection in one book. Their subject areas are broad, including race, hatred, sex, the new South, and the role of the writer. The interviewers include a similarly broad array of writers, philosophers, and people in political and social movements, such as Studs Terkel, David Frost, Nat Hentoff, and Josephine Baker.
Campbell, James. Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin. New York: Viking, 1991. Examines Baldwin’s life and writing in the context of the Civil Rights movement, his abandonment of Christianity, and his relationships with other major writers.
Gibson, Donald B., ed. Five Black Writers: Essays on Wright, Ellison, Baldwin, Hughes, and LeRoi Jones. New York: New York University Press, 1970. There are four excellent chapters on Baldwin’s work, including his philosophy of being, his interpretation of the African American community in relation to the larger American society, and defenses of his work in response to critics.
Inge, M. Thomas, Maurice Duke, and Jackson Bryer, eds. Black American Writers: Bibliographical Essays. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978....
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