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.)
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.)