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. Richard, wrongly accused of robbery, took his own life, leaving Elizabeth behind, alone and pregnant with John. Through Florence she met Gabriel, newly arrived from the South. They married, and Gabriel promised to treat John as his own. He preferred their other children, however, above all the fiery Roy, to his docile and pensive stepson, John.
The character of Gabriel is a sharper version of Baldwin’s own father, and, accordingly, his sternness and coldness elicit John’s hatred. Everyone assumes that John will become a preacher like Gabriel, but, approaching manhood, John is having deep religious doubts. He is also feeling guilt over the sin of masturbation and is subtly becoming aware of his admiration for and attraction to Elisha, another young man in the church.
During the course of the day depicted in the novel, John’s younger brother Roy is slashed in a fight, Gabriel strikes Elizabeth in anger, and Florence confronts Gabriel with his past in the form of a pained letter from his long-dead first wife. The novel’s central action, however, is John’s personal journey, culminating in the climactic third part titled “On the Threshing Floor.” Through a long night in the family’s church, the Temple of the Fire Baptized, John experiences a frenzy of fear, inspiration, and awakening, a spiritual rite of passage before his family and congregation, in which he gives himself over to powers outside himself, infused as they are with familial and racial history, and begins to see the road he must travel.
The action of Go Tell It on the Mountain is not expansive; rather, it focuses on inner turmoils and private moments. Time moves slowly, and the interspersed flashbacks elucidate present moments or events. Through the accumulation of information, Baldwin slowly brings into focus how centuries of racial oppression—slavery, injustice, rape, violence—have shaped the lives of one Harlem family and how the complex family picture affects a sensitive young man at a crucial juncture in his life.
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...
(The entire section is 1,447 words.)