Go Tell It on the Mountain

by James Baldwin

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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, and 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.


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Go Tell It on the Mountain describes a long day in the...

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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 precisely what she does. Even though she leaves the South and Gabriel behind, she keeps up with him, knows his sinfulness, and serves as a constant reminder of his hypocrisy.

The second “prayer” is that of Gabriel, whose story really begins when Florence leaves him to look after their mother. Saved, or “blood-washed” in Baldwin’s language, Gabriel becomes an accomplished preacher, one who moves his audience as much through the power of his rhetoric as through the depth of his emotionally charged Christian conviction. He marries Florence’s friend Deborah, a good, holy woman whom he respects for her saintliness but does not truly love as a man loves a wife. Deborah is barren, and Gabriel yearns for a son, “who would carry down the joyful line his father’s name, and who would work until the day of the second coming to bring about His Father’s Kingdom.” He begets such a son, Royal, by Esther, but overcome by remorse for his sin and regret for unfaithfulness to Deborah, he forsakes this illegitimate family. After Royal, Esther, and Deborah die, Gabriel is overcome by guilt, which eventually causes him to despise the son of his second wife, Elizabeth. It is no accident that in the brief retelling of Gabriel’s “prayer,” the biblical tone of the narrative becomes even more apparent.

Elizabeth’s “prayer” is the tale of her own spiritual torment and mental anguish. Reared by an unyielding aunt, Elizabeth is also in conflict over her memories of an absent father, a man who never came to rescue her from a loveless childhood. Richard comes into her life, and “from the moment he arrived until the moment of his death he had filled her life.” They meet again, up north, in “the city of destruction.” Elizabeth knows from the instance of her loving him that such passion will be her undoing, that its all-consuming intensity is an offense to God, that “being forced to choose between Richard and God, she could only, even with weeping, have turned away from God.”

Richard’s fate, that of the proud, intelligent Black man, is suicide in the face of White society’s indifferent cruelty. Elizabeth, pregnant and alone, agrees to marry Gabriel Grimes because he promises to take her child as his own.

He reneges on the promise and hates John from the beginning as a constant reminder of Elizabeth’s “pride, hatred, bitterness, lust—this folly, this corruption—of which her son was heir.” The circumstances of his birth are too similar to those of Gabriel’s own lost bastard child, Royal.

In the final part, “The Threshing Floor,” John’s soul is to be reaped for service to the Lord. The saints and elders gather to call him home. In a mystical, powerful climax, John falls comatose to the floor. He pleads with Jesus to save him from hatred, from sinfulness, and, perhaps most of all, from indecision. For all the saints, it is a night of testimony: Witnessing, or professing one’s sins, requires remembering.