Go Tell It on the Mountain

by James Baldwin

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Critical Context

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Baldwin is considered to be the heir to Richard Wright for giving a powerful voice to African Americans. Go Tell It on the Mountain is arguably his best work, one in which the self-pity and sentimentality of later novels are noticeably absent. It is, perhaps, best compared to his cogent, beautifully written essays, in which he also displays the ambiguities he felt as a black man, as a writer, and as a homosexual.

Of major interest to critics of his works have been the autobiographical elements of the novel. Baldwin himself was unclear on the issue, at one point remarking that his characters and plots are distortions and therefore true fictions but at another point revealing that he thought constantly about his own father in writing the novel. Certainly the themes of the book arose from Baldwin’s own life experiences, but the incidents in it are probably fabrications in the true meaning of the word. Such a gifted writer could not possibly rely on memory without elaboration.

It is in the context of Baldwin’s relationship with Richard Wright that several critics have approached Go Tell It on the Mountain. As his first novel, the book owes a considerable debt to Wright’s works. One critic even goes so far as to say that the novel is proof for Baldwin that he is worthy of standing in Wright’s shadow; once this work was accomplished, Baldwin could cast his own. Horace Porter finds Baldwin’s antecedents in the works of Wright, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Henry James. Others point out the Freudian nature of John Grimes’s situation, physical and psychological, and see the novel as a one-day coming-of-age for the young man. The symbol-packed language masks the true meaning of the novel as a young black man’s attempt to remove himself from the specific persecution of society by relocating his conflict on a more universal realm, that of his relationship to God and to history.

A more traditional interpretation holds that the novel is ironic in form and in meaning, that in spite of the falsity and corruption of the characters’ lives, the truth of God’s love, the object of all their yearning, is entirely validated and made manifest in John’s final bout of soul-searching. For those who subscribe to this construct, however, it would be well to remember the baleful glare of the cat who noses around the garbage can as John and his family leave the church.

The story of Richard’s unjust imprisonment and suicide has been crucial to evaluations of the novel’s standing in the history of African American literature. It is an egregious example of an issue that pervades the novel, that of the prejudice and destruction attendant to racism. Thus, Go Tell It on the Mountain achieves through plot, through language, through character, and through theme a portrait of a community bound together by religion and oppression.

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Critical Evaluation