Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 713

Critical praise for the success of Go Tell It on the Mountain has not faded since 1953, when the book was first published. One of the earliest reviews, by J. Saunders Redding in The New York Herald Tribune Book Review told potential readers that the book was more than just entertaining, and that "even the most insensitive of readers will put the book down with a troubled feeling of having 'looked on beauty bare.'"

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While even the most insensitive of critics has recognized Baldwin's great achievement of having vividly recreated the life and times of a young African-American boy in Harlem, the problem facing critics has been in analyzing the book's significance. Early examinations, in keeping with the prevalence of racial segregation in the early 1950s, showed a fascination with the depiction of Harlem, and therefore early reviewers tended to group it with other novels by blacks at the time. An example is the review written by Granville Hicks in 1953 in the New Leader that mentioned that "[t]he other talented Negro artists Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright have recently written about Negroes without writing novels of protest." Hicks' review maintained that Baldwin's book was not primarily about race, but yet he categorized Baldwin with Wright and Ellison, viewing him as a black writer at the same time he tried to play down race.

The technique of bringing race up while denying that race is an issue provided the lead for Richard K. Barksdale's 1953 essay "Temple of the Fire Baptized," which began, "James Baldwin has written a very fine first novel. It is a story by a Negro, about Negroes, set in a predominantly Negro environment; and yet it is not essentially a 'Negro' novel." By 1958, the country had come face-to-face with the fact that segregation caused an unjust society: the Supreme Court had found segregation of public schools unconstitutional; Dr. King had led the boycott of the Montgomery bus system; and the President had sent federal troops to Arkansas to overrule state troops who were trying to obstruct integration. Critics stopped being concerned about which novels by black authors could rightly be considered "novels of protest" because protest was out in the open and no longer hidden in the pages of literature.

Robert Bone's 1958 essay "James Baldwin," revised when it was included in his 1965 book The Negro Novel In America, unquestionably found race to be the most significant factor in Go Tell It on the Mountain: "The overwhelming fact of Baldwin's childhood was his victimization by the white power structure," he wrote, reflecting the times, using a phrase ("white power structure") that would not have been available to the novel's first reviewers.

As the 1960s progressed, race relations became even more of a topic for front pages, and, consequently, less fertile territory for reviewers. Analyses of Go Tell It on the Mountain tended to look at its less obvious themes, such as the Freudian relationship between John and Gabriel and the homo-erotic one between John and Elisha, or the subculture of the evangelical church in Harlem. Edward Margolies traced the objective distance gained by the passage of fifteen years since the novel's publication: "This is in a sense Baldwin's most ambitious book, in that he endeavors here not only to interconnect the lives and psychology of all the characters but also to relate the Southern Negro experience and the consequent of urban slum living."

In the 1970s Shirley S. Allen dismisses the earlier critics who had overemphasized the cultural significance of the novel: it deserved, she said, "a higher place in critical esteem than it generally has been accorded. Although critics have recognized its widespread appeal, often asserting that it is Baldwin's best work, and although teachers of literature have incorporated it into the standard literature, they assume that the work is primarily important as an interpretation of 'the black experience,' comparing it with Invisible Man, Native Son and Baldwin's own essays." Those essays, written mostly in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, may be what eventually drew readers away from looking at it as a novel about race, because the author showed so much awareness of race in his nonflction writing, leaving literary critics to examine instead areas like psychology and religion, where they might hope to turn up new ideas.

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