Go Tell It on the Mountain

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 914

John Grimes wants to be a man standing on his own; at the same time, he wants his father, Gabriel, to love him. He feels oppressed by his father and by his circumstances as a black youth in New York during the Depression. To achieve manhood, he must either accept...

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John Grimes wants to be a man standing on his own; at the same time, he wants his father, Gabriel, to love him. He feels oppressed by his father and by his circumstances as a black youth in New York during the Depression. To achieve manhood, he must either accept his heritage or embrace a world he instinctively feels is evil: the materialistic and oppressive white world.

In order to accept his heritage in the religious terms he understands, he must come to terms with his father, the prophet and preacher. To John, it appears that Gabriel loves neither John nor his mother. John both loves and hates Gabriel; he wants to kneel before God but not before his father.

Gabriel is a hard and passionate man who sees himself as chosen by God to found a long line of preachers of the true gospel. Gabriel has made himself hard in order to control his strong desires for worldly pleasure. If Gabriel does love his wife and stepson, it is with the stern love of a judging God rather than the forgiving love of Jesus. Gabriel seems to reserve tenderness for his wayward, natural son, Roy. Gabriel prefers that Roy continue the line of preachers and resents the fact that John is more likely to be a preacher.

In the third of the novel’s three parts, John experiences a religious conversion. Though this conversion does not make his father love him as John hopes it may, it allows John to feel compassion for Gabriel and for all suffering people whose hearts’ desires conflict with their souls’ aspirations.

Baldwin has drawn on his childhood in Harlem to give authenticity to his story. Because John, Gabriel, and other family members are so fully and deeply portrayed, this is a powerful first novel. Though the religious experiences of these characters may seem sectarian, they are really universal. All of the major characters are trying to build and sustain community in the face of dehumanizing oppression. Their particular version of Christianity is an effective response to being captives in a racist culture.

Bibliography

Baldwin, James. Conversations with James Baldwin. Edited by Fred Standley and Louis H. Pratt. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. The conversations are the widest-ranging collection in one book. Their subject areas are broad, including race, hatred, sex, the new South, and the role of the writer. The interviewers include a similarly broad array of writers, philosophers, and people in political and social movements, such as Studs Terkel, David Frost, Nat Hentoff, and Josephine Baker.

Campbell, James. Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin. New York: Viking Press, 1991. Baldwin himself gave the author his title for this biography, which purports to be a description of the writer’s life. It is an elegantly written work, one that draws effectively on documentary evidence and on the memories of Baldwin’s friends and acquaintances.

Gibson, Donald B., ed. Five Black Writers: Essays on Wright, Ellison, Baldwin, Hughes, and LeRoi Jones. New York: New York University Press, 1970. There are four excellent chapters on Baldwin’s work, including his philosophy of being, his interpretation of the African American community in relation to the larger American society, and defenses of his work in response to critics.

Inge, M. Thomas, Maurice Duke, and Jackson Bryer, eds. Black American Writers: Bibliographical Essays. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978. The long segment on Baldwin not only reviews his major works, including Go Tell It on the Mountain, but also includes his additional manuscripts and interviews that he granted about his writings.

Köllhofer, Jakob J., ed. James Baldwin: His Place in American Literary History and His Reception in Europe. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Peter Lang, 1991. This collection of essays by a polyglot group of European literary critics and theorists is, in effect, a festschrift on the occasion of Baldwin’s death. It includes the results of a symposium of international scholars who assess the impact of Baldwin, the man, and his work on European readers. Of particular interest to this group of scholars is Baldwin’s representation of African Americans to European readers.

Porter, Horace A. Stealing the Fire: The Art and Protest of James Baldwin. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1989. Inspired by the author’s dissertation, this book is a series of thoughtful, critical essays on Baldwin’s early works and ideas and professes to reinterpret his “genesis as a writer.” Essentially, Porter finds in the early works Baldwin’s ambivalence as a writer and as a black man.

Standley, Fred L., and Nancy V. Burt, eds. Critical Essays on James Baldwin. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. Contains an excellent introductory essay on the literature of Baldwin studies. It serves as a survey of some of the principal sources for the study of Baldwin, together with the discussion of the evolution of Baldwin criticism. It contains general essays as well as essays on his fiction, nonfiction, and drama. Of particular interest are essays by Fred Stanley and Shirley Allen on Go Tell It on the Mountain.

Weatherby, W. J. James Baldwin: Artist on Fire. New York: Donald I. Fine, 1989. A biographical “portrait” of Baldwin based on conversations and interviews with his friends as well as the recollections of Weatherby, who knew him for more than twenty-eight years. This biography takes as its starting point and theme the mystical view that Baldwin had of his life. It also is particularly instructive on the autobiographical aspects of Go Tell it on the Mountain.

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