Set in Harlem in 1935 and spanning approximately twenty-four hours, James Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, depicts John Grimes, a poor African American youth, on the threshold of accepting Jesus as his savior. Baldwin presents John’s story, a Bildungsroman, in three sections. Section 1 begins on John’s fourteenth birthday. His mother Elizabeth gives him money to buy himself a present. Away from home, John experiences the sensuousness of the temporal world. Walking idly around the city, John enjoys freedom from the religious strictures imposed by his parents. However, even as he appreciates this freedom, he knows the world is full of evil temptations. He stands on the threshold between secular experience and Christian salvation. In the evening, John goes to church, where he’s joined by Elisha, his enthusiastic and warmhearted Sunday school teacher, a boy only slightly older than John. Church elders arrive and ask John if he is ready to be saved. John is ambivalent but drawn to the prospect. Focused on John’s salvation, the elders begin praying, chanting, and singing.
Section 2 tells, in flashback, the stories of Florence, Gabriel, and Elizabeth. Though raised a Christian, Florence is a skeptic. As the Latin root of her name (flora) suggests, she is like a flower: temporal, uninterested in metaphysical questions. Her primary concern is material gain, so she leaves the rural South to find a husband to provide her a better life. Her mother and brother Gabriel beg her to stay, but Florence refuses. Justifiably, the townspeople believe Florence thinks that she is too good to marry somebody “down home.” In the North, she marries Frank, a good-natured man satisfied with being a simple laborer. His inability to improve their lifestyle leads them to separate after ten years of marriage. Florence never remarries.
A carouser in his youth, Gabriel is saved at twenty-one years of age after a night of drinking and whoring. Outwardly, his conversion appears sincere. He becomes a stern evangelist, preaching heartlessly of God’s retribution for sinners. Baldwin’s use of the name “Gabriel” is ironic. In the Bible, Gabriel is an...
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