January 6, 2008
James Baldwin: Go Tell It on the Mountain
This is one of those books which has been in the to-be-read pile for some time. Often those titles end up flattened beneath strata of newer acquisitions, as for me the lure of a new new book is always stronger than that of an old new one. But I had read and enjoyed Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Another Country some years ago, and with the imminent avalanche of new books for 2008 coming ever closer,
I plucked it bravely from the depths of the pile. It’s now or never.
In truth, one of the reasons I hadn’t read Go Tell It on the Mountain before was because it was Baldwin’s debut novel, published in 1953 when he was 29, and I thought How good can it be? And the answer is … good enough, and far more assured than a first book has any right to be.
The key is in Baldwin’s full-blooded style, which immerses us from the beginning in a flood of biblical language. The setting is Harlem, where fourteen-year-old John Grimes is following in his father’s footsteps to become a preacher at the Temple of the Fire Baptized. The only problem is that John hates his father Gabriel (who is anyway not really his father) and as a consequence everything he stands for. “His father could never be entirely the victor, for John cherished something that his father could not reach. It was his hatred and his intelligence that he cherished, the one feeding the other.” He half-envies his brother Roy, whose reputation as a black sheep and a lost cause at least affords him freedom:
Roy never knew his Sunday school lesson either, but it was different with Roy – no one really expected of Roy what was expected of John. Everyone was always praying that the Lord would change Roy’s heart, but it was John who was expected to be good, and to be a good example.
John, meanwhile, must look down on the “sinners” that the family passes on the way to church, and not think too hard about whether a little sin might have something to recommend it. In rejection of his father, John instead clings to his mother, whom he fears losing as he goes from being her only son to just one among a family of children:
He remembered only enough to be afraid each time her belly began to swell, knowing that each time the swelling began it would not end until she was taken from him, to come back with a stranger. Each time this happened she became a little more of a stranger herself.
Baldwin excels in moments like this, where the feelings of a child are rendered into elegant adult observations without stripping them of their raw truth. He also gives us a classic monstrous father in Gabriel, who of course turns out to be the most interesting character in the book, and not without a little sin of his own. In the central sections Baldwin takes Gabriel, his wife and his sister and opens up their pasts to the reader. The resulting effect, of wanting to forgive what we know, is not original but nonetheless highly effective. Forgiveness in fact is one Christian trait which Gabriel notably lacks (“Your Daddy beats you because he loves you”), and in his own past we see that his inflexible anger is really directed against himself – “he saw his guilt in everybody’s eyes” – and that his rejection of John’s independence of mind comes from a knowledge of what he himself might have had. John too knows that despite his father’s nominal position as “head deacon” in the Temple of the Fire Baptized, he’s really little more than “a holy handyman.”
With the central flashbacks, Go Tell It on the Mountain goes into wider society, and touches on less obvious issues like self-limiting behaviour by disadvantaged minorities. Florence, Gabriel’s sister and the only one who will stand up to him, remembers her husband:
‘But there’s lots of good in Frank. I just got to be patient and he’ll come along all right.’ To ‘come along’ meant he would change his ways and consent to be the husband she had travelled so far to find. It was he who, unforgivably, taught her that there are people in the world for whom ‘coming along’ is a perpetual process, people who are destined never to arrive. For ten years he came along, but when he left her he was the same man she had married. He had not changed at all.
The word “fire” recurs throughout the book, and sure enough the pages burn through with Baldwin’s anger at racism, religion, and broken communities. He also is brave enough to give the book not much direct plot – John’s struggle with his family and ‘his’ faith and how we got here, about sums it up – and an ending which chillingly recalls Nineteen Eighty-Four. At one point in the story John reflects upon a course of action, fearing that he might be going too far: “I can climb back up. If it’s wrong, I can always climb back up.” Later, in his aunt Florence’s past, we see her do the same as she buys a ticket to leave her home town: “she held like a talisman at the back of her mind the thought, ‘I can give it back, I can sell it. This don’t mean I got to go.'” This understanding, not only of the way we hold ourselves back as much as others do, but also of how one generation’s weaknesses trickle down to inhibit the next, is immensely powerful and sums up the essence of the book beautifully.