“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” (James Baldwin)

Trigger warning: mention of rape, domestic violence, racist violence

I was delighted when Go Tell It on the Mountain was selected for today’s review-a-long, as it has sat in my TBR for ages. I also really enjoyed October’s Vanity Fair review-a-long, and I fell in love with James Baldwin’s writing when I read Giovanni’s Room for the 1956 Club, back in October 2020.

Despite these various motivators, I was still worried I wouldn’t manage to join in, as my reading is slowly improving but still very poor, and my blogging is essentially non-existent. However, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) proved a good choice, as despite being a really tough read in terms of subject matter, it’s only 256 pages in my edition, can be read in an afternoon, and is full of Baldwin’s lyrical beauty.

Photo by Allan Warren, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The remaining obstacle is that it feels impossible to write about Go Tell It on the Mountain. It’s such a richly complex book and tackles such enormous themes, that I’m not even going to manage to approach doing it justice. So what follows is a few random thoughts 😊

The novel opens:

“Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself. Not until the morning of his fourteenth birthday did he really begin to think about it, and by then it was already too late.”

John’s father Gabriel Grimes preaches at the Temple of the Fire Baptized, a Pentecostal storefront church in Harlem. John is ambivalent about religion, finding it restrictive and acutely aware of the temptations all around him;

“For John excelled in school, though not, like Elisha, in mathematics or basketball, and it was said that he had a Great Future. He might become a Great Leader of His People. John was not much interested in his people and still less in leading them anywhere, but the phrase so often repeated rose in his mind like a great brass gate, opening outward for him on a world where people did not live in the darkness of his father’s house, did not pray to Jesus in the darkness of his father’s church, where he would eat good food, and wear fine clothes, and go to the movies as often as he wished.”

However, he does have faith. We follow John throughout his birthday as goes to the cinema and enjoys Central Park, but also attends church:

“The Sunday morning service began when Brother Elisha sat down at the piano and raised a song. This moment and this music had been with John, so it seemed, since he had first drawn breath.”

Aged fourteen, John is still finding out who he is. This is bound up in religion and church, but also in his academic accomplishments which mark him out at school and within his family; and his rejection of his father as a masculine role model who demonstrates violence and hypocrisy, beating his family often.

“His father’s arm, rising and falling, might make him cry, and that voice might cause him to tremble; yet 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.”

In the second part of the novel the prayers of John’s father, mother and aunt are powerfully explored. I don’t want to say too much about the plot here, as the characterisations first introduced through John’s point of view are so sensitively deepened through this second part, including that of his abusive father (who remains wholly unlikeable, but a fully realised character). As a reader I enjoyed watching these complex adults emerge without any foreknowledge.

John’s parents are the first generation since emancipation, and the trauma of slavery is just within lived experience, as GTIOTM is set in 1935. The depictions of racism, every day and institutional, are enraging.

“She looked out into the quiet, sunny streets, and for the first time in her life, she hated it all—the white city, the white world. She could not, that day, think of one decent white person in the whole world. She sat there, and she hoped that one day God, with tortures inconceivable, would grind them utterly into humility, and make them know that black boys and black girls, whom they treated with such condescension, such disdain, and such good humor, had hearts like human beings, too, more human hearts than theirs.”

Through John’s aunt Florence and his mother Elizabeth, Baldwin explores the additional patriarchal oppression women have to contend with. Florence’s academia is ignored to prioritise Gabriel’s, despite her desire for learning and his total disregard for it. Pregnancy outside of wedlock is left for the women to deal with. A woman who is gang-raped by white men is outcast:

“No man would approach her in honor because she was a living reproach”

There is a lot of compassion throughout the novel for female experience. With everyone there is a sense of things unspoken, in contrast to the vocal exuberance of preaching, and this is particularly true for the female characters.

“And he knew again that she was not saying everything she meant; in a kind of secret language she was telling him today something that he must remember and understand tomorrow. He watched her face, his heart swollen with love for her and with an anguish, not yet his own, that he did not understand and that frightened him.”

The final part of the novel follows John experiencing vivid religious visions, but I felt the ending was ambiguous, undermining the fervour. Baldwin demonstrates that human experience is subject to unpredictable forces, both internal and external, and I felt any certainty John believed in one day could be undone tomorrow. (For one thing, John doesn’t seem to acknowledge sexual attraction to Elisha, though as readers it seems to be there.)

As I mentioned at the beginning. I’ve found Go Tell It on the Mountain almost impossible to write about. I hope these few thoughts and extensive quotes have given some sense of it though! Baldwin is such gorgeous writer even with such harrowing subject matters: skilled but approachable, angry and compassionate, humane and unsentimental.

Now to dig If Beale Street Could Talk out of the TBR…

I’ll add in links to the other bloggers taking part today as I find them. Early signs are I’m out on a limb with this one, so please do check out the other reviews 🙂 :

Fiction Fan

Katrina

Rose

Kelly

37 thoughts on ““You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” (James Baldwin)

  1. I planned to join in with this one, Mme B, but it became clear that it was the wrong time for me. I’ve read Rose and FF’s reviews but I’m not put off. I suspect that my thoughts will be much closer to yours 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s sad that no matter where in the world one is, women have had to face similar discrimination and patriarchal attitudes. Reading about this and the racism are heartbreaking and do indeed make one very angry. Glad this one worked for you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lovely review, and I’m glad you enjoyed it so much, although enjoy is probably not the right word! I fear I don’t have much tolerance for this kind of religious extremism and found Baldwin’s preaching too much to take. As you say, though, it just shows how different reading experiences can be, and that’s what makes it fun! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks FF! I suppose I read it differently in that way, in that I thought Gabriel was preaching, but Baldwin wasn’t, he was showing how that kind of fervour can be seductive for some but ultimately is built on the oppression of women and sexuality, and in this instance also built on violence. It was still a really tough read though & I completely see why you left it. I’m glad the review-a-long meant I finally got to it! The different experiences have been so interesting to read.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin – FictionFan's Book Reviews

  5. I enjoyed reading your positive thoughts on this book and agree that the middle portion of the story is quite powerful. Everything you’ve said is quite valid and makes me feel a bit shameful that I didn’t appreciate it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Not at all Kelly! Reading is so personal isn’t it, and everyone’s experience is different. There’s no one way, or best way, to experience a novel. Even for the same person – when I manage a rare re-read, I can experience a book very differently to the first time I read it. I’m so glad you enjoyed my review and I’ll be sure and stop by your blog to hear about your reading of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I also found it really difficult to write about, probably because it seemed so alien to me. The religious bits are what stand out in my memory. Thanks for linking to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I think you’ve written very well about a brilliant and difficult book. Baldwin had such insight and understanding of, not only the kinds of oppression he suffered, but what others dealt with. And then wrote about it with eloquence. I always learn from him every time I read any of his work.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin | Rose Reads Novels

  9. What a terrific review!
    You’ve certainly appreciated this book more than me, perhaps because you don’t seem to have gotten bogged down by Gabriel’s preaching.
    You’ve made an interesting point about John’s faith potentially not being lasting. He is the character I keep thinking about, wondering how life would have worked out for him.
    I didn’t like the emotions I felt while reading this book (the word you used, harrowing, is apt) but I did think that Baldwin’s writing was beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I really want to read this but have overegged my reading plans pudding then got all the work in the world coming in and haven’t been able to read much at all. I’m going to save your review for when I get to it in a few months.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Lyrical beauty is absolutely spot on in terms of describing Baldwin’s style. He has an innate ability to write about subjects, such as intense racism, toxic masculinity and discrimination / oppression in a powerful but poetic way. I haven’t read this one but hope to do so at some point. It sounds so arresting from your review…

    Liked by 1 person

    • He’s really remarkable isn’t he Jacqui, in that the way he writes is so gorgeous but he doesn’t diminish the horrors or make them acceptable in any way. It’s such an achievement. I’ll be really interested to hear how you find this when you get to it.

      Like

  12. Great review and I remember this first quote because it’s true. Reading can be such a comfort and a solid anchor in humanity.

    I liked If Beale Street Could Talk better but it’s also easier for me since I’m not a huge fan of religious quests. I thought that the church scene with the vision was very boring.
    That said, for me, Go Tell It on the Mountain is a coming of age novel: this adolescent is on the verge of distanciation from his family and his background.
    He won’t follow the path of preaching that his father wants for him.
    He doesn’t hate white people because of his white teacher but he’s not naive about racism and discrimination.
    His intelligence makes him see things clearly and with moderation.
    He’s from the generation who didn’t witness slavery first hand and who wasn’t born in the South: he’s like the offspring of immigrants who have roots but have never lived in the mother country.
    And he’s discovering that he’s gay but hasn’t admitted it to himself yet.
    In short: he’s irrevocably different from his family and he’ll have to live his neighborhood to be himself.

    My next Baldwin will be The Fire Next Time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Emma. It’s good to hear you liked Beale Street as that’s my next planned Baldwin read. I enjoyed Giovanni’s Room more than GTIONTM – like you, I think this is probably because religious revelations aren’t that appealing.

      I completely agree, he’s very different from his family and he’ll have to leave. I think that undercut the ending for me – the reader knows more than the narrator in a way, we recognise his sexuality even though he doesn’t admit it to himself. So any revelation isn’t the final one.

      I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts on The Fire Next Time when you get to it.

      Like

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