221 pages Reissue
edition (December 1985)
First published in 1953 when James Baldwin was nearly
30, Go Tell It on the Mountain is a young man's novel,
as tightly coiled as a new spring, yet tempered by a maturing
man's confidence and empathy. It's not a long book, and its
action spans but a single day--yet the author packs in enough
emotion, detail, and intimate revelation to make his story
feel like a mid-20th-century epic. Using as a frame the spiritual
and moral awakening of 14-year-old John Grimes during a Saturday
night service in a Harlem storefront church, Baldwin lays
bare the secrets of a tormented black family during the depression.
John's parents, praying beside him, both wrestle with the
ghosts of their sinful pasts--Gabriel, a preacher of towering
hypocrisy, fathered an illegitimate child during his first
marriage down South and refused to recognize his doomed bastard
son; Elizabeth fell in love with a charming, free-spirited
young man, followed him to New York, became pregnant with
his son, and lost him before she could reveal her condition.
Baldwin lays down the terrible symmetries of these two blighted
lives as the ironic context for John's dark night of the soul.
When day dawns, John believes himself saved, but his creator
makes it clear that this salvation arises as much from blindness
as revelation: "He was filled with a joy, a joy unspeakable,
whose roots, though he would not trace them on this new day
of his life, were nourished by the wellspring of a despair
not yet discovered."
Though it was hailed at publication for its groundbreaking
use of black idiom, what is most striking about Go Tell
It on the Mountain today is its structure and its scope.
In peeling back the layers of these damaged lives, Baldwin
dramatizes the story of the great black migration from rural
South to urban North. "Behind them was the darkness," Baldwin
writes of Gabriel and Elizabeth's lost generation, "nothing
but the darkness, and all around them destruction, and before
them nothing but the fire--a bastard people, far from God,
singing and crying in the wilderness!" This is Baldwin's music--a
music in which rhapsody is rooted anguish--and there is none
finer in American literature. --David Laskin