Wednesday, December 28, 2022

James Baldwin's Go Tell It On The Mountain

"But don't you think that the Lord can change a person's heart?" [174]

That's kind of the question in this, James Baldwin's debut novel of 1953. 

The novel starts on John Grimes' fourteenth birthday, a Saturday in March, 1935, and ends the next day. John is the oldest of four children of Gabriel and Elizabeth Grimes. They're a poor family in Harlem; Gabriel works as a day labourer, but he's a deacon and occasionally preaches at a revivalist church, Temple of the Fire Baptized. 

The novel is divided into three sections: 'The Seventh Day', 'The Prayers of the Saints', and 'The Threshing Floor'. The first ('The Seventh Day') shows us the family as a not very functional unit. John is the good boy, well, pretty good, but Roy, his younger brother, is his father's favourite. This may be because Gabriel is only John's step-father; he was born out of wedlock to Elizabeth and another man, dead by the start of the novel. But it may also be because Gabriel and Roy are similar, angry and intolerant. That same day, John's birthday, that he wanders around with a little money given him by his mother and then into a movie, Roy crosses town with friends to get into a gang fight with white boys and comes home cut with a knife. Florence, Gabriel's older sister, tells Gabriel it's his own fault Roy is who he is; Gabriel somehow casts blame on John for this, and then strikes Elizabeth; Roy curses his father. 

'The Prayers of the Saints': That night John goes to the church, to help clean the building. Neither his father, nor John's older friend Elisha, consider John saved, nor is John himself quite sure what he thinks about religion. After cleaning the church, with a few members arriving for service, he falls to the floor in a frenzy:     

    "'Rise up, rise up, Brother Johnny, and talk about the Lord's deliverance.'
    It was Elisha who had spoken; he stood just above John, smiling; and behind him were the saints...
    He tried to speak, and could not, for the joy that rang in him this morning." [199]

John spends the night on the floor, managing only a few words. The saints are the members of the church in good standing; they stand around John, praying, in honour of this new manifestation of the Lord's power. Three of those saints are his step-father Gabriel, his mother Elizabeth, and his aunt Florence, and we hear each of their prayers. 

None of them are entirely concentrating on prayer, though, and while they're meditating we learn the backstory that brought them to this point. Florence's resentment that Gabriel, the boy, received her mother's love even though Florence was the good one, and Gabriel showed no signs of spirituality as a twenty-year-old, catting and fighting as Roy does in the present. We learn about Gabriel's conversion, which does nothing for his anger and lack of love. We also learn about his own hypocrisy. Last of the praying saints is Elizabeth, still guilt-ridden over the episode that produced John, and how her subsequent hopes in Gabriel's faith were shattered.

We knew from the first chapter, none of them were saints in the usual sense of the word. Does our understanding make any of them more saintly? I don't really think so, but do learn they are more sinned against than sinning. (Though Gabriel is the hardest to forgive.)

In 'The Threshing Floor' we return to the present. On the threshing floor, Jesus separates the saved wheat from the damned chaff. Did John's conversion experience change anything? In some ways clearly not, but I don't think we're meant to have a clear answer. The question I started with up above is asked by Elizabeth, of Gabriel, to her sister-in-law, Florence. Florence's answer:

"I done heard it said often enough, but I got yet to see it." [174]

Though Florence gives that answer before John's conversion experience, and maybe hers is not a reliable voice anyway.

Poking around at what critical commentary I could easily find, it seems that readers are divided as well. The novel is clearly autobiographical (well, it is Baldwin's first) and Baldwin later lost his own faith. But I don't think it's quite fair to read back from Baldwin's subsequent story to divine what this one means, and I do think John's conversion is meant to be read as sincere. To be sure, there are psychological considerations--John wants to win over his step-father; he hadn't known his birth father, who died before he was born--but the language (very biblical) feels sincere to me:

"Then John saw the Lord--for a moment only; and the darkness, for a moment only, was filled with a light he could not bear. Then, in a moment, he was set free;..." [197]

Will that moment last? For the real James Baldwin it didn't, but for John Grimes, at least as long as the novel runs, it's a different story. 

I like the cover I've shown above, but that's the first edition, and alas I don't have that. I read it in James Baldwin's Early Novels and Stories, edited by Toni Morrison, from the Library of America, and the page numbers refer to that edition.

I found it a pretty great novel, it's on that Modern Library list of 20th Century novels, I'd put it on my Classics Club list, and it finishes off the Back to the Classics challenge for me for the year.



  1. Hmm... I'm glad to have read your review before attempting to pick this book up again. I've intended to read it this year, but somehow it's not appealing to me, so I put it down, thinking that I might change my mind when in a better mood. But reading your review, I'm sure I won't like this book.

  2. Yay for finishing off the Back to the Classics Challenge! Congrats. :D