Book Review: Go Tell It on the Mountain

Book Reviewed by Angeli R. Rasbury

Originally Published in Sacred Fire 

Go Tell It on the Mountain is considered to be James Baldwin’s greatest novel. Like much of Baldwin’s writing, it draws heavily on his own intense childhood experiences with religious doubt, racism, sexual ambivalence, and a complex relationship with a difficult father. The entire book takes place on the fourteenth birthday of John Grimes, the son of a fire-and-brimstone revivalist preacher, who finds himself increasingly alienated from his bitter, authoritarian father, his religious faith, and his community. Baldwin treats the young man’s battle with Manichaean choices’flesh or spirit, community or individualism, conversion or heresy’with masterful sensitivity and insight.

The book is divided into three parts: In part one, we share John’s terror as he becomes aware that his desires and goals lie outside of the narrow expectations of his family and community. In the second part, we learn of the sorrowful experiences back South and up North that forever scarred John’s father, Gabriel, and his mother, Elizabeth, even though they hoped their union would wash away the sins of their past. In part three, John surrenders himself to religious ecstasy, still seeking a way out of his dilemma.

Go Tell It on the Mountain is filled with biblical references that evoke the spirit of the black church and a realism that brings to life the Harlem of the 1930s, a northern ghetto whose inhabitants were still struggling with southern demons. Baldwin, in a 1984 interview with the Paris Review, captured what he was trying to say in the novel about all of us and about his own life: "[Writing Go Tell It on the Mountain] was an attempt to exorcise something, to find out what happened to my father, what happened to all of us, what had happened to me and how we were to move from one place to another." Its brilliant style and sophisticated portrait of a young man struggling with complex issues made this one of the landmark novels of the postwar period.

Read Vintage Books’s description of Go Tell It on the Mountain.

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