Search      Hot    Newest Novel
HOME > Classical Novels > Go Tell It On The Mountain > Introduction
Font Size:【Large】【Middle】【Small】 Add Bookmark  

‘The balloon of experience is tied to the earth,’ wrote Henry James in The American, ‘andunder that necessity we swing, thanks to a rope of remarkable length, in the more or lesscommodious car of imagination.’ In 1949 James Baldwin was living in Paris – a measure of ropehaving been unfurled – yet his ties to Harlem grew stronger by the day. There was little of Hemingway or Gertrude Stein in Baldwin’s sojourn; though he enjoyed a little more freedomthere, and adventure too, he wasn’t there for friendship or freedom or adventure either, but forwriting. Baldwin came to Europe in search of his own voice. He came for a clear view of the past.

  And this exile suited him, sentences at once beginning to bleed out of memory ands imagination,old wounds opening into new language.

  Baldwin’s father was a lay preacher; to his eldest son he was ‘handsome, proud, andingrown’. The son was born into a religious community, a world where duty joined with pride,where sin battled with high hopes of redemption, where the Saved sang over the Damned, wherelove and hate could smell similar, and where fathers and sons could be strangers for ever. ‘I haddeclined to believe,’ Baldwin wrote in his famous Notes of a Native Son, ‘in that apocalypse whichhad been central to my father’s vision.’

  … I had not known my father well. We had got on badly, partly because we shared,in different fashions, the vice of stubborn pride. When he was dead I realized I had hardlyever spoken to him … He was of the first generation of free men. He, along with thousandsof other Negroes, came North after 1919 and I was part of that generation which had neverseen the landscape of what Negroes sometimes called the Old Country.

  Baldwin was the kind of writer who couldn’t forget, He remembered everything, and thepulse of remembering, and the ache of old news, makes for the beat of his early writing. At the ageof fourteen he underwent what he called later ‘a prolonged religious crisis’, a confusion too deepfor tears, but not for prose. ‘I then discovered God, His saints and angels, and His blazing Hell,’ hewrote, ‘I suppose Him to exist only within the wall of a church – in fact, of our church – and I alsosupposed that God and safety were synonymous.’ At this point Baldwin became a preacher too. Heknew that something important happened when he stood up and entered deeply into the languageof a sermon. People listened, they clapped. ‘Amen, Amen,’ they said. And all of it remained withhim: the smell of church wood and the crying out, the shimmer of tambourines; the heat ofdamnation; the songs of the Saved, his father’s face; and the New York world outside with itswhite people downtown who’d say ‘Why don’t you niggers stay uptown where you belong?’ Butmore than anything it was his father’s face. ‘In my mind’s eye,’ hw writes in Notes, ‘I could seehim, sitting at the window, locked up in his terrors; hating and fearing every living soul includinghis children who had betrayed him, too, by reaching toward the world which had despised him.’

  Some novelists, in their early work especially, set out to defeat the comforts of invention:

  they refuse to make anything up. Go Tell It on the Mountain is James Baldwin’s first novel, ashadow-album of lived experience, the lines here being no less real than those on his mother’sface. For Baldwin, as for Proust, there is something grave and beautiful and religious about thelove of truth itself, and something of sensual joy in bringing it to the page. Baldwin’s career as anovelist was spent walking over old territory with ghosts. Things became new to him this way.

  ‘Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else,’ he said years later.

  ‘I had to deal with what hurt me most. I had to deal with my father.’

  The novel is centred around a “tarry service’ at the Temple of the Fire Baptised in Harlemin 1935. Fourteen-year-old John Grimes, dubious, fearful, and already bitter, is about to walk thepath to salvation. There are high expectations of John, ‘to be a good example’, and to ‘comethrough’ to the Lord. The service will last the whole night, and John is there in the company of theelder ‘saints’ of the church, and with his father and mother and Aunt Florence. There is a strongsense of John being one of the anointed, but we absorb his slow, terrible doubts about himself.

  Altogether he is not a happy child on this special night:

  Something happened to their faces and their voices, the rhythm of their bodies, and tothe air they breathed; it was as though wherever they might be became the upper room, andthe Holy Ghost were riding in the air. His father’s face, always awful, became more awfulnow, his father’s daily anger was transformed into prophetic wrath. His mother, her eyesraised to heaven, hands arked before her, moving, made real for John that patience, thatendurance, that long suffering, which he had read in the Bible and found so hard to image.

  Between the novel’s opening and closing – the beginning of the service, with ‘the Lord high on thewind tonight’, and the closing, the morning, with John writhing for mercy on the threshing floor infront of the altar – we read the stories of his relatives: Florence, his aunt; Gabriel, his father; andhis mother Elizabeth. In three long chapters we come to know the beliefs, the leave-takings, theloves, the honour and dishonour, that had made up the lives of these three people, lives which haveanimated a host of other lives, and which, by and by, have come to animate the life of John Grimestoo. There are secrets in the novel, as they emerge in a beautiful, disturbing pattern, uncoveredwords speaking clearly, soulfully, of this one family’s legacy of pain and silence.

  In Go Tell It on the Mountain, John has a certain dread of the life that awaits him; he feelsdoomed and he dreams of escape. He has made decisions. ‘He will not be like his father, or hisfather’s father. He would have another life.’ It might be said that this has been a vain dream ofartists – and teenagers – since the beginning of time, but in Baldwin it is neither vain not merely adream, for John Grimes represents, in all the eloquence of his wishes, a new kind of American. Hisfather’s fathers were slaves. John’s father, Gabriel, is free, bur he is expected to swear allegianceto the flag that has not sworn allegiance to him, and he lives in a racist land. On this front,Baldwin’s America was to become a battleground, but John, given the date of events in the novel,can never be a Civil Rights cipher. He feels guilty for failing to share Gabriel’s unambivalenthatred of white people, but John has additional freedoms in mind – freedom from the localoppressions of Gabriel being first among them. Go Tell It on the Mountain is not a protest novel, itis a political novel of the human heart. White men may be evil, but they are not the beginning northe end of evil. Baldwin was interested at this point in corruption at the first level of legislativepower – the family.

  Baldwin wrote about black people. He did not write novels which understood the lives ofblack people only in terms of white subjugation. At the same time he recognized every terror ofsegregation, and Go Tell It on the Mountain is a shocking, and shockingly quiet, dramatization ofwhat segregation meant in the years when the novel is set. Early on we see John contemplating the forbidden world inside the New York Public Library, a world of corridors and marble steps and noplace for a boy from Harlem. ‘And then everyone,’ Baldwin writes, ‘all the white people inside,would know that he was not used to great buildings, or to many books, and they would look at himwith pity.’ This is a strong thing for a writer to remember, or to imagine, and Baldwin brings it tothe page with a sense of anger, and regret. The novel is marked by the dark presence of ‘downhome’, the Old South, where all of John’s family came from in search of a new life. This wasBaldwin’s primary milieu: the Harlem of migrant black Americans, bringing with them the storiesof their fathers and mothers, one generation away from slavery.

  This Northerness was important to Baldwin. It was the world he knew from his childhoodand the world he cared most about. He had a feeling for the hopes that were invested in the journeyNorth – ‘North,’ where, as Gabriel’s mother says, ‘wickedness dwelt and Death rode mightythrough the streets’. In one of his essays, ‘A Fly in the Buttermilk’, Baldwin wrote of anotherSoutherner’s contempt for the North, a man he tried to interview for a piece on the progress ofCivil Rights: ‘He forced me to admit, at once, that I had never been to college; that NorthernNegroes lived herded together, like pigs in a pen; that the campus on which we met was a tribute tothe industry and determination of Southern Negroes. “Negroes in the South form a community.” ’

  Baldwin’s sensibility, his talent for moral ambivalence, his taste for the terrifying patternsof life, the elegant force of his disputatious spirit, as much Henry James as Bessie Smith, was notalways to find favour with his black contemporaries. Langston Hughes called Go Tell It to theMountain ‘a low-down story in a velvet bag’. ‘A Joan of Arc of the cocktail party’ was AmiriBaraka’s comment on Baldwin. Some of this could be constructed as standard resentment –reminiscent of the kind expressed by Gabriel towards John for not hating whites enough – andsome was a reaction against Baldwin’s popularity with the white literary establishment. But thatwasn’t all. By the time he was writing novels, and writing these essays – works of magical powerand directness – Baldw............

Join or Log In! You need to log in to continue reading

Login into Your Account

  Remember me on this computer.

All The Data From The Network AND User Upload, If Infringement, Please Contact Us To Delete! Contact Us
About Us | Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Tag List | Recent Search  
©2010-2018, All Rights Reserved