James Baldwin: Go Tell it on the Mountain
Baldwin’s first novel, which took many years to write, is autobiographical, telling the story of John Grimes on the day of his fourteenth birthday. John cannot understand why his father, Gabriel, seems to prefer his brother Roy to him and he tries to win his father’s love, while hating him and wishing to break away from him. However, we soon find out the reason for his father’s hatred. John’s mother, Elizabeth, came up to New York from Georgia, with a man, Richard. Richard kills himself after being accused of committing crimes that he did not commit. Unbeknownst to Richard, Elizabeth is pregnant with his child (John). Elizabeth’s sister, Florence, introduces Elizabeth to Gabriel and they marry. Gabriel also has a murky past and part of his feeling towards John is his own guilt at what he did to a woman, Esther, now dead, and their son, also now dead.
As well as his issues with his stepfather, John feels guilty about his awakening sexuality, particularly his homosexuality and his feelings towards a young deacon, Elisha. Like James Baldwin, John Grimes has a religious awakening and converts, and this is a key part of the last section of the novel. Baldwin paints both his religious conversion and his sexual awakening as part of a rite of passage and, indeed, as linked. The middle sections tell the stories of Gabriel, Florence and Elizabeth. Whatever you may feel about religion – and Baldwin himself was decidedly ambiguous about it – this book still works very well today, not least because it was so well planned and written and because it was told with a passion of man who had experienced much of it himself.
First published 1953 by Knopf