Monday, February 9, 2015

It's time to do some serious soul searching

Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin
After reading Azar Nafisi's The Republic of Imagination, I immediately wanted to read all of James Baldwin's work.  I started with his first major work, Go Tell it on the Mountain, the book Baldwin said is "the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else."  The semi-autobiographical novel focuses on John, a 14-year-old boy in Harlem growing up under the watchful eyes of his father, a very stern and religious evangelical preacher.  Over the course of one day at the church, we learn about John's life to date and gain insight into the lives of his hypocritical father, Gabriel, his mother, and his aunt.

Through all their stories, there's the common thread of the Great Migration, when many Blacks moved from the racial oppression of the Deep South to the promise (often left unfulfilled) of the North.  Each of them has something deep and complex to offer the reader, not just about the pursuit of the American Dream and the likelihood of finding happiness, but also about the very painful and beautiful relationships people can have with God.  There is a lot of fire and brimstone here, with nearly ever character promised eternity in heaven or hell based on one event or act from the past.  There is rage, frustration, and desperation in much greater amounts than you are likely to find in most books written in the 20th century.  In many ways, the fears and threats that came through here made me feel almost like I was in a time warp back to the Middle Ages, but the setting really is mid-20th century America.

This book was very different than I was expecting.  I thought the story would revolve much more closely around John coming of age in a very strict household, in a very restricted and segregated space.  Instead, the book is mainly about the relationships multiple characters have with John's father, Gabriel, a man who is chased by his own demons and seems determined to ensure that no one in his life forgets for a moment that hell is just one slippery slope away.  I also wasn't expecting nearly so much religion, and I am positive that there was a TON of Biblical imagery in this book that just went completely over my head.  For example, I'm sure John's father being named Gabriel means something, and that the extremely (and I mean seriously extreme) intense vision that John had at church before finding God probably had WAY more going on than I could catch.

I think I would have found this book a bit tedious except that the language is so amazingly powerful.  Baldwin brings so much passion to his craft that I feel like when he was writing the book, his pen must have left deep scores in the paper.  He's one of those authors who pours everything he feels into his art, and the result is absolutely stunning.  I really wish I knew the Bible better because I am sure I would have been even more moved and amazed by the story if I could get all of the allusions.

Because of the deep religious tones to the novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain also made me think more about religion and spirituality.  I am not personally a very religious person, and I don't spend a lot of time actively thinking about how God would see and interpret my actions.  I have a vague belief in the "If you're a good person, then you'll be fine" train of thought, but many of the characters in this book spend years trying to atone for one thing, or spend a lot of time thinking about how to make someone else pay, and worrying about hell.  It made the quest for religious enlightenment seem much more personal (and very, very lonely) in a way that highlighted to me just how differently people can follow the same religion.

I plan to read more of Baldwin's books and essays because he is a wonderfully passionate, eloquent author who I want to know better.  However, if you aren't ready for a deep, soul-searching book that focuses a lot on religion, then this may not be the book for you right now.  I recommend you keep Baldwin on your list, though, because his way with words will probably floor you.


  1. I love Baldwin's writing, but yeah, Go Tell It on the Mountain didn't enthrall me. The writing, yes, the plot, no. I think with Baldwin (this will require some further testing) it's better for me to read his nonfiction than his fiction. He writes with such urgency at all times, I want to be able to enter into it, which I struggled to do when I read Go Tell It on the Mountain. I didn't even review it, I don't think! Because I was too dismayed not to love a work by James Baldwin, when I love his writing so much.

  2. I read GTOM for school, and I liked it a lot. I reread it after and a ton of it that went over my head the first time made more sense the second time. I need to read more of Baldwin's fiction. He's a phenomenal writer.

  3. I have a copy of Baldwin's Another Country hanging out in the "read it soon" stack on top of my entertainment center. While I thought that would be a good place for me to start, now I think this might be a better place. Religious struggles resonate very deeply with me. We'll see how it goes.

  4. I loved both the story and the writing in this--good books about religious faith get to me and are far more rare than I'd like. I really want to read some of his nonfiction, too.

  5. It's been a few years since I read Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, but I remember being blown away by the writing as well. As Jenny says, you should also try his non-fiction! The Fire Next Time is amazing stuff.


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