Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin


This poor blog's been sadly neglected over the past week or so, as it's been a busy time chez moi...but I won't bore you with the intricacies of revision for my property law exam! Instead I'd like to share my thoughts on James Baldwin's stunning Go Tell It On The Mountain. Baldwin always struck me as a writer that's fallen out of fashion, with his popularity tapering away after his death in 1987. Despite his "modern classic" status, I wasn't ever particularly tempted to investigate his work for myself. But since African-American writing was the genre for February in the Year of Reading Dangerously challenge, I thought I'd give his debut novel a go. Mainly because I just loved the cover artwork (which, as you can see for yourself, is starkly gorgeous). And I am so so very glad I did.

John Grimes is going to be a preacher when he grows up. He's going to preach at the Temple of the Fire Baptized, just like his father Gabriel. Everyone says so and everyone's been saying so for so long that even John himself believes it now. The novel opens on the morning of his fourteenth birthday, the first morning he begins to realise the enormity of his looming future. He's still not saved, not like the living saints in his storefront church, so how can an unsaved sinner like him find a future saving sinners as a preacher man? His emerging sexuality and his changing body add to his guilt and fear. But his biggest sin is his hatred of his authoritarian and distant father. He's nursed this hatred so long that it's part of him, part of his future, and his struggle with this hatred in the eyes of God is the biggest part of his spiritual journey.

This is an intense novel, grappling with the role of religion in early 20th century African-American culture at a time the blues and jazz explosion were expressing African-American life in new ways. The first and last chapters are largely from John's perspective, while the three longer chapters are from the perspective of his paternal Aunt Florence, his father and his mother Elizabeth. While the action unfolds only over the course of less than 24 hours, this tight structure allows Baldwin to swoop over decades and geography. His older characters move from the South to the North, following lovers or seeking a new life away from the grinding physical poverty of the South. His spare, almost clipped, style adds to the repression and poverty of post-emancipation life in the South. One character, Deborah, was violently gang-raped as a teenager by a group of white men, while lynchings are in the background as the white bloodsport. But the fabled North is not much better, with black women still toiling as cleaners for whites and black boys too afraid to go into the New York Public Library, as it's too imposing, too intimidating, too white, even for an intelligent boy like John Grimes. John is not a likeable character, he's dutiful but resentful, at times self-pitying (will anyone remember his birthday?) and isolated from the rest of his family. But the family secrets revealed (to the reader, not necessarily to all the other characters) show how he's a product of his history and environment. It's compelling stuff

This accomplished debut was just what I needed after finishing another debut (Joshua Ferris' debut Then We Came To The End - more on this later). I'm now planning to read more Baldwin, to make up for all the years when I thought he wasn't worth the effort!

9 comments:

Gentle Reader said...

I read this when I was at university, and though I appreciated it then, I'll bet I would get even more out of it now. Thanks for reminding me of this writer who has, in your words, "fallen out of fashion". I agree with you--I'll have to look him up again. I also remember reading and liking his essays in The Fire Next Time. Thanks for an inspiring review!

antipodeanowl said...

Ok so Im now very intrigued. i've never heard of this book or author, but on the strength of your very interesting review I'm off to track it down! Your right about the cover as well, the boldness of the green is almost hypnotic, I can't stop looking at it! :D

Logophile said...

Gentle Reader, thanks for the pointer to his essays. I'm going to keep an eye out for them, as they'd be great alongside his fiction.
Cass, glad you like the cover too - I think it's a beauty!

Verbivore said...

I have read one James Baldwin short story called Sonny's Blues and it absolutely blew me away. I've always wanted to try his longer fiction.

Logophile said...

Verbivore, this was a very bluesy book so I can imagine how good a Baldwin story with that title is!

orchidus said...

Ah, in the next month or so, my literature class will be reading this novel. Thank you for the wonderful synopsis. I am now looking forward to reading this compelling novel. :]

Logophile said...

Orchidus, lucky you getting to study it in class! I'd love to hear how the discussion goes!

zhiv said...

Hey there logophil--I think that you and I were reading this book at the exact same time, with the exact same preconceptions--and it seems like we had the exact same response!--take a look. What a book!--and what an incredible first novel. I'm not so sure that Baldwin's reputation diminished after his death, as that the stunning impact and reception of his first book must have faded a little bit over time. I'm curious now to know more about his later work and life.

I thought that the middle sections of the book were somewhat surprising, based on the first part, and they were extremely powerful. The way that the story pieced itself together was remarkable. I can't really weave it without the book and the names in front of me, but so much of it comes back strongly in thinking of it now. I loved the story of John's real father and his mother's love affair, or his stepfather's affair with Dorothy's friend. All three of the members of the previous generation come to life in a fully rounded, shocking way that is very satisfying for the reader.

New at blogging, but finding a great post and such a similar response to a great book is really fun.

Logophile said...

Zhiv, I fully agree that the middle section was powerful, and has stayed with me vividly. And I also agree that finding responses on blogs is fun (and very satisfying for me!)