Author: James Baldwin
Genre: Historical Fiction, Classics
Blurb: Go Tell It On The Mountain, first published in 1953, is Baldwin's first major work, a semi-autobiographical novel that has established itself as an American classic. With lyrical precision, psychological directness, resonating symbolic power, and a rage that is at once unrelenting and compassionate, Baldwin chronicles a fourteen-year-old boy's discovery of the terms of his identity as the stepson of the minister of a storefront Pentecostal church in Harlem one Saturday in March of 1935. Baldwin's rendering of his protagonist's spiritual, sexual, and moral struggle of self-invention opened new possibilities in the American language and in the way Americans understand themselves.
Me: This was January's book at the Required Reading Revisited Book Club at my local indie bookstore.
I get it. James Baldwin is a genius, and I was late to the party. At least I came now though, right? This book was art in all its finest.
The Ups: I think the prose and writing is most worth pointing out here. There is not a single sentence that isn't thought through, that doesn't sound melodic and rhythmic, that doesn't have a distinct purpose and tone. Baldwin is a sheer master of language and takes it to the next level with his beautiful, abstract language. He just plays with his sentences to create images and emotional effects that are unbelievable.
“There are people in the world for whom "coming along" is a perpetual process, people who are destined never to arrive.”
What?! I have a feeling I'll be reading much more of Baldwin just for this.
The characters were vivid and jumping out of the pages. The book is about John, a 14 year old boy, and his experiences with growing up and discovering himself, and discovering religion. John quickly became a character that was so "normal" he was likeable. But in the middle of the novel, it jumps around to family members of John's lineage and their stories: Florence, his fierce and headstrong aunt, Elizabeth, his enduring mother, and Gabriel, his stepfather obsessed with getting rid of sin. I could have easily read a book about each character. Their relationships with each other, and the tense dislike I developed for Gabriel and yet somewhat of pity, was all so interesting. There were truly no good characters, and no bad- which is how life is.
The concept of racism, intertwined with religion, is fascinating in this novel. It is not a book solely about race, but the struggles and the experiences are largely African American. There is the fear of being unjustly arrested or harmed, the struggle to rise up in a system that is inherently against a group of people, and the search for identity along the schisms that already exist within African Americans themselves.
The book is also highly religious, and comes to life around the concept of christianity. Being non-religious, I found the novel a little tough to read because I didn't emotionally connect to the spiritual revelations. However, I think it added a whole new dimension of character to the novel- I now know that Baldwin also had very interesting ideas about the church.
The Downs: I do think it had a very intense wrap-up at the end; the climax was almost in the last 30 pages. The ending was quite abrupt, and there is no continuation of the story. I also think that I found a lot of the concepts difficult to completely understand, because so much like real life, nothing is strictly defined as bad/good. I will have to revisit it sometime!
"But to look back from the stony plain along the road which led one to that place is not at all the same thing as walking on the road; the perspective to say the very least, changes only with the journey."
"Only the soul, obsessed with the journey it had made, and had still to make, pursued its mysterious and dreadful end; and carried, heavy with weeping and bitterness, the heart along."
"Time was indifferent, like snow and ice; but the heart, crazed wanderer in the driving waste, carried the curse forever."