Review: Go Tell It on the Mountain

Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin. New York: Vintage Books, 2013 (originally published in 1953).

Summary: An account of John Grimes fourteenth birthday, centering on his brother Roy’s stabbing, his estrangement from his father, and the Saturday night “tarrying service” at a pentecostal church, revelatory of the lives of those around John and his own “salvation.”

It is John Grime’s fourteenth birthday. He’s the well-behaved older son who can never please his father Gabriel, who struggles with his awakening sexuality, a deep sense of both sin, and resentment of his father’s religion. After doing his chores, his mother gives him some money to spend on his own birthday gift. He goes to the movies. When he returns, he finds his younger brother Roy has been cut up in a knife fight. His father is so angry he takes it out on his wife Elizabeth and John before he finally whips Roy, until Gabriel’s sister Florence restrains him. John slips out to clean the church with his older friend Elisha for the evening “tarrying service,” a pentecostal prayer service on Saturday night before the Sunday service.

The second part centers around the prayer service, and the three prayers of Florence, Gabriel, and Elizabeth, with flashbacks to their earlier lives. Florence, to get away from the town where three white men raped a girl, Deborah, but even more, from her brother Gabriel, always favored, moves to New York, marries Frank who never settles down, leaves her for another woman, and dies in the war. She’s the worldly wise Aunt who sees through her brother’s spiritual facades. Gabriel starts out living a wanton life, then is “saved” and becomes a great preacher. Deborah, the raped woman prayed for him and supported him at his lowest. He marries her in an act of both gratitude and condescension, as no one else will have her. It is a childless marriage and grows cold. Gabriel’s affair with Esther leads to a child. She goes away to have the child with money stolen from Deborah, dies in childbirth, as does the child in his youth–the first Roy (for Royal), named by Esther remembering what Gabriel said he wanted to name his son. Gabriel lives with deep guilt for what he has done and the deaths that resulted, and his deception of now-deceased Deborah. Elizabeth’s prayer recalls the loveless aunt who rescued her from growing up in a brothel, parting her from her father, her flight and affair with Richard who gets her with child, then commits suicide after being arrested for being Black at the wrong place and time. Through Florence she meets and marries Gabriel, who sees the marriage as a kind of atonement for his sin. But he never loves Elizabeth’s child, John like their own son, also named Roy.

The third part begins with John on the floor experiencing a vision that recalls the hostility of his father toward him, his hatred of his father’s religion and struggle with the weight of his sins, and finally, “going through” to blessed salvation, bringing rejoicing from all the saints, and brotherly comfort from Elisha. But Gabriel is yet harsh and disbelieving. One cannot help if he resents the grace he sees in John’s experience that he has never certainly known for himself, for he could never live with Elizabeth joyfully, but only oppressively. There is a lot of guilt here, that centers around Gabriel, but also may reflect the version of Christianity Baldwin experienced. Much of that guilt is experienced around sexuality, even the awakening desires both Elisha and John experience. The alternatives seem to be ecstatic release in prayer at the altar, rebellion via a flight to the secular city, or a stern and censorious form of religion.

One wonders where all this will end up for John, who seems a younger version of the author, caught between the angry step-father and the caring older “brother” (is he more than that, reflecting Baldwin’s homosexual orientation?). Baldwin never takes us beyond that single day in John Grimes life, yet it appears that the day is the first step into a greater freedom that Gabriel can only resent but never know.