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Go Tell it on the Mountain

Go Tell it on the Mountain is a novel about the lives of a black family in New York, 1935. Written by the dynamic James Baldwin in 1953, the novel reflects the lives of African Americans in the first half of the twentieth century, coupled with the role the of the Christian Church. Baldwin’s novel is in fact, one of the most powerful and emotive works of American literature, not only in terms of content and subject, but also in terms of the beautiful language and poetry. The text is divided into five parts.

The first is about John, the protagonist, the second about his aunt Florence, the third his stepfather Gabriel, the fourth his mother Elizabeth, and the fifth, back to John himself. Go Tell it on the Mountain explores the fragile framework of American society back when racism was rampant. But Baldwin makes this discrimination the backdrop of the setting rather than the subject itself. The novel is primarily about the members of the Grime family and their personal conflicts. The story is set in Harlem, New York, specifically the around storefront church.

Harlem is known worldwide as an African American district with a rich history and culture. This brings into motion the themes based around racism. The Church brings the theme of spiritualism into motion. In fact this setting in particular has a strong bearing on the story, since it has a profound effect on the personality of the characters, eventually, shaping the people they become. The story begins with the fourteenth birthday of John Grimes, an insightful, bright young African American boy. Gabriel, John’s father though is a thoughtless, strict religious disciplinarian, representing a mix of blind sanctity but sordid morals.

Gabriel’s rigid religious beliefs set the background of the main religion versus worldliness conflict that occurs in John’s naive mind. Gabriel imposes his philosophies and beliefs on the rest of the family, terrorizing them with the horrors of hell and the wrath of god. In particular, Gabriel loathes John. And this is where John’s anguish lies. Unable to understand his father’s hatred towards him, he develops a deep conflict within himself. He hates his father for hating him, and then feels disgusted at himself for hating his own father.

What John does not know, but the reader does is that Gabriel is not his biological father. In an attempt to win Gabriel’s love John follows his religious doctrines carefully, going to church regularly, and keeping away from ‘sin. ’ And when he does ‘sin,’ he is consumed by a sense of extreme guilt and shame. Baldwin then slowly unveils the stories of each of the characters, as they remember their own past, kneeling before the altar on a Saturday night. And this is when the reader is able to piece together most of the story. Gabriel’s past was cursed with wrongdoings and sin.

In his youth he had been a wild, womanizing teenager. But at the age of twenty two is reborn a devout preacher. He marries Deborah, a woman who had been gang-raped by a group of white men – A woman no one else would marry. With her help he becomes a Reverend himself. But despite religious restrictions, Gabriel has a brief affair with an attractive woman Esther, who becomes pregnant. Scared of spoiling his reputation, and blaming her for tempting him, Gabriel sends Esther off to Chicago where she dies giving birth to a son, Royal. Esther though dies mocking Gabriel, his religious hypocrisy and pretension.

In fact this trait of hypocrisy is what dominates Gabriel’s personality. Gabriel believed that by delving into religion, he would eventually be forgiven. But Gabriel’s philosophy was deeply warped. Following religious injunctions zealously but not able to understand basic ethics, Gabriel represented a tyrannical figure of fear and dread. And it is Gabriel’s horrible brutality that ultimately affects all those around him. Deborah too later dies, accusing Gabriel of abandoning his child. Deborah is in fact one of the numerous biblical references Baldwin uses.

Deborah was the only female Judge in the bible, with great courage and strength of character. Baldwin’s illustrative writing brings the entire story quite close to life. Many scholars have acknowledged and admired Baldwin’s writing skills. The language of Go Tell it on the Mountain is in fact not just captivating, but also poetic. The poetic language embellished with biblical references make the text quite poignant and moving. In fact throughout the text, are numerous biblical references. The language is full of biblical stories, relating to the events in the lives of the characters.

But apart from Baldwin’s literary skills, another reason the novel is so outstanding is possibly because it was a close reflection of Baldwin’s own life. In fact, Go Tell it on the Mountain is considered semi-autobiographical, depicting Baldwin’s own experiences as an African American in New York. In fact, Baldwin himself said “Mountain was the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else. ” Born in Harlem, like John, Baldwin too did not know who his biological father was. His step father was an abusive strict minister like Gabriel.

Baldwin also underwent a religious reawakening at the age of fourteen, later though he lost interest in church life. His later works also reveal themes of homosexuality. Go Tell it on the Mountain too has a slight shade of this theme, for example, John’s attraction for Elisha. Many agree that since the work is built around real events in Baldwin’s life, it is the reason why the novel is so subtle, yet it explores the lives of African Americans and role of the church so truly. Baldwin shows both these at times as sources of inspiration, and at times as sources of suppression.

The controversy regarding religion specially is presented in a most exceptional manner. But what Baldwin does with great ingenuity is portray Gabriel and his rigid doctrines, while Gabriel himself is hardly close to god. The facade that Gabriel puts up is one of a pious Christian following the true path of god. But Gabriel remains the source of all misery that affects the Grime family. Racism and religion in fact are the two major themes that dominate the text. There are major references to discrimination in the story. When Florence revisits her past in her prayer, the reader is taken to the 1900’s Deep South.

Her mother tells the children tales of slavery, while Florence dreams of escaping to the north. Later in Gabriel’s prayer we see Deborah, a black woman raped brutally by white men. In Elizabeth’s prayer, we see the injustice done to Richard. A man who was jailed for a crime he did not commit. But there are minor, understated references too. John feels alienated in his school, feeling like an outsider. Hatred against whites was particularly deep-rooted in Gabriel who regarded them as sinners, and threatened the family of hell and torture were anyone to follow them.

John would not dare enter shops where there were white people, fearing hell and sin. He was forbidden to watch movies despite his desire to do so. But with time, John observes that not everyone was discriminating. His white teachers liked him, and he knew he was bright. Baldwin portrays this skillfully. John is bright, but has been brought up under many restrictions, believing his only purpose in life was following the church like his father and achieving salvation. But it is only when he starts observing the outside world around him that he realizes that there can be more to his life.

He observes white men and women, walking down streets, rich, powerful. He is attracted to this power, and knows it can be his one day since he believed in his intellect. In fact, this is where Baldwin’s genius lies. Baldwin shows that John is able to live through his abusive childhood with the aid of his intellect alone. Knowing that he was capable of a much better future, he uses his hope to bear his fathers anger and beatings. He feels the religious pressures around him as restrictions but follows them nevertheless in an attempt to make his father happy.

Inside though, he finds himself attracted to things which were concrete – worldliness, wealth and influence. Baldwin’s portrayal of an adolescent is in fact admirable. Being only fourteen, John is impressionable, naive and still innocent. He is desperate for his father’s love, not able to comprehend the hatred between them. He is also caught in a conflict of whether to follow religion, or to go out into the world, and make his name. The spiritual conflict in particular haunts John to the core. And this is what makes him endearing.

Another major theme of the novel is, in fact that of self-discovery. John at the age of fourteen stands in between being a child and a young adult. In fact, till now, he had only been following his father’s rules without questioning. But with growing age and maturity, he begins to discovery his own individual identity. And standing in sharp contrast to John was his thoughtless father, preaching religion without a single moral. Baldwin though does not depict Gabriel as born evil. It is circumstances that eventually lead him to become a bitter, cruel man.

Wreaked by guilt at first having sinned, and then having abandoned his child, Gabriel’s past continues to haunt him for the rest of his life. But his bitterness and anger remain largely unjustified. Gabriel loathed John because he was born illegitimate, while he himself had a fathered a son out of wedlock. Set in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s, the novel is a realistic depiction of life then. The Renaissance began in Harlem, but soon spread to other cities throughout America. It was a recognition of black Americans as artists and intellectuals after the end of slavery.

It was in fact a time of great change and creativity when African Americans asserted their own rights and dignities and emerged as great scholars and philosophers, celebrating an independent black culture. After the migration, many established themselves in the north and were successful in their fields. Baldwin’s work though shows Gabriel as a man rigidly holding on to the past, resisting the great revolutionary change around him. And in a time of such change, places like Harlem held great fascination. And since the novel is set in that age, at the core of the renaissance, it is almost a historical preservation.

And in this setting, Go Tell it on the Mountain explores the intertwined lives of the Grime family through John’s eyes. In fact, the novel reveals more about what abuse, force and neglect can do to a child’s mind. John also observes the preference given to his younger brother Roy, not knowing that the reason was that this was Gabriel’s own child. The story is John’s spiritual and psychological coming of age, and it ends with him writhing on the church floor, muttering in foreign languages, achieving the salvation and religious awakening that he had dreamed of.

Go Tell it on the Mountain is one of the most popular works of contemporary American literature. In fact, many believe Baldwin’s work as one of the first modernist novels dealing with the sensitive issues of religion and racism. The title of the book is inspired from an old African American Christian spiritual celebrating the birth of Jesus. Baldwin’s genius also lies in his portrayal of the two women, Florence and Elizabeth. In fact, few male writers have been able to achieve such depth and insight into the female psyche. Both women are intelligent, running their homes single-handedly, but are again, a victim of Gabriel’s insane brutality.

Elizabeth is the only character in the novel that represents love and true affection. She is in fact the only one who remembers John’s birthday. Elizabeth and Richard’s affair too represents the only relationship based on true sincerity and earnestness. “Baldwin gives the reader no ending to the struggles of Gabriel, Elizabeth, and Florence, and for John he only gives us a new beginning [2]. ” There have been numerous media and theatrical adaptations of Go Tell it on the Mountain, but the novel itself continues to be one of the most commendable works of American Literature.

A critique wrote in The New York Herald Tribune Book Review that “even the most insensitive of readers will put the book down with a troubled feeling of having ‘looked on beauty bare [3]. ‘ References: 1. Baldwin, James. Go Tell It on the Mountain. 1953 2. Go Tell it on the Mountain. Summaries and Commentaries. Cliffnotes. (http://education. yahoo. com/homework_help/cliffsnotes/go_tell_it_on_the_mountain/25. html) 3. Redding, J. Saunders. The New York Herald Tribune Book Review.

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