Friday, January 29, 2010

319. Go Tell It on the Mountain – James Baldwin

History: Published in 1953, the novel is semi- autobiographical. James Baldwin grew up in Harlem and never knew his biological father. His stepfather was a Pentecostal Christian minister and Baldwin said he was abusive and strict. Also like John, Baldwin underwent a religious awakening at the age of 14, the age when Baldwin became a preacher. He later became disillusioned with church life and expressed this in his later novels. The rhythm and language of the story draws heavily on the language of the Bible, particularly of the King James translation.
Plot: The opening chapter tells the story of John, a young African-American boy in Harlem in the 1930s. John has been raised by his mother Elizabeth and her preacher husband Gabriel, who nominally is John's father and is a strict disciplinarian, abusive to both his children and his wife. Gabriel's religious philosophy is tough and one of salvation through faith in Jesus, without which one is damned to hell. John hates his father and dreams of wounding or killing him and running away.
Florence's prayer tells her life story. She was born to a freed slave who chose to continue to work in the South for a white family. Her mother always favored Florence's younger brother Gabriel, causing Florence to feel a yearning need to escape from her life. Florence buys a one-way train ticket to New York and leaves her mother on her deathbed. In New York, Florence marries a dissolute man named Frank, resulting in a power struggle within their marriage which ends after ten years when Frank leaves one night and never returns. He later dies in France in World War I, but Florence only finds out from Frank's girlfriend.
Gabriel's prayer starts with a description of his drunken, womanizing ways as a teenager, before his rebirth in Christ and the start of his career as a preacher. After his conversion he forms a relationship with a childhood friend of Florence, a slightly older woman from his town named Deborah who was gang-raped as a teenager by a band of white men. Deborah is devout in her faith, and Gabriel uses her strength to become a successful Reverend himself. However, despite his religious convictions, Gabriel is unable to resist his physical attraction for a woman named Esther. He has a brief affair with her but then ends it out of guilt. When Esther finds herself pregnant, Gabriel steals his wife's savings and gives them to Esther to hush up the matter and allow Esther to go away to have her baby; she goes to Chicago but dies giving birth to their son, Royal. Royal knows his father but doesn't know of their relationship, and is eventually killed in a barroom fight in Chicago. Gabriel is powerless and unable to stop his son's murder. Deborah, who knew or suspected that Royal was her husband's son from the beginning, admonishes Gabriel before her death for abandoning Esther and his son.
Elizabeth's prayer, the shortest of the three, tells her story. As a young girl, Elizabeth was very close to her father, but when her mother dies, she is forced by a court order to live with an imperious and cold aunt, and then goes to live in New York with a friend of the aunt's who works as a medium. It turns out that Gabriel is not John's biological father. Elizabeth had gone to New York with her boyfriend, Richard, a self-educated "sinner" who did not believe in the Church and who never carried out his promise to marry Elizabeth. Richard is arrested for a robbery he didn't commit, and while he is acquitted at trial, the experience - including the abuse he takes at the hands of white police officers - leads him to commit suicide on his first night home. Elizabeth, then just a few months pregnant with John, takes a job, where she meets Florence. Florence introduces her to Gabriel, whom she marries.
The final chapter returns to the church, where John falls to the floor in a spiritual fit (which is depicted as real and unaffected). Curiously, he is overtaken (by the spirit) right after his friend Elisha swoons. He has a series of dreamlike visions, seeing visions of hell and heaven, life and death, and seeing Gabriel standing over him. When he awakes, he says that he is saved and that he has accepted Jesus. Yet even as the group leaves the church, old sins are revisited as Florence threatens to tell Elizabeth of Gabriel's sordid past.
Review: Go Tell It On The Mountain is a symphony of the post-great migration black family, their interior lives, interconnection with their southern past and ability to survive through tremendous pain. Mountain is a novel brave enough to study and examine the wounds that black people have instead of using them to either browbeat a white audience or ask them for pity. It is also a novel, showing the bind religion has on the scope of African American lives and history, how it helped black people survive during their darkest hours and how black people can barely live its ruthless orthodoxies.
Opening Line: “Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father.”
Closing Line: “I’m ready,” John said, “I’m coming. I’m on my way.”
Quotes: “And now in the sudden silence, she heard him cry: no the cry of the child, newbornm, before the commonlight of earth; but the cry of the man-child, bestial, before the light that comes down from Heaven.”
Rating: Good.

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