The prose in James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953) is like crystal. It works with force, clarity, and evocativeness. Baldwin writes with control and authority. His prose serves the narrative without calling attention to itself. It’s the story he’s after.
For Baldwin, family, religion, race, and place make a human being, and that process of making is always in motion, from childhood to maturity. Every child rebels against his parents, his abusive father, his overbearing or overly affectionate mother, the sisters who resent him or urge him on, the children who disappoint or rebuke him.
The narrative moves back and forth in time, tracing the development of characters and relationships, spanning the early years of the 20th century up through what I would guess are the 1940s. At the novel’s center are Gabriel, a preacher, and his adopted son John. The relationship between these two is replete with tension. Gabriel resents his son for not being of his own blood, for being the product of what he regards as his wife’s sinful relationship with an unmarried man. His own son Roy died from a knife wound. John does not understand his father’s hostility. The struggle between father and son, Baldwin suggests, is a powerful factor in character development. The dominance of men, often brutal or violent, is a major factor in the development of women, who have their own ways of dealing with, navigating through, the men who oppress them. Although Gabriel and John are the main focus, the novel devotes significant attention to Elizabeth (John’s mother and Gabriel’s second wife), Florence (Gabriel’s sister, and John’s aunt), and Deborah (John’s first wife). A confrontation between Gabriel and Florence helps bring the novel to its end.
Baldwin portrays religion as a sustaining and oppressive force. It’s inescapable. Being born again is the central moment in both Gabriel and John’s lives. In both cases redemption is more a means to an end than the end itself. For Gabriel, it becomes a camouflage that hides his own sins and failures. For John, though it provides a certain immediate relief, it does not solve his problems with his father. Of all his family members, his father is the one person who does not rejoice when Gabriel is redeemed. Religion provides the underlying definitions and framework of human life, even while it is something to resist and break free from. In James Wright’s stories and in Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945), religion is an oppressive force to be rebelled against and cast off. In this early Baldwin novel, it is a powerful social expectation, a sustaining and oppressing medium through which one must struggle.
I listened to an audio recording of this novel. Audio recordings work for many books, but not this one. The reader’s voice brimmed with fatalism, seriousness, and doom. The tone of voice defined the novel for me as much as the events and words of the novel itself. The voice of the narrator became an obstacle.