I finished reading James Baldwin’s first novel Go Tell It On The Mountain (1953) this weekend. I’d read other works by him before (Giovanni’s Room shortly after I came out at 19, along with a handful of his essays throughout college) but hadn’t really thought about revisiting his work until a writing colleague published a beautiful piece that retraced and reexamined Baldwin’s steps through a much-changed Paris. Ever since I finished my MFA in 2010, I’ve been relearning how to write (getting back to the basics, really) and also relearning how to read. This book is one that I plan on re-reading many, many times and really contemplating its depths.
The novel centers on John Grimes, a fourteen-year-old black boy coming of age in New York City under the auspices of his abusive preacher father Gabriel, his quiet (but not entirely submissive) mother Elizabeth, his younger and better-regarded brother Roy, and sisters Sarah and Ruth. There’s way too much going on in the novel in order to be able to accurately summarize the many conflicts that intersect in the book, but briefly there are two principal struggles as far as John is concerned: (1) he experiences a profound religious doubt at the beginning of the novel, uncertain whether or not he wants to pursue the same vocation as his father; and (2) John struggles to understand his own relationship to all the male figures in the book: his own father; God; Elisha (the dreamy fellow parishioner); his brother Roy; and ultimately his own masculinity. I don’t want to give too much away since I so do recommend you read the novel yourself, but let’s say that all of these tensions are rendered beautifully in the novel. There’s other stories in the book that are important as well: Gabriel’s testimony, for example, that relates his dark past and how he became “saved;” Florence, Gabriel’s sister, also has her own journey of destruction when she leaves her family behind to pursue a new life in the North; and Elizabeth also tells her own harrowing tale and we learn something about John late in the novel that forces the reader to reconsider everything he’s read up to that point. Baldwin has really written a beautiful tour-de-force well-worth your read.
FORM, STYLE, & LANGUAGE
Go Tell It On The Mountain is written from an omniscient third person point of view. It’s divided into five parts. “The Seventh Day” is in John’s perspective, followed by a second section, “The Prayers of the Saints,” that in turn is subdivided into three separate parts: “Florence’s Prayer,” “Gabriel’s Prayer,” and “Elizabeth’s Prayer,” each one told in a close third person point of view. “The Seventh Day” ends at the moment that the Saturday night church service begins, and each “Prayer” picks up its respective protagonist’s experience while at service: Florence’s perspective feeds into Gabriel’s, and Gabriel’s in turn shifts into Elizabeth’s until the end, when it is again dominated by John (though we get insights into the other three characters as well). We get glimpses of John’s insights in each part of the book until we get to the final section, “The Threshing Floor,” which (marvelously) relates John’s religious experience.
The book begins in John’s point of view on the morning of his fourteenth birthday, a birthday that no one – not even his mother – seems to remember:
Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father…Not until the morning of his fourteenth birthday did he really begin to think about it, and by then it was already too late. (pg. 11)
In the first paragraph Baldwin already introduces us to the two central conflicts of the novel: the question of John’s future profession (read: soul) and how this contrasts with Gabriel’s own path and wishes. Vocation versus dedication, faith versus experience, innocence of childhood versus an emergent adolescence — so much is present in this first paragraph that serves as a quick overview of what one can expect in the book.
The reader then is privy to John’s history, a history that seems riddled always with promise: God has big plans, his church and family says, and we get the sense that John feels pressured to choose a path that doesn’t feel as natural to him as we presume it does for Gabriel. He is a character who seems to search for the reason behind belief without accepting it blindly. John begins to wonder, for instance, at the secular world:
…[T]hey had cars — but what church did they go to and what would he teach his children when they gathered around him in the evening? He looked straight ahead, down Fifth Avenue, where graceful women in fur coats walked, looking into the windows that held silk dresses, and watches, and rings. What church did they go to? And what were their houses like when in the evening they took off these coats, and these silk dresses, and put their jewelery in a box, and leaned back in soft beds to think for a moment before they slept off the day gone by? Did they read a verse from the Bible every night and fall on their knees to pray? But no, for their thoughts were not of God, and their way was not God’s way. They were in the world, and of the world, and their feet laid hold on Hell. (pp. 40-41)
For John, at least at this point in the novel, the idea of someone living outside the prescribed boundaries of churchlife seem impossible to fathom. We get a lovely insight into the daily life of the Grimes family that is perpetually filled with religion and at the same time this devotion keeps them in check. John, in what feels like a very genuine evolution, begins to doubt everything that he’s been told since he was a child, including God himself.
But despite John’s evolution as a character, he struggles at times with the fear that comes at questioning something as significant, as institutional, as the Almighty. Charged with cleaning the church on Saturday evenings before that night’s services, John enters the house of worship:
It was dark in the church; street lights had been snapping on all around him on the populous avenue; the light of the day was gone. His feet seemed planted on this wooden floor; they did not wish to carry him one step further. The darkness and silence of the church pressed on him, cold as judgment, and the voices crying from the window might have been crying from another world. John moved forward…to where the golden cross on the red field of the altar cloth glowed like smothered fire, and switched on one weak light. (pg. 57)
I have to say that this is one of my favorite paragraphs in the entire novel. It’s starkly beautiful and a great example of Baldwin’s mastery of language — he really knows how to use adjectives in just the right way (“smothered” fire). Every word, every punctuation mark serves to underscore Baldwin’s message. This passage also does a great job in capturing one of the principal struggles of the novel. The first sentence captures the three worlds battling for John’s soul: Heaven (the church), Hell (the “populous avenue”) and perhaps John’s fading power to decide between the two, suggested by the light that’s all but disappeared. (It seems to reappear, though, by the mention of the “one weak light.”)
There are so many other passages worth commenting upon. I’ve marked at least two dozen sections of the novel that I could analyze at length but for the moment I’d like to examine just one more: the critical moment during Gabriel’s Prayer where John has a deep reflection while trying to pray. It is a fact that Gabriel has been physically abusive toward John and the rest of the family, a fact that John deeply resents throughout the course of the novel. He contemplates whether or not to turn to God to help him soothe his damaged soul:
Salvation was real for all these others, and it might be real for him. He had only to reach out and God would touch him; he had only to cry and God would hear…And what God had done for others, He could also do for him. But – out of all their troubles? Why did his mother weep? Why did his father frown? If God’s power was so great, why were their lives so troubled? Only the hand of God could deliver him [from their troubles]…he would have been born again. (p. 167)
This passage for me is proof of just how realistic a character John is: his psychological state here vacillates between the knowledge that things could be better if he were just to reach out cry out to God, in a sense letting his father, who spends half the novel hypocritically pontificating, take the victory. Is John having a profound religious experience at this moment? Is he taking one step closer toward accepting God, and thus the path that has been set before him? Or is he exhibiting the same stubbornness that a young Gabriel exhibited before finding religion?
Baldwin offers us an answer. Accepting God, John could receive the benefits that could be afforded him:
Then he and his father would be equals, in the sight, and the sound, and the love of God. Then his father could not beat him any more, or despise him any more, or mock him any more…He could speak to his father as men spoke to one another — as sons spoke to their fathers, not in trembling but in sweet confidence, not in hatred but in love. His father could not cast him out, whom God had gathered in. (p. 168)
Religion offers the opportunity for redemption, it seems, though the reader has the sense that it won’t be as easy as John thinks for a moment. And then, in this touch of reality that felt so realistically drawn to me, John is brutally honest with himself before the altar of the Lord:
Yet, trembling, he knew that this was not what he wanted. He did not want to love his father; he wanted to hate him, to cherish that hatred, and give his hatred words one day. He did not want his father’s kiss — not anymore, he who had received so many blows. He could not imagine, on any day to come and no matter how greatly he might be changed, wanting to take his father’s hand. The storm that raged in him tonight could not uproot this hatred, the mightiest tree in all John’s country, all that remained tonight, in this, John’s floodtime. (pg. 168)
For all of its flowery promises, for all of the peace it would promise to bring to him, religion, it seems, is not for John. He is an individual who feels too deeply, whose memory does not permit him the luxury of forgiveness, whose resentment runs too thickly in his blood, for him to turn, to kneel, in front of God. Emotions — the present, tangible results of an embattled past — trump the ethereal presence that, until now, had dominated John’s young life.
MY FALL FROM GRACE, MY FATHER’S ASCENT
I suppose that what has made this novel so powerful for me is the knowledge that its based largely on Baldwin’s life. Among other facts that coincide with the novel, he was born into a religious community and was the son of a lay preacher and says that he “had declined to believe in that apocalypse which had been central to my father’s vision.” He continues, in Notes of a Native Son:
I had not known my father well. We had got on badly, partly because we shared, in different fashions, the vice of stubborn pride. When he was dead I realized I had hardly ever spoken to him…
And, perhaps most honestly, he said that he chose to write the book because he had to “deal with what hurt me most. I had to deal with my father.”
Knowing that Baldwin drew largely on his own life in writing Go Tell It On The Mountain inspired me to really examine the own ghosts that I walk with daily. Specifically, the book has allowed (read: forced) me to think about my own life and my own relationship with my father as well as with that omnipresent force growing up: God.
When I was a child, I was convinced that I wanted to be a Roman Catholic priest. I was attracted to the ritual of Mass — the incense, the procession led by the crucified Jesus, the scarlet robes, the chanting — and also felt for the first twelve years or so of my life a strong calling toward the church. I was the only one who attended Mass regularly on Sunday mornings with my mother (I still have a piece of scripture that she ripped out of a prayer book one day) and was the only one, on the odd days that the whole family attended services together, that knelt at the church’s entrance. I lived with what I felt was the presence of God, and felt that my calling was to serve the church as a priest. I was attracted to the use of words to communicate a message and to comfort the suffering, so much so that even when my sister and I played with our toys, I would often stage a “mass” presided over by a Thundercat and attended by all the Muppets, Barbies, and Disney figurines we had. My parents and I were all convinced that I would become a priest, and that was that.
My father at this point was not religious at all. I recall him coming to only a handful of services, and even then only begrudgingly. My mother (and, when he did attend services, the parish priest) scolded him, telling him that he needed to set an example for my brother and me. But this didn’t seem to bother him too much: he didn’t talk about God except only during times of grief or when my mother brought the topic up. Religion just wasn’t as important to him as it was to me back then.
And then, like John in the novel, came my moment of awakening, of questioning at around age 13: I realized that I had a budding attraction to the new, oh-so-handsome, green-eyed Padre Lorenzo. Much like John contemplates Elisha’s body as a vehicle of a divine message, I too felt a similar draw to Padre Lorenzo. Though I was too young to recognize (or admit) how I felt, I knew that whatever caused these emotions came from a darker place that wasn’t quite evil, but wasn’t pure either. As I grew older, and after I had taken the Communion wafer and began to realize that I was, indeed, different from other boys, I tried turning to God for comfort, for shelter from the troubles vying for possession of my soul. I had to do this on my own, for in whom could a gay teenager in those days confide his thoughts those days? Certainly not the father that, though generous and though he always provided for us, was largely emotionally absent from us. Not my mother, who said that it was a phase that would pass. And certainly not the Bible, which seemed to damn me from the outset. So I took the only path that I could at the moment: I turned away from religion, from spirituality. In essence, I turned away from God.
Throughout my teenage years and into my early adulthood, I turned to books instead of religion to satisfy and soothe the doubts I had about myself and my relationship to the world. A small part of me still remained interested in God, but he took second place to Hemingway, West, Baldwin, Argueta, Lourde, and Yeats. Where religion could not enter literature inundated, where my father’s affection lacked stories helped me imagine a warmer future. Over time, I started developing a strong distaste for religion in all its forms and though I remained respectful of other folks’ decisions to adhere to a religious belief, I personally didn’t believe in anything other than a vague Higher Power, refusing to name it by anything I had known before. I continued like this all throughout college, at perfect peace with books and a little Buddhist thought.
Around the time I moved to San Francisco to start my MFA, my father — seeking forgiveness for his latest indiscretion against my mother — rediscovered religion. And, much to my dismay, it was fundamentalist evangelism, the most stubborn branch of Christianity, in my opinion. At first, I was completely taken aback by his sudden fervor: dinnertime, when I came to visit, became a bitter debate between his Bible-based points of view and what I felt was logical evidence; a constant battle of moralities over the dinnertable as to who was right and who was wrong about everything in life. At first, I grew increasingly frustrated by what I felt was his stubbornness, but slowly I realized that despite all my misgivings about his religion, I could never convince him of anything different: his conviction, however flawed in my view, ran deep, tethered infinitely to the roots of his soul. There was nothing I could do but listen to him patiently while reminding myself that this man was my father, no matter how warped or groundless his assertions were.
But the darkest memory I have of his religious fervor is a recent one. We were on vacation in El Salvador in August 2009. It was my first time in the country and I was overjoyed to be spending time in the country where my parents came from. It happily coincided with the end of my first year in the MFA program, and I had hoped to come back to San Francisco inspired with new material for my thesis. I went with my father and my grandmother, and while my grandmother didn’t hesitate to tell me everything that had happened on every street corner that she could remember, my father was silent most of the time, staring out the window as we drove by important sites. At night he would shut himself in his room with my grandmother to read the Bible and pray, leaving my uncle — who he hadn’t seen in years — and me alone in the living room, chatting about life and the country’s devastating history.
One night, toward the end of the trip, I’d had enough and I barged into my father’s room to find him bent over the Bible, his lips moving in prayer. I told him everything that I’d bottled up until then: how, despite flying so many miles in an effort to get close to him, I felt no more connected to him; how I was sick of him isolating himself in self-righteousness; how much it hurt me that he never talked to me about my life ever since I came out to him at nineteen. I cried — sobbed, really — and told him that I was a good son to him and that I felt that God was getting in the way of ever having a relationship with him. I told him that I could forgive all of his adulteries, despite the effect that they had on our family growing up, despite all the pain and tears he’d caused, despite all the hatred I’d felt toward him at moments. In sum, I poured my heart out to him, kneeling at the foot of the bed where he was praying, and begged him to open his heart to me.
He responded by putting his hand on my shoulder, and by telling me vaguely that he would pray that God would change my heart. And then he went back to reading his Bible.
I suppose that this is where I could relate the best to John in the novel. I, too, had my religious crisis early in life; I, too, dealt with an emotionally-distant father that, like Baldwin, I can’t really say I know. I have to say that just like Gabriel is separated from his son by a chasm of self-righteousness, I too have been torn from my father by an impersonal and invisible God.
While I do not — cannot — hate my father for his religious convictions that have forced us to drift apart, I cannot say that I do not feel resentment about this. I do not want him to die without knowing him at least a little bit, but the more I try, the more futile it feels.
And so, my resolution, my conviction, born after reading Go Tell It On The Mountain is this: I must reject my father’s God, perhaps the only vehicle to really know him, in favor of literature, the only method I have of saving what’s left of our relationship. Baldwin has taught me how to allow myself to be vulnerable and like Baldwin, I hope to use the open field of my imagination, the painful maze of my memory, to create on the page what my father has always denied me: an understanding of how I became the man I am today and, perhaps, a glimpse of the man I am slowly becoming.