Thoughts on Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin (#CCSpin #19)

And the darkness of John’s sin was like the darkness of the church on Saturday evenings; like the silence of the church when he was there alone, sweeping, and running water into the great bucket, and overturning chairs, long before the saints arrived. It was like his thoughts as he moved about the tabernacle in which his life had been spent; the tabernacle that he hated, yet loved and feared.

510dFZyJmyL._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_I feel like I got way with something by reading Go Tell It on the Mountain for the latest Classics Club Spin. We were supposed to be reading one of the longer books on our lists, but I only put ten “big books” on mine, and the spin result happened to be Baldwin’s 1953 first novel. The one I borrowed from the library clocked in at 291 pages. Oh well. Those big books are still waiting for me.

This is a challenging books to write about. It’s a family story and a coming of age story. Goodreads says it’s semi-autobiographical and my copy’s jacket flap quotes Baldwin himself as saying, “Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” I’ve now read three of Baldwin’s books, and I’ve seen the exquisite documentary about him, I Am Not your Negro, but I do want to read a biography about him or at least do some more research into this life.

Not only is this book challenging to describe but it was challenging to read as well, because I felt so bad for the main character, the young teenager John. His family lives in 1930’s era New York City, and his cold and critical father Gabriel is an associate pastor of a very Evangelical type of church. His world seems pretty sheltered and restricted, and you can feel John wanting to break free and explore the variety of experience that New York offers.

He stood on the crest of the hill, hands clasped beneath his chin, looking down. Then he, John, felt like a giant who might crumble this city with his anger; he felt like a tyrant who might crush this city beneath his heel; he felt like a long-awaited conqueror at whose feet flowers would be strewn, and before whom multitudes cried, Hosanna! He would be, of all, the mightiest, the most beloved, the Lord’s anointed; and he would live in this shining city which his ancestors had seen with longing from far way. For it was his; the inhabitants of the city had told him it was his; he had but to run down, crying, and the would take him to their hearts and show him wonders his eyes had never seen. 

Gabriel and John do not get along, and we come to find out that John is Gabriel’s wife Elizabeth’s son by another man. Gabriel becomes a bit more humanized and sympathetic as we delve into flashbacks of his story, and we come to understand in flashbacks how and why Elizabeth married him as well. The last section of the book is John’s feverish, nightmarish religious experience (salvation? conversion?) with an ambiguous ending.

Did I enjoy this book? Enjoy is not exactly the word – it was a surprisingly page-turning read. Some parts were more engaging than others, especially the back stories of John’s aunt Florence and mother Elizabeth. But I gave it four stars because of the beauty and precision of the language and the challenging spiritual imagery.

Time was indifferent, like snow and ice; but the heart, crazed wanderer in the driving waste, carried the curse forever.

Have you read this? If you’ve read Baldwin before, what is your favorite of his books? Are you interested in seeing the new film If Beale Street Could Talk (based on Baldwin’s 1974 novel?)



31 thoughts on “Thoughts on Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin (#CCSpin #19)

  1. Excellent review! I’m a big fan of Baldwin’s nonfiction, and I enjoyed Giovanni’s Room when I read it in college. Your quote reminds me of how easy it is to get lost in his prose: his language is so moving.

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  2. I’ve never read anything by Baldwin before and I’m not sure this would be the place to start?? I’m glad you got to read it – it seems like it was worthwhile for you, even if difficult. Excellent!

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  3. Intriguing review! I think I’ve mentioned this one is on my list too, so I’ll be reading it at some point over the next year or two. The quotes make me think I’ll love the writing, but your description of it having “challenging spiritual imagery” may well mean I’ll find it hard to follow. But you have made me want to read it… 😀

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    1. Oh good! The challenging spiritual imagery is really only in the very last section, which isn’t long at all, so I don’t think it will detract from the rest of the book. It’s a thought-provoking read. I look forward to hearing what you think when you get around to it!

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  4. I am definitely interested in seeing If Beale Street Could Talk. It’s a great book that gets you so emotionally invested, and the film has Regina King, whom I think is talented. I have yet to read Go Tell It On The Mountain, but it’s on my list of books to read this year.

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    1. I want to see it too! I don’t get to the movie theater very often, maybe 2-3 times a year, since it requires getting someone to watch my child. But this is one I want to try and make the effort to see. I LOVED the director’s previous film, Moonlight.


      1. Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae, and Jharrel Jerome really stood out to me in Moonlight as wonderful characters and actors. I wonder if the director brought back any of the same actors. I can see why directors do that, but I don’t love how I feel like I’m seeing some version of the same film repeatedly. Think Tim Burton, Judd Apatow, and Wes Anderson.

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  5. I think this is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read but never picked up. From what you shared I feel like this might be one I’d like to start with. The family dynamics and the spiritual imagery….makes me very curious

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  6. While I haven’t read any Baldwin yet, I did go see If Beale Street Could Talk and it broke my heart. The world hasn’t changed at all. 😦 Which, if Go Tell It On The Mountain is even moderately like Beale Street, means I can understand why you wouldn’t define this reading experience as “enjoyable”. But it sounds like you learned a lot about the human condition.

    I feel like if I’m ever going to pick up Baldwin’s works, I need to put a happy, uplifting book on either side of that reading list. XD

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      1. Thanks for the suggestion — I love essays, so this should be an easy entry for me. We shall see what is available at the library. With If Beale Street Could Talk in the theatres, I know my library system has been promoting Baldwin’s works so they are more difficult to get than usual.

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  7. I just read & reviewed Baldwin’s Beale Street book which is also short and I really liked it, so I should read this one as well. I find that Baldwin’s writing gets under your skin. The Mountains sounds good.

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  8. Go Tell It On the Mountain has been on my reading list for years, like fifty years. Hopefull 2019 will be the year I finally get to it. My Spin book was Wide Sargasso Sea. My review of Wide Sargasso Sea.

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