Review: James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain

James Baldwin’s first novel, like most first novels, is considered “semi-autobiographical.” But Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953) should be regarded with as much reverence as you afford anything that holds truth—be it non-fiction or fiction or poetry or scripture.

The structure of the novel is its most remarkable aspect. The action occurs over one overnight session of fervent prayer, wherein we also receive the stories of the main character’s mother, father and aunt, each affected in different ways by their understanding of God and religion, their experiences with racism and family, and their personal discovery; all three (whose sections are titled “[Name]’s Prayer”) are sort of beautifully built through recollections but all reach a pitch of newness and resolve over the course of their prayer.

Even still, John’s realization of his identity—across those very same arenas, i.e., family, society, spirituality, etc.—is the note on which the novel ends, in a properly novelistic thrust of its last line: “’I’m ready,’ John said, ‘I’m coming. I’m on my way.’”

Baldwin was a great writer, and his skills are on display throughout the book, which reminds me—maybe because I read him first, or because Baldwin, writing in the fifties, couldn’t avoid being influenced by him—of Faulkner (or even Toni Morrison). However, some of the book became a trudge. But this isn’t to discourage its reading. I can’t quite explain why—except to hazard a guess: I’ve read much like this book—books that, I imagine, influenced it and books that have almost certainly been influenced by it.

The beauty of the book for me is in its attempt to formulate words (mostly metaphorical and vivid) that communicate characters’ explorations of faith, and the events surrounding and forcing those explorations. The language is simple, elegant and clear throughout; the characters interestingly complex; the structure intriguingly compelling; but the action was sometimes stiff.

Here’s what I can say: Baldwin sometimes seems to settle (and this is weird if most of the events are indeed autobiographical) for the easy event, but his characters’ reflection on the event is always difficult and brilliant.

Read it—if you’re American.