James Baldwin

James Baldwin was an American novelist, playwright and essayist, who explored in his works racial, class and religious distinctions of American society in the middle of the 20th century. A man of versatile talent, he was known not only for his accomplishments in the sphere of literature, but also for his contribution to the Civil Rights struggle, for his efforts to encourage tolerance and respect among people.

Go Tell It on the Mountain was James Baldwin's first published novel, and according to some critical reviews it is considered to be the best one. Being an autobiographic literary writing, the novel reveals psychological and spiritual growth of the protagonist, John Grimes.

In Go Tell It on the Mountain the author tells various life stories and discusses different problems among which are religion, racism, family expectations and conflicts. Baldwin's embittered relationship with his stepfather, his indigent upbringing in Harlem and his religious conversion provided the basis for the novel. The novel is full of Biblical allusions which emphasize the importance of the Bible and religion for society of that time.

One of the major themes of the novel is search of identity. John Grimes, a fourteen-year-old boy, attempts to find out who he really is and what his life is going to look like in the future. The fact that the story takes place on the boy’s birthday contributes to understanding of his emotions and thoughts. The significance of growing up lies in realizing one’s own identity. He is turning fourteen and this day symbolizes a step forward into adulthood, it draws the boundary between his childhood and adolescence, it obliges him to think about future and to make decisions. 

John is at the crossroads as community expects him to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a preacher. However, the boy imagines himself having a good status relishing the comforts of life, though he realizes that it is a sin even to think about worldly pleasures.

Though the boy is a brilliant and well-behaved student, his father treats him poorly and he has no friends at school. John wonders whether something is wrong with him and wants to find his place in the world. Therefore, the problem of self-identity becomes crucial for the boy, leaving a lot of questions unanswered.

The family of Grimes is central to the novel and it represents American society in the mid-thirties of XX century. James Baldwin highlights the problem of violence, fear and family conflicts. Gabriel, John’s father, dominates his wife Elizabeth and the children, continuing traditions of patriarchal relations. There is a sense of tension, which is constantly present between the members of the family. The author criticizes the lack of love in the family, as well as in the American society.

The foremost feature of family relations is father’s violence not love. After disclosing some facts from Gabriel and Florence’s childhood, his cruelty can be easily explained. The children’s mother, Rachel, was a slave and she brought them up in the discipline of slavery. It is illustrated how the love between parent and child can be destroyed by the system of slavery.

The Grimes family is broken apart and the speaking name emphasizes the fact of spiritual disconnection. It symbolizes their low position in society and displays abject poverty and pettiness of their mind.

The Stylistic Device

The stylistic device of moving between the past and present allows the reader to apprehend the background of the characters. Though the family seems to be unified, it has a lot of secrets which will be revealed. The Grimes keep a lot of skeletons in cupboards, such as Gabriel’s first child with Esther, John's illegitimate birth, manifestations of racism and slavery. Decision to repress the secrets only adds to Gabriel’s negative characterization. Baldwin emphasizes that past cannot be avoided or erased. Everything what happened  results somehow in the present life. Gabriel reproaches Elizabeth for her past, though he is not concerned with his choices in life, which highlights his unceasing hypocrisy.

The theme of religion became an indispensable part of the novel. The structure, chapter headings correspond to the Bible, the title itself is taken from the African-American spiritual. Even the characters’ names are allusions to the biblical ones. Religious matters are shown when John considers his future life being a preacher. The boy’s hatred towards Gabriel and disgust of the thought of obtaining the same position provoke the conflict between them. John’s faith is based upon his fear of committing a sin, of God and of his step-father.

Religion was not a free choice of a person, but it was something that society attributed to everyone. Pentecostal church, the one that the Grimes attended, preached believes of spiritual awakening and ever-present struggle with temptation. Prayer to get happiness in afterlife rather that to live in the present influences the views of the characters.

The climax of the novel is achieved when John is saved in the local church. John did not follow his wish to obtain the life he sincerely wished for. Instead, he undergoes the process of spiritual transformation to please Gabriel. However, he sees it as a burden and boy’s attempt to receive his attention and appraisal is failed.

James Baldwin's upbringing in the atmosphere of religious believes had a great impact on his literary works and on ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain’ particularly. The novel is full of quotes from the Bible, allusions to the characters, which were deliberately used by the author to explain life event by means of relying on the Bible and organized religion. He depicts the effects and consequences of racism, sexism and slavery experienced by the ancestors of the main characters, thus showing the interconnection with the events in the history of America.

James Baldwin managed to skillfully depict the life of American society after the era of slavery and the American Civil War. He analyzed people’s main problems and needs, their views and believes. The novel ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain’ enriches the legacy of the world literature, being a powerful literary work.

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