James Baldwin's first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953), is an intense, time-warping novel that moves back and forth in memory over more than seventy years, peeks inside the brains of multiple characters… and still all takes place during the course of one twenty-four hour period.
It also somehow manages to touch on pretty much every controversial topic in US society. It delves into racism, both in New York City and the Jim Crow South. It explores the poverty and anger that racism fostered. It gives us a peek at the homosexual desire of the main character and the conflict this raises with his family and faith. And it raises all these issues without seeming preachy—even though almost all the action takes place in a church and one of the main characters is a preacher. How's that for an impressive feat?
Go Tell it on the Mountain is, to put it simply (which is hard, because it is not a simple novel) the story of a 14-year-old young man being saved in a Christian church in Harlem. But it's also much more than that: the flashbacks into the early lives of his parents and aunt reveal how they all got to this moment and why they react the way they do—from full-on violence to sweet joy—to the events of the novel.
After Go Tell It On the Mountain, Baldwin went on to be considered "one of the country's most gifted writers and major voices on race and morality", and "a highly insightful, iconic writer." But this novel is where all that magic began. This novel's "moral and linguistic victories are seamless… (the language) flows without strain into prose of Jamesian complexity, of Biblical richness, as (Baldwin) penetrates (the characters') minds."
Ah, Christianity. A religion that encourages people to be charitable, take in people in need, and live as upright, moral examples for their church community. Right? Yeah, not so much.
Ah, Christianity. A religion that has no sense of community, that is full of more animosity than love, and really brings out the worst in everyone. Right? Yeah, not so much.
Confused? You should be… that's exactly how James Baldwin wants you to feel. Go Tell It On The Mountain shows the Christian church in general, and the African American churchgoers of 1930s Harlem in particular, as existing in a "best of times, worst of times" kind of situation.
The church is both a force of repression and a force for great love and community. It's both an institution that shuts down young love and gives lost young people a place to belong. It's where power can be abused in a hypocritical manner, and where good people come together to help each other find salvation during their times of hardship.
You're not going to find an easy answer to the question "Is Christianity awesome?" in Go Tell It On The Mountain. This isn't a scantron test. This is life: where stepfathers can abuse their stepsons and still claim to be godly, and angry teenagers can find calm and hope through being saved… all under the same church roof. Where young rape victims can marry God-fearing men, only to find that those God-fearing men are cheaters and liars. Where adolescent lovers can be gently steered away from premarital sex because a) this is the 1930s and birth control is shoddy and b) the church community affectionately wants them to have full teenage years before they start making babies.
Yeah. If you want moral dubiousness, you've come to the right book. If you want things to be laid out in black and white… wait. Hold up. Actually, Go Tell It On the Mountain does lay some things out in black and white, because that's just how screwed-up race relations were in the America of the 1930s.
Because although the Christian church is shown as both good and bad in this novel, racism is treated as a constant, omnipresent evil: instilling fear and a lot of anger in the African American characters that populate Baldwin's brilliant work.
Ah, America. The Great Melting Pot, where people from all cultures are welcomed, treated equally, and encouraged to dance around like unicorns on a Lisa Frank binder. Right? Yeah, not so much.
Tell Me About Your Life
Everything you ever wanted to know about the biography of James Baldwin.
All About the Novel
PBS has broken down Go Tell it On the Mountain for you.
Even though Gabriel wouldn't approve, the novel was adapted for the screen.
Paris, s'il vous plait
The Paris Review interviews Baldwin in his adopted city of Paris. Double Paris!
Baldwin lived a nomadic lifestyle, often running from bad circumstances.
A sneak peek of the film version of Go Tell it on the Mountain.
Preaching, of sorts
Baldwin gives a speech on the African-American experience.
One for the Road
Listen to a sample of the audiobook.
Down the Road
Here's a speech by Baldwin from later in his life.
Worth Every Penny
The first edition of the novel costs an arm and a leg.
There He Is
The author, with books.