Go Tell It on the Mountain

Go Tell It on the Mountain

3.7 49
by James Baldwin

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Mountain,” Baldwin said, “is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” Go Tell It On The Mountain, first published in 1953, is Baldwin's first major work, a novel that has established itself as an American classic. With lyrical precision, psychological directness, resonating symbolic power, and a rage…  See more details below


Mountain,” Baldwin said, “is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” Go Tell It On The Mountain, first published in 1953, is Baldwin's first major work, a novel that has established itself as an American classic. With lyrical precision, psychological directness, resonating symbolic power, and a rage that is at once unrelenting and compassionate, Baldwin chronicles a fourteen-year-old boy’s discovery of the terms of his identity as the stepson of the minister of a storefront Pentecostal church in Harlem one Saturday in March of 1935. Baldwin’s rendering of his protagonist’s spiritual, sexual, and moral struggle of self-invention opened new possibilities in the American language and in the way Americans understand themselves.

Editorial Reviews

Sacred Life
Go Tell It on the Mountain is filled with biblical references that evoke the spirit of the black church and a realism that brings to life the Harlem of the 1930s, a northern ghetto whose inhabitants were still struggling with southern demons. Baldwin, in a 1984 interview with the Paris Review, captured what he was trying to say in the novel about all of us and about his own life: "[Writing Go Tell It on the Mountain] was an attempt to exorcise something, to find out what happened to my father, what happened to all of us, what had happened to me and how we were to move from one place to another." Its brilliant style and sophisticated portrait of a young man struggling with complex issues made this one of the landmark novels of the postwar period.
From the Publisher
“With vivid imagery, with lavish attention to details, Mr. Baldwin has told his feverish story.” —The New York Times
“Brutal, objective and compassionate.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“It is written with poetic intensity and great narrative skill.” —Harper’s
“Strong and powerful.” —Commonweal
“A sense of reality and vitality that is truly extraordinary. . . . He knows Harlem, his people, and the language they use.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“This is a distinctive book, both realistic and brutal, but a novel of extraordinary sensitivity and poetry.” —Chicago Sunday Tribune

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Vintage International
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Random House
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2 MB

Read an Excerpt

I looked down the line,
And I wondered.

Everyone had always said that john would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself. Not until the morning of his fourteenth birthday did he really begin to think about it, and by then it was already too late.

His earliest memories—which were in a way, his only memories—were of the hurry and brightness of Sunday mornings. They all rose together on that day; his father, who did not have to go to work, and led them in prayer before breakfast; his mother, who dressed up on that day, and looked almost young, with her hair straightened, and on her head the close-fitting white cap that was the uniform of holy women; his younger brother, Roy, who was silent that day because his father was home. Sarah, who wore a red ribbon in her hair that day, and was fondled by her father. And the baby, Ruth, who was dressed in pink and white, and rode in her mother's arms to church.

The church was not very far away, four blocks up Lenox Avenue, on a corner not far from the hospital. It was to this hospital that his mother had gone when Roy, and Sarah, and Ruth were born. John did not remember very clearly the first time she had gone, to have Roy; folks said that he had cried and carried on the whole time his mother was away; he remembered only enough to be afraid every time her belly began to swell, knowing that each time the swelling began it would not end until she was taken from him, to come back with a stranger. Each time this happened she became a little more of a stranger herself. She would soon be going away again, Roy said—he knew much more about such things than John. John had observed his mother closely, seeing no swelling yet, but his father had prayed one morning for the "little voyager soon to be among them," and so John knew that Roy spoke the truth.

Every Sunday morning, then, since John could remember, they had taken to the streets, the Grimes family on their way to church. Sinners along the avenue watched them—men still wearing their Saturday-night clothes, wrinkled and dusty now, muddy-eyed and muddy-faced; and women with harsh voices and tight, bright dresses, cigarettes between their fingers or held tightly in the corners of their mouths. They talked, and laughed, and fought together, and the women fought like the men. John and Roy, passing these men and women, looked at one another briefly, John embarrassed and Roy amused. Roy would be like them when he grew up, if the Lord did not change his heart. These men and women they passed on Sunday mornings had spent the night in bars, or in cat houses, or on the streets, or on rooftops, or under the stairs. They had been drinking. They had gone from cursing to laughter, to anger, to lust. Once he and Roy had watched a man and woman in the basement of a condemned house. They did it standing up. The woman had wanted fifty cents, and the man had flashed a razor.

John had never watched again; he had been afraid. But Roy had watched them many times, and he told John he had done it with some girls down the block.

And his mother and father, who went to church on Sundays, they did it too, and sometimes John heard them in the bedroom behind him, over the sound of rats' feet, and rat screams, and the music and cursing from the harlot's house downstairs.

Their church was called the Temple of the Fire Baptized. It was not the biggest church in Harlem, nor yet the smallest, but John had been brought up to believe it was the holiest and best. His father was head deacon in this church—there were only two, the other a round, black man named Deacon Braithwaite—and he took up the collection, and sometimes he preached. The pastor, Father James, was a genial, well-fed man with a face like a darker moon. It was he who preached on Pentecost Sundays, and led revivals in the summertime, and anointed and healed the sick.

On Sunday mornings and Sunday nights the church was always full; on special Sundays it was full all day. The Grimes family arrived in a body, always a little late, usually in the middle of Sunday school, which began at nine o'clock. This lateness was always their mother's fault—at least in the eyes of their father; she could not seem to get herself and the children ready on time, ever, and sometimes she actually remained behind, not to appear until the morning service. When they all arrived together, they separated upon entering the doors, father and mother going to sit in the Adult Class, which was taught by Sister McCandless, Sarah going to the Infant's Class, John and Roy sitting in the Intermediate, which was taught by Brother Elisha.

When he was young, John had paid no attention in Sunday school, and always forgot the golden text, which earned him the wrath of his father. Around the time of his fourteenth birthday, with all the pressures of church and home uniting to drive him to the altar, he strove to appear more serious and therefore less conspicuous. But he was distracted by his new teacher, Elisha, who was the pastor's nephew and who had but lately arrived from Georgia. He was not much older than John, only seventeen, and he was already saved and was a preacher. John stared at Elisha all during the lesson, admiring the timbre of Elisha's voice, much deeper and manlier than his own, admiring the leanness, and grace, and strength, and darkness of Elisha in his Sunday suit, wondering if he would ever be holy as Elisha was holy. But he did not follow the lesson, and when, sometimes, Elisha paused to ask John a question, John was ashamed and confused, feeling the palms of his hands become wet and his heart pound like a hammer. Elisha would smile and reprimand him gently, and the lesson would go on.

Roy never knew his Sunday school lesson either, but it was different with Roy—no one really expected of Roy what was expected of John. Everyone was always praying that the Lord would change Roy's heart, but it was John who was expected to be good, to be a good example.

When Sunday school service ended there was a short pause before morning service began. In this pause, if it was good weather, the old folks might step outside a moment to talk among themselves. The sisters would almost always be dressed in white from crown to toe. The small children, on this day, in this place, and oppressed by their elders, tried hard to play without seeming to be disrespectful of God's house. But sometimes, nervous or perverse, they shouted, or threw hymn-books, or began to cry, putting their parents, men or women of God, under the necessity of proving—by harsh means or tender—who, in a sanctified household, ruled. The older children, like John or Roy, might wander down the avenue, but not too far. Their father never let John and Roy out of his sight, for Roy had often disappeared between Sunday school and morning service and had not come back all day.

The Sunday morning service began when Brother Elisha sat down at the piano and raised a song. This moment and this music had been with John, so it seemed, since he had first drawn breath. It seemed that there had never been a time when he had not known this moment of waiting while the packed church paused—the sisters in white, heads raised, the brothers in blue, heads back; the white caps of the women seeming to glow in the charged air like crowns, the kinky, gleaming heads of the men seeming to be lifted up—and the rustling and the whispering ceased and the children were quiet; perhaps someone coughed, or the sound of a car horn, or a curse from the streets came in; then Elisha hit the keys, beginning at once to sing, and everybody joined him, clapping their hands, and rising, and beating the tambourines.

The song might be: Down at the cross where my Saviour died!

Or: Jesus, I'll never forget how you set me free!

Or: Lord, hold my hand while I run this race!

They sang with all the strength that was in them, and clapped their hands for joy. There had never been a time when John had not sat watching the saints rejoice with terror in his heart, and wonder. Their singing caused him to believe in the presence of the Lord; indeed, it was no longer a question of belief, because they made that presence real. He did not feel it himself, the joy they felt, yet he could not doubt that it was, for them, the very bread of life—could not doubt it, that is, until it was too late to doubt. Something happened to their faces and their voices, the rhythm of their bodies, and to the air they breathed; it was as though wherever they might be became the upper room, and the Holy Ghost were riding on the air. His father's face, always awful, became more awful now; his father's daily anger was transformed into prophetic wrath. His mother, her eyes raised to heaven, hands arced before her, moving, made real for John that patience, that endurance, that long suffering, which he had read of in the Bible and found so hard to imagine.

On Sunday mornings the women all seemed patient, all the men seemed mighty. While John watched, the Power struck someone, a man or woman; they cried out, a long, wordless crying, and, arms outstretched like wings, they began the Shout. Someone moved a chair a little to give them room, the rhythm paused, the singing stopped, only the pounding feet and the clapping hands were heard; then another cry, another dancer; then the tambourines began again, and the voices rose again, and the music swept on again, like fire, or flood, or judgment. Then the church seemed to swell with the Power it held, and, like a planet rocking in space, the temple rocked with the Power of God. John watched, watched the faces, and the weightless bodies, and listened to the timeless cries. One day, so everyone said, this Power would possess him; he would sing and cry as they did now, and dance before his King. He watched young Ella Mae Washington, the seventeen-year-old granddaughter of Praying Mother Washington, as she began to dance. And then Elisha danced.

At one moment, head thrown back, eyes closed, sweat standing on his brow, he sat at the piano, singing and playing; and then, like a great, black cat in trouble in the jungle, he stiffened and trembled, and cried out. Jesus, Jesus, oh Lord Jesus! He struck on the piano one last, wild note, and threw up his hands, palms upward, stretched wide apart. The tambourines raced to fill the vacuum left by his silent piano, and his cry drew answering cries. Then he was on his feet, turning, blind, his face congested, contorted with this rage, and the muscles leaping and swelling in his long, dark neck. It seemed that he could not breathe, that his body could not contain this passion, that he would be, before their eyes, dispersed into the waiting air. His hands, rigid to the very fingertips, moved outward and back against his hips, his sightless eyes looked upward, and he began to dance. Then his hands closed into fists, and his head snapped downward, his sweat loosening the grease that slicked down his hair; and the rhythm of all the others quickened to match Elisha's rhythm; his thighs moved terribly against the cloth of his suit, his heels beat on the floor, and his fists moved beside his body as though he were beating his own drum. And so, for a while, in the center of the dancers, head down, fists beating, on, on, unbearably, until it seemed the walls of the church would fall for very sound; and then, in a moment, with a cry, head up, arms high in the air, sweat pouring from his forehead, and all his body dancing as though it would never stop. Sometimes he did not stop until he fell—until he dropped like some animal felled by a hammer—moaning, on his face. And then a great moaning filled the church.

There was sin among them. One Sunday, when regular service was over, Father James had uncovered sin in the congregation of the righteous. He had uncovered Elisha and Ella Mae. They had been "walking disorderly"; they were in danger of straying from the truth. And as Father James spoke of the sin that he knew they had not committed yet, of the unripe fig plucked too early from the tree—to set the children's teeth on edge—John felt himself grow dizzy in his seat and could not look at Elisha where he stood, beside Ella Mae, before the altar. Elisha hung his head as Father James spoke, and the congregation murmured. And Ella Mae was not so beautiful now as she was when she was singing and testifying, but looked like a sullen, ordinary girl. Her full lips were loose and her eyes were black—with shame, or rage, or both. Her grandmother, who had raised her, sat watching quietly, with folded hands. She was one of the pillars of the church, a powerful evangelist and very widely known. She said nothing in Ella Mae's defense, for she must have felt, as the congregation felt, that Father James was only exercising his clear and painful duty; he was responsible, after all, for Elisha, as Praying Mother Washington was responsible for Ella Mae. It was not an easy thing, said Father James, to be the pastor of a flock. It might look easy to just sit up there in the pulpit night after night, year in, year out, but let them remember the awful responsibility placed on his shoulders by almighty God—let them remember that God would ask an accounting of him one day for every soul in his flock. Let them remember this when they thought he was hard, let them remember that the Word was hard, that the way of holiness was a hard way. There was no room in God's army for the coward heart, no crown awaiting him who put mother, or father, sister, or brother, sweetheart, or friend above God's will. Let the church cry amen to this! And they cried: "Amen! Amen!"

The Lord had led him, said Father James, looking down on the boy and girl before him, to give them a public warning before it was too late. For he knew them to be sincere young people, dedicated to the service of the Lord—it was only that, since they were young, they did not know the pitfalls Satan laid for the unwary. He knew that sin was not in their minds—not yet; yet sin was in the flesh; and should they continue with their walking out alone together, their secrets and laughter, and touching of hands, they would surely sin a sin beyond all forgiveness. And John wondered what Elisha was thinking—Elisha, who was tall and handsome, who played basketball, and who had been saved at the age of eleven in the improbable fields down south. Had he sinned? Had he been tempted? And the girl beside him, whose white robes now seemed the merest, thinnest covering for the nakedness of breasts and insistent thighs—what was her face like when she was alone with Elisha, with no singing, when they were not surrounded by the saints? He was afraid to think of it, yet he could think of nothing else; and the fever of which they stood accused began also to rage in him.

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What People are saying about this

John Edgar Wideman
"Baldwin's way of seeing, his clearity, precision, and eloquence are unique....He manages to be concrete, particular...yet also transcendent, arching above the immediacy of an occassion of crisis. He speaks as great black gospel music speaks, through metaphor, parable, rhythm."

--John Edgar Wideman

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Go Tell It on the Mountain 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 49 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This first masterwork by James Baldwin represents one of the most penetrating, eloquent, and original visions in American literature. The crisis of black spirituality in a land constantly negating black humanity is not a tale easily told, yet Baldwin did so with a rare degree of power, beauty, and courage. The reasons this novel is generally described as a classic are evident on every page.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Drawn-out, overly descriptive, and at times hard to follow. Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin tells the story of the deep spiritual struggle of a fourteen year old black boy growing up in a Harlem community in the 1930¿s. At times, the book sounds almost poetic until an abrupt, and occasionally disturbing, flash back jumps at you from out of nowhere. Eventually, the story turns into somewhat of a bad soap opera with adultery, gangs, attempted murder, child abuse, suicide, and rape. Baldwin has shown through this book his mastery of fitting someone¿s life story into a single sentence as he attempted to do several times, losing the reader mid sentence. Baldwin also went on for pages describing dust in a house and adulterous moments-a euphemism of course. I can certainly agree with New York Times'review, ¿ with vivid imagery and lavish attention to details.¿ But I never imagined it to be this bad. Where details lacked in some areas, they grew like weeds in others. Attention to details many people do not want to hear about proliferated, distracting from the supposed focus of the book, the spiritual struggles of a teenage boy. In five words or less: sick, twisted and way to long. So, if you are looking for a soap opera-like book which could have easily been 200 pages shorter go to your nearest bookstore and purchase Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I understood most of the book, but eventually had a strong recognition tp it. When I saw the movie, i was like, 'Oh, so that's what happened!' I has a full comprehension of the book after I watched the movie
Guest More than 1 year ago
For a quick read, James Baldwin¿s novel may be suitable, but coming from a classroom setting, almost unsatisfactory. Although Go Tell it on the Mountain is written by an important figure in African American Literature, I did not enjoy reading this book on many accounts, which range from summary, story structure, and my disliking of the characters. The story begins with the family in Go Tell it on the Mountain getting ready to go to church. Religion plays a very important part and the most important people are part of the church. John, one of the main characters, has been watching people amongst his family being ¿saved¿ and beginning a new life all the time. He wakes up on his fourteenth birthday feeling nothing different and none of his family members even acknowledge even a `happy birthday¿ to him. His mother, Elizabeth comes around to it, gives him some money and sends him on his way. John is scared someone from the church might see him downtown, so he runs into the movie theater. While he is gone, his brother Roy gets into trouble and gets stabbed. John comes home to his father, Gabriel, being very upset with him, Roy wounded, Elizabeth crying and his Aunt Florence yelling at Gabriel. Everyone is upset at everyone and so trouble follows. Gabriel ends up slapping Elizabeth and then beats Roy for taking up for his mother. Aunt Florence calls him out on being a stereotypic black man all the while John is just standing back, witnessing everything. After that, the family goes to church as if nothing happened. Florence rarely goes to church, so in this case, John knew she must have been near her deathbed. The novel then goes into depth about her past and Gabriel¿s as well, since they are siblings. Following the description of Florence¿s past, Gabriel¿s past and Elizabeth¿s past, it takes the reader to the end of the book. After a few days after John¿s fourteenth birthday, the story ends. One point I did not like about Go Tell it on the Mountain, was that the story took place only within a few days and nothing too significant happens. The reason why nothing happens is because majority of the novel details almost all of the character¿spasts. The reader knows very little about the main character John, but jumps into Florence¿s past along with all the decisions she¿s had to make, Gabriel¿s past with all of the irrational and religious behavior and Elizabeth¿s quiet past. While reading through the character¿s lives, they were interesting and gave the reader clear descriptions of each personality. Unfortunately I expected it to come to a point in the story and it did not. As soon as the novel flashes back to the present year of the novel, 1935, the book is practically over and the character¿s past hardly had anything to do with the plot. Although, James Baldwin wrote about many discussion worthy and prominent topics, like children out of wedlock, hypocrisy and male and female roles I did not find the backgrounds to serve as any argument in the story. Baldwin should have brought the detail of the character¿s lives to around full circle and made them play a more significant role in the novel, especially the ending. What actually makes the novel are the characters inside it, but in Go Tell in on the Mountain¿s case, the characters are my least favorite. To pinpoint the term main character on one person in this novel can be confusing because two of them can be considered main character. Starting with the most obvious one, John, right at first he seemed different and slower. Slower meaning possibly autistic because he has a hard time making social connections with people yet he excels in school. Everyone in the church though John would follow in Gabriel¿s footsteps and become a preacher, but John did not care if he did or did not. He was afraid of many things, such as sin. At one point, J
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a first novels go, I thought this particular title was excellent, even brilliant at times. The author did particularly well in illustrating the difficulties faced by successive generations of African-Americans in the early 20th century. His character sketches of John and the rest of the Grimes family are very well done in my opinion. Baldwin initially gives the reader a very limited portrait of the adults, and then reveals in one layer after another how the choices and compromises each was forced to make in a racist and misogynistic society in turn affected their relationships with one another and the succeeding generation as represented by the protagonist. A word finally about some of the comments by other reviewers on this page. Many of them seem to focus on the novel's lack of a thriller-like plot or structure and 'lavish attention to detail.' However, this is the novel's principal strength in my opinion. It allows Baldwin's narrative to tell some uncomfortable truths about African-Americans, both men and women, and perhaps most importantly about America itself that a 'thriller-like plot' would never be able to accomplish in the same way. From the many errors in spelling, grammar and syntax that were evident in the reviews I read on this page, it is clear that the fault most likely lies with their inability to comprehend the complex social issues and historical insights that the author is dealing with in this novel, rather than any shortcoming of the book itself. I hope that they can reconsider their attitudes toward the novel and the rest of Baldwin's work at a later time in their lives when they've acquired more enlightenment (as well as education). I'm sure that their reading of the novel will be the richer for it.
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"Go Tell it on the Mountain" is a pretty interesting book. The book is written in a three-day format and there is a lot of information in it. The main character, John, doesn't know where he fits in. His family wants him to become a preacher, but John is not sure if he wants to. Everyone expects him to be a good kid, unlike his younger brother. His father is very cruel to his family, especially John and his brother. His mother is kind to the family, but John wonders why she is distant. John also is confused about his church. Every time someone does something wrong, they have to confess it with shouting and screaming to be forgiven. He also doesn't fit in the church and has to behave in the services. Everyone around him seems to be struggling with an inner thing that they can't seem to let go of. His aunt struggles with her childhood and her hatred toward her mother and brother. John's mother struggles with her life that she had before she married John's father. John's father struggles with the bad things he has done in the past that has affected the people around him. Also John struggles with his father. He has hatred towards his father because of all the things he has done to his family. His father looks at him with hate in his eyes and John wished he wasn't his father. John's brother likes to get into trouble and is constantly warned not to, but he never heeds to these warnings. He is also lazy and doesn't like to help around when it is needed. John and his sisters, Sarah and Baby Ruth, usually get along and Sarah is always a good child. I think that the author did a pretty good job on the characters. I think that the author is trying to get the message across that people can go through struggles in their life and that it will get better with time. I think that the author did a good job on this book, except for a few parts. I think that the most important part in the book is the ending. I think that is the most important part because everything is a lot better for all of the characters at the end. Everything seems to turn out right in the ending and things look a lot better for John.
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Baldwin takes you back in time thanks to his vivid imagery. he makes you become part of the story. I read it in two sittings; I simply could not let the book go!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Go Tell It on the Mountain is filled with biblical information that brings out the spirit of the black church and a realism that brings to life the Harlem of the 1930s, a northern ghetto whose souls were still struggling with southern demons. This book as a novel brings out so much in the point of view and you can also learn from it. The language they use is very proper as because it was back in the days and the tone of work is just magnificent it brings out every detail and brings it to your perspective. This novel was an attempt to exorcise something about the past life of the author James Baldwin, to find out what happened to his father, what happened to all of the people, what had happened to him and how we were to move from one place to another it is just about another young man struggling with tough issues in life like any other kid that made this one of the greatest novels of the period.