Rereading Go Tell It On The Mountain, James Baldwin’s most recognizable work of fiction, I kept going back to a paragraph in Toni Morrison’s Eulogy of him; a part of a speech that exists as a work of literature in itself.
“You made American English honest – genuinely international. You exposed its secrets and reshaped it until it was truly modern dialogue, representative, humane. You stripped it of ease and false comfort and fake innocence and evasion and hypocrisy. And in place of deviousness was clarity. In place of soft plump lies was a lean, targeted power. In place of intellectual disingenuousness and what you called ‘exasperating egocentricity,’ you gave us undecorated truth. You replaced lumbering platitudes with an upright elegance. You went into that forbidden territory and decolonized it, ‘robbed it of the jewel of its naivete,’ and un-gated it for black people so that in your wake we could enter it, occupy it, restructure it in order to accommodate our complicated passion – not our vanities but our intricate, difficult, demanding beauty, our tragic, insistent knowledge, our lived reality, our sleek classical imagination – all the while refusing ‘to be defined by a language that has never been able to recognize [us].’ In your hands language was handsome again. In your hands we saw how it was meant to be: neither bloodless nor bloody, and yet alive.”
It is the most eloquent defense ofhis work, and a telling paragraph given his complicated relationship with fiction. In the 70’s, Baldwin was in talks to have Morrison as his editor. As both novelist and higher up at random house, Morrison had helped to foster an aesthethic of black fiction focused less with speechifying toward a genererric image of a “white audience” and more about examinining the interior of black life, an aesthtic very much influenced by Mountain, and one that he struggled to come back to as he became more of a public figure in the civil rights movement. Given the strengths and deficencies of the novels he put out in the 70’s ,( and the neglect he suffered at his hands of the publishers he actually had), it was a shame that this partership didnt happen.
In this case, however, shame must be put in it’s bening and proper context, and in the context of the glories of one of the greatest writers in the history of the english language. James Baldwin was a writer whose literary gifts, personal honesty and moral courage shook America to its core and shaped the scope of its history for the better. At his best, his writing was a seductive soup; full of grace, rage, charm, anger, compassion, thoughtfulness, indignation and heart. In his speeches and writings, he touched on countless truths on what it meant to be black in America, articulated deep wounds to a mass audience and kicked down numbers of unopened doors. Even in the realm of prodigious American literary giants, Baldwin casts a shadow. Go Tell It On The Mountain, in this writers opinion, is a vital part of that shadow, and one of the most underrrated classic works of fiction in the history of the 20th century.
The consensus that Baldwin’s non fiction is bettere than his fiction only has credence if you take into account that he is generally considered one of the five greatest essayist of the twentieth century. In his classic Non fiction books ( Notes Of A Native Son, Nobody knows My Name, The Fire Next Time, No Name In The Street) Baldwin fused the language of the King James bible with that of Henry James’ prefaces, and to that, added the rhethorical gravitas of the African American Storefront preacher. The result was a body of work that every person who has struck a grace note in racial dicussions owes a debt to. In those books, Baldwin found the universal in the personal, and demanded every reader repudiate the nightmare of America’s racist history and see the humanity of every person regardless of race, creed, gender or sexual preference.
Only in contrast to his essays does his fiction seem lacking.
Outside of his first novel, his best fiction worked in the first person point of view(Giovanni’s Room, Just Above My head) . Baldwin’s devotion to Henry James at times worked to the detriment of his novels: the old 19th century scion’s belief in style equaling form more often than not came at expense of plot, and Baldwin, for all the beauty of his prose, fell into the same trap; the prime example being Another Country, a novel that is riveting for it’s first 100 pages, then drags for it’s next 300) Although I urge you to read almost everything the man has written, fiction and non, Baldwin has only one truly brilliant work of fiction.
But what a work it is. Mountain is a symphony of the post-great migration black family; an epic detailing their interior lives, their interconnection with their southern past and their ability to survive through tremendous pain. It is also a work of ecumenical ecstasy and pathology, a narrative showing the bind religion has on the scope of African American lives and history, both showing how it helped us survive during our darkest hours and how it almost destroyed us via it’s ruthless orthodoxies. Though just over 200 pages, it is also a prose tour-de-force , revolutionizing the American syntactical landscape by bringing together a stunning grasp of English prose with the language, rhythms and cadences of the black church.
The story revolves around the Grimes Clan, 5 members of a highly religious black family. There is Gabriel, the father who is a noxious mixture of pallid sanctimony and moral squalor. He married a woman named Elizabeth, who he treats sadistically because she had a son out of wedlock, although he’s done the same thing earlier in his life. Elizabeth’s “bastard” son John is the main character of the novel, a perceptive, bright and insightful young boy when he is not being Gabriel’s punching bag. Gabriel gives more love to Roy, the son he has with Elizabeth, who is more like the childlike thug Loeb to Gabriel’s fatherly Leopold. Gabriel’s sister Florence serves as his personal Jeremiah, one of many biblical references in the novel, reminding him of all the dirt he’s done in his life. Their lives are centered around the church in Harlem and their own demons, wounds and unresolved family issues.
The first part of the book, chronicling John’s observations about his everyday life, describing the ritual and ceremony of the black church and showing John’s status as an outsider in New York, establishes the template for the personal insight and the lyrical beauty of the novel. But Mountain really starts to pick up when Roy comes home after being beaten up by white kids after deliberately trying to pick a fight. Filled with a potent but emotionally hollow indignation, Gabriel goes on a rant about whites and the ugliness/cowardice of his son John, bickers bitterly with his sister Florence and slaps his wife around until Roy cusses him out, which prompts Gabriel to give him a brutal beating.
From then on the novel progresses to a Saturday night prayer meeting where their life story is told in disorientingly gorgeous flashbacks, nearly biblical in moral scope, told in a language that’s ornate, biblical, poetic and beautiful. The bulk of it centers around Gabriel and how he became a combination of Dostoevsky’s Stavrogin and the reverend Ike. What makes Gabriel such a chilling character is that Baldwin doesn’t present him as a cardboard archetype of evil, but shows the circumstances that made him who he is, and the consequences of his actions that spread that evil about. Baldwin’s creation serves as his finest retort to Bigger Thomas, the famous psychopath as victim of Richard Wright’s Native Son, not his essays on the subject, which are petty, overwritten, off-the-mark and highly overrated. Unlike Wright’s creation of Thomas, which he used as a indicator to damm the evils of racism, Baldwin’s Gabriel, while not free from the brutal damage of bigotry, is a monster primarily of his own volition.
After spending his teenage years and early adult life drinking, fighting and carousing up a storm, Gabriel finds religion and becomes a minister, and for a while it soothes the demons inside of him. He finds a devoted wife and tends to a congregation. But his lust overtakes him and he has an affair with a local “heathen,” which results in her getting pregnant. Instead of facing up to it, Gabriel steals money from his wife to help send her away, pretends that nothing happened and acts like he is the same moral figure. It is the first of many scenes in which he uses a fake piety to buffer the memory of one of his actions, and the results, as the novel progresses, are deceit, heartbreak, treachery and death, although not directly by his hands.
Gabriel’s sister Florence and his wife Elizabeth are two sides of the same coin. Both left the south to escape the pain, madness and cruelty of their environment in search of a better life up north. Both didn’t find it. Florence married a down-on-his-luck lazy drunk, and Elizabeth married a poor, yet sweet, bright and decent man, who was broken down by the police and the system. Throughout his career, Baldwin’s depiction of women has been schitzophrenic, especially when he decided to become a spokesman for the civil rights movement in the 60’s and parroted their dogma on gender. It must be said, however, that he was on the side of gender progress more often than not( particularly later in his life, given his vigorous defense of The Color Purple) and the nuanced way he examines both of their lives is one of this novels strengths.
Another one of the novel’s strengths, and it’s central character, is John, a bright, sensitive, heartbreakingly beautiful soul on which nothing is lost. Devoted to his mother and emotionally scarred from the viciousness of his father and environment, he distances himself from religion and buries himself in movies and school. But in the end the nightmare of the Grimes’ history weighs on him and he has to either break away or join in the sadomasochistic family dance with Jesus. Seeing all the, to quote Yeats, “Terrible Beauty” of the revival meeting, he undergoes a wildly surrealistic conversion to God, bringing the story full circle. An the end the novel leaves you with so many questions. Can John brave his pains through prayer and praise? Can Gabriel reconcile his holy side with his evil side, or is that holy side just a sophisticated front to smoothen that evil out? Will Elizabeth ever find happiness with Gabriel and reconcile the death of her first husband? Can Florence find an emotionally comfortable space between the personal hell of society and her personal hell of her family?
Along the way of telling the stories of the Grimes family, the novel works magic on so many levels. Here Baldwin’s devotion to structure equaling form works at it’s absolute best, as the backdrop and background of the black church fuses perfectly with the novel’s language. You can see that in beautiful scenic montages that show the joy, pain, exaltation and horror of being in the spirit, the anguish one has to have to want to go through such a state, the stream of conscious power of a sermon, the horrific, all too real and all too damaging father/son dynamic between Gabriel, Roy and John, the tragic ethos of Elizabeth’s first love with Richard, his subsequent frame-up by the police and suicide and the wounded yet beautiful daughter/son dynamic that Elizabeth has with John. Here Baldwin takes subtle shared experiences of African American life and makes them undeniably powerful art.
Rereading Mountain, it is easy to see the connection and complex relationship Morrison had with Baldwin. Like he did in this novel, Morrison’s best work highlights the universal in the African American experience by focusing on the personal and interior of black life. Mountain’s greatest triumph is exactly that, as John Grimes and his struggles don’t belong only to the scope of African American history, but also of the narrator of In Search Of Lost Time’s finite descriptions of his life and world, Stephen Dedalus, the hero of James Joyce’s Portrait of The Artist as A Young Man, struggling to search for self and make sense of his life, and in the end Joseph, hero of the Old Testament, desperately trying to come to terms with the nightmare of his family.
In 2014, when a fragmented America is distancing itself from its common culture and therefore its soul, we need to hear James Baldwin’s voice. In troubled times like these, Americans need to fall back on the voices that have, throughout history, emboldened its democratic ideals. James Baldwin is one of those voices, and once again I urge you to read his body of work. In his fiction, Go Tell It On The Mountain is the best place to start