James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain
A seminal coming-of-age novel of the 20th century.
Go Tell It on the Mountain is James Baldwin’s seminal, semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel. John Grimes, Baldwin’s 14-year-old protagonist-slash-proxy, lives in a world structured by punishing dichotomies: salvation vs. sin, white violence vs. black survival. John, though tentatively at first, pushes at these seemingly fixed contrasts, mainly by way of his gift for reading and writing. His bookishness is a burden and a weapon, a passport and a mark of difference. He wants to swagger and play sports, but instead he “sins with his hand” while thinking about other boys, or pines after Elisha, a young teacher at church. At home, John is expected to become a preacher like his father, and yet his father shows him only rage and cruelty.
In the middle section, Baldwin unravels the backstories of John’s father, mother and aunt, but as the reader becomes privy to these characters’ buried histories, their anger and sorrow remain indecipherable to John. Still, John comes into his own as, finally, he is called to “the threshing floor.” Baldwin’s prose becomes porous and prophetic as John has visions of ancestors lost to slavery rising in resistance, and finds the strength, at last, to face himself and enter his own moment.
Originally published in 1954, Go Tell It on the Mountain remains fresh and essential, and the audiobook does justice to the subtlety and power of Baldwin’s prose.