Book Review: Go Tell It On the Mountain

Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin 

Go Tell It On the Mountain is James Baldwin’s first novel. Published in 1953 to almost universally favorable reviews, Baldwin himself was held up as a young novelist of much promise, as indeed he proved to be. The book is often considered by critics to be his best novel. 

This is a semi-autobiographical coming of age story. John, the protagonist in the story, is the son (he learns later that he’s actually the step-son) of a stern fundamentalist preacher. The story takes place on John’s fourteenth birthday and revolves around his blossoming awareness of himself, both sexually and religiously. 

Much of the book takes place in flashback, and includes deep dives into the characters of John’s father Gabriel, his mother Elizabeth, and his aunt Florence. These stories are imbued with sex, religion, the church’s warnings on the sins of the flesh, and the dangers of being black in an America only a generation removed from slavery. 

Baldwin, like John, was the stepson of a fierce fundamentalist preacher born of a slave. (There is some uncertainty about his stepfather’s exact birth date. It’s possible he was born before Emancipation and thus a slave himself as a young child.) Baldwin followed briefly in his father’s footsteps, delivering fiery sermons in his father’s church at the age of 13. But by seventeen the fire and excitement of the church had faded, and instead, as he wrote in an essay, “there was no love in the church. It was a mask for hatred and self-hatred and despair.”

It’s clear from the intensity of the writing that this is a deeply personal book for Baldwin. His depiction of the characters are multifaceted and empathetic. Their struggles are intense and very realistic.

In keeping with the story of a Pentecostal preacher’s son, a good portion of the book is related through religious experience, and using terminology common to fundamentalist thought. While this does help give additional insight into the characters it can also make it harder to understand for anyone personally unfamiliar with that experience (like me). 

This is especially true in the last part of the book, which relates the story of John being “saved” in the church on the evening of his birthday. John is struck with visions and falls to the floor. His visions are related through religiously weighted allegory as he struggles with his own sin, his relationship with his father, and his conflicted feelings for Elisha, a slightly older youth active in his father’s church. 

Now that I’ve read the book and have had a chance to reflect on it I can say that it is powerfully written and intensely felt, and a brilliant novel. But at the same time it’s also dense, dark and depressing. I set the book down many times, and each time I let a few days pass before picking it back up again. 

I read Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room last year and gave it five stars. The two books are both semi-autobiographical and share the author’s intense storytelling style and brilliantly depicted characters. But without the religiosity Giovanni’s Room is a much easier read.  In my review of Giovanni’s Room I said that I hated to come to the end of the book. But Go Tell It On the Mountain left me drained. While I was glad that I’d read it, I was also glad it was over.

Rating: Three Stars ⭐⭐⭐

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Title: Go Tell It On the Mountain
Author: James Baldwin
Publisher: Vintage Books (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group)
Publish Date: September 12th, 2013
ISBN-13: 9780375701870
Publisher’s List Price: $15.00 (Trade Paperback as of 05/2022)