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Literature / Go Tell It on the Mountain

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"Mountain was the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else. I had to deal with what hurt me most. I had to deal, above all, with my father. . . . Nobody's ever frightened me since."
James Baldwin

Go Tell It on the Mountain is the first and perhaps best-known novel of the American writer James Baldwin. Published in 1953 and based closely on Baldwin's own adolescent experiences, the book follows fourteen-year-old John Grimes, his hard-nosed stepfather (and Pentecostal preacher) Gabriel, his mother Elizabeth, and his aunt Florence as they grapple with their Christian faith and negotiate the hardships of African American life in early 20th-century Harlem and elsewhere.

Go Tell It on the Mountain is considered a modern classic, and it established Baldwin as an important voice in 20th-century American literature. It addresses many of the themes that would come to be signatures of his work, including issues of racial and sexual identity, the suffering and resilience of black people in America, and the role of religion in African American life.

Not to be confused with the spiritual song of the same name, though that is the source of the novel's title.

Go Tell It on the Mountain contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Age-Gap Romance: Between Deborah and Gabriel, with the former being the eldest by eight years.
  • All Take and No Give: Every relationship (romantic or otherwise) that Gabriel takes part in has this dynamic, with Gabriel as the taker.
  • Ambiguously Gay: John. His sexuality is never made explicit in-text (in part because he himself is still figuring it out), but the not-so-subtle hints scattered throughout the book—as well as his role as the Author Avatar for the openly-gay Baldwin—leave little doubt as to his orientation.
  • Author Avatar: John is based very closely on Baldwin himself, with the other characters representing his real-life family.
  • As the Good Book Says...: References to The Bible are ubiquitous in Go Tell It on the Mountain, to the point that even the language in which the book is written mimics the style of the King James Version.
  • Bastard Angst: There's a lot of drama in the novel concerning children who are born without fathers, and this is a big source of tension between John and his stepfather, Gabriel.
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: Much of the book is spent diving into the backstories of various members of the Grimes family and uncovering just how screwed-up they really are. Adultery, abuse, illegitimate children, deadbeat romantic partners, and even worse abound.
  • Break the Haughty: Played With in the case of Gabriel. His conversion seems to have this effect initially, but the change doesn't stick. The disastrous consequences of his extramarital affair have a more lasting impact, but also serve to make him even colder and more cruel.
  • The Call Knows Where You Live: Gabriel is only driven to convert after his sister leaves him as the sole caretaker of their dying mother (whose only wish is for him to become a Christian). Later, Florence only begins to take her faith seriously when she takes ill and realizes she doesn't have long to live.
  • Coming of Age Story: For John. The present-day sections all take place on or immediately after his fourteenth birthday, as he comes to terms with his identity and finally embraces the religion of his stepfather. (Whether this latter point is a good or bad thing in the long run is left for the reader to decide.)
    • Each of the flashback chapters involving other members of the Grimes family also serves as a miniature coming-of-age story for the character in question, and shows the reader how these people came to be how they are now.
  • Crapsack World: The book paints an extremely grim picture of life in early 20th-century America, with little hope for any of the characters to improve their situation in a meaningful way. Truth in Television, unfortunately, for most African American people in that period.
  • Defiled Forever: This is the community's opinion of Deborah after she is gang-raped by white men. Gabriel seems to look past the stigma when he decides to marry her, but it's not long before the revulsion returns.
    • This is also Gabriel's opinion of his second wife, Elizabeth, who gave birth to John out of wedlock. A major Double Standard, given that he once had an illegitimate child of his own...
  • Despair Event Horizon: Upon returning home from jail, Richard breaks down sobbing and won't say a word to Elizabeth. Later that night, he slits his wrists.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: John's wrestling match with Elisha manages both to be charged with homoerotic tension and to mirror the story of Jacob wrestling the angel in Genesis.
  • Double Standard: As mentioned above, Gabriel has a low opinion of women who have faced sexual abuse or had children out of wedlock; meanwhile, he goes to great lengths to keep his own scandalous past hidden and maintain his holy reputation, despite having done far worse than the women he condemns. When his sister confronts him with his misdeeds, he waves them off and says they don't matter anymore since God has already forgiven him.
  • Driven to Suicide: Richard, after being jailed, beaten, and put on trial for a crime he didn't commit. He gets off without a conviction, but the experience only serves to convince him that there's no hope for a better life as a black man.
  • Easy Road to Hell: To hear Gabriel tell it, it's a wonder anyone ever gets to heaven.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: Though much of the book consists of flashbacks covering many decades, the present-day action occurs in a span of about twenty-four hours.
  • The Fundamentalist: Gabriel is a particularly inflexible Pentecostal preacher.
  • Good Is Not Nice: Even for the most devout characters, God is only ever represented as distant, wrathful, and quick to punish the slightest misstep.
  • Heroic Bastard: The protagonist, John, never knew his real father.
  • His Own Worst Enemy: Florence thinks of her brother, Gabriel, in these terms, and to a lesser extent it's how he perceives himself, too.
  • Hot for Preacher: John for Elisha, and several women for Gabriel. (He's referred to more than once in the flashback sections as a handsome young man, and he was a notorious womanizer before his conversion.)
  • I Am Not My Father: John has this attitude towards Gabriel, though the latter is technically only his stepfather.
  • Jerkass: Gabriel.
  • Meaningful Name: Gabriel Grimes, whose soul has been tainted (aka made grimy) by past sin and who brings suffering and despair to pretty much everyone he meets. It's notable that the most wholly "pure" members of the Grimes family, Elizabeth and John, aren't born to the name—they only take it on through marriage and adoption, respectively. (Gabriel's first name is also ironic, since the Gabriel of the Bible is an archangel but this Gabriel is angelic only in his public persona.)
  • The Migration: All of the adults in John's family migrated to New York from the South, during the period of... well, the Great Migration.
  • Mission from God: Gabriel sees his ministry as this, and also believes that God has ordained him to father a great line of ministers. Neither seems to be going very well by the time the novel starts.
  • Murder by Inaction: Gabriel's neglect of his mistress and illegitimate son results, at least indirectly, in both of their premature deaths.
  • My Greatest Failure: Gabriel's extramarital affair and subsequent rejection of his mistress and child cast a dark shadow over the rest of his life.
  • Parental Abandonment: Gabriel toward his illegitimate son, Royal.
  • Police Brutality: Richard is beaten for insisting he didn't commit the crime he was jailed for.
  • Resigned to the Call: Pretty much all of the conversions depicted in the book happen reluctantly, with John's faltering journey towards salvation serving as the central plot thread.
  • Roman à Clef: The book is based closely on Baldwin's own adolescence and conversion.
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: This is Elizabeth's view. She prays that John will be able to maintain his innocence for as long as possible before life inevitably brings him down.
  • Switching P.O.V.: Between John, Florence, Gabriel, and Elizabeth.
  • Titled After the Song: As mentioned above.
  • Trauma Conga Line: Elizabeth's backstory. Her mother died, she was sent away from the father she loved to live with an aunt she despised, she fell in love with a boy and got pregnant out of wedlock, the boy was arrested for a crime he didn't commit and took his own life before she could tell him about the child. And things didn't exactly get better when she married Gabriel...
  • Turn Out Like His Father: Roy (Gabriel's only living son) seems to take after his father temperamentally. Florence invokes this trope, meaning it as an insult.
  • The Un-Favourite: John is by far the best-behaved son in the Grimes household and is expected by everyone to pursue a career in ministry, but Gabriel hates him for what he represents (namely, Elizabeth's past life and love, and Gabriel's own failure to produce an heir he can be proud of).
  • What Have I Become?: Gabriel has a moment of this after his affair, but he is too afraid of the consequences to address the issue or make appropriate amends.