Customer Reviews: Go Tell It on the Mountain (Modern Library)
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VINE VOICEon March 9, 2002
This was my second time reading this masterpiece;the first time in the early 70s. I don't remember what I thought about it then, though I remember it leaving an impression. The writing then and moreso now is writing at its best from a master in my opinion. Yes it is complex, convoluted, disturbing at times but for me it flowed. Not everyone can write fire and brimstone, sin and redemption in literary terms. I am in awe of his genius.
During one night at a prayer service, four individuals stories are told. John, on this day has just turned fourteen years old and is trying to make sense of his life. Gentle, intelligent, he wanted so much to please the man who he thought of as his father. He had potential to expand his life beyond the limitations in front of him. Gabriel, wretched, tortured soul, a man who refused to take responsibility for his actions. Saved, sanctified and fill with the Holy Ghost, his mistreatment of his first wife, Deborah, his discard lover, Esther, his present wife Elizabeth and his son John is what kept him from being the minister that he was in his youth before he fell from grace. Elizabeth, proud and determined, she wanted John to have the same love from Gabriel that he gave to his other "natural" sons. A woman who accepted her circumstances; she has lost her first true love, Richard and was resigned to accepting Gabriel's hand in marriage to redeem her sin. Florence, too proud for her own good Bitter, resentful of her brother Gabriel and now perhaps facing death, she has lived a live of unfulfilled dreams.
Where we they all stand after they haved poured their hearts and souls on the alter? Secrets, dreams, hopes are revealed. Told in a language of complexity full of allegories, symbolism, Bible similies, it is no wonder it is taught in universities around the country. I am on a quest to read re-read Baldwin's books that I have read and read others that I have not. Nobody does it better.
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on July 17, 1999
Looking over the reviews, I was surprised at how often reviewers said this books was tedious to them. I found it one of the strongest and most powerful books I have read it a long time, with language that was exalted, and often hymn-like in its quality.
Concerning the book, then, I would like to suggest a couple of things to readers and to those who suggest books for others to read:
1)Don't read this book unless you know your Bible well, particularly the King James version. Without this as your base, I would guess that you'd find the language incredibly dense, and most of Baldwin's allusive power will blow past you.
2)Don't read this book unless you have some experience in life. Again, I would think that the way Baldwin is able to put deep inner struggles and the feelings that rise from hard experience into words will remain lost to you unless you've had some hard experience of your own.
3) If you're not African American, a little pre-reading into the Black experience in America might be helpful first, looking into particularly the Great Migration, the Azusa street revival, and the rise of the storefront church.
4) Practice reading the book out loud!! Many passages were written in an almost oral form, the kind one hears in preaching, with rolling sentences that seem to go on forever. Don't let the long sentences intimidate. Rather let them sweep you along, phrase for phrase, as they're meant to.
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on October 1, 1999
First I want to say. I really don't understand how anyone with enough intelligence to load this site and write a review (and it doesn't take much) could speak so critically about such a powerful book. I can't even dismiss two of the reviews as complaints of illiterate teenagers. How can anyone ignore the universal theme of the book, the human condition. The entrapment of an individual inside personal, ethnic, religious, racial, and/or ancestral bonds. As for the "boringness" of the book, it seems to me that any one could appreciate this book, it is jsut as captivating as any thriller. John's struggle with his own identity as a person, a "saint", and African-American, is captivating. Yes we all go through the same type of self-discovery, but no one captures, in such eloquent wording, the angst of such a revelation. In response to the critique of Baldwin's writing style. I can see how some people might not be able to have patience for his elongated sentences, and biblical references. And if you are too frustrated to make it through the entire book, I think I might understand...but please don't downgrade what you have read. Baldwin's work is likely the "Pit and the Pendulum" of the 20th Century.
I would aslo like to say to the highschool students who read this book, that if I can appreciate it (and I am sixteen) I think you can too.
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on August 21, 2002
Jesus said, "A man's enemies will be the members of his own household" (Matthew 10:36), and "No prophet is accepted in his hometown" (Luke 4:24).
This idea certainly plays out in the Grimes family of James Baldwin's "Go Tell It on the Mountain" (1952). Except for John's mother Elizabeth, the adult Grimeses have no idea that love, familial love, is supposed to include favor (not favoritism like the father Gabriel's), the idea of blessing each other with good words, good will, and heartfelt affection. Unfortunately, the novel's Black Christians' idea of goodness and holiness is colored by the master's idea of a good slave: docile, acquiescent, submissive, silent in the face of abuse, always needing to prove your worth. "Blessed Assurance" isn't one of their songs.
"Go Tell" presents not only the story of John's 14th birthday, but the past stories of Elizabeth, Gabriel, and Aunt Florence. Whereas Gabriel's spiritual journey--if you can call it that--at about age 21 is born of desperation and remorse after much self-abuse and self-indulgence, John's spiritual journey on his 14th birthday is one of insight and refuge after much abuse and neglect. Gabriel indulges and denies his dark side, projecting his evil onto others. John wonders over his own evil thoughts, seeking to reconcile his light and dark sides.
John's family and people have been cursed by the white-oriented world, and by a false interpretation of the scripture, namely the curse of Noah upon Canaan. Believing this curse, Gabriel in turn, without meaning to, curses his children. Will any of the Grimes family truly experience being, like Israel, heirs to the promises of God, as well as heirs to the world's persecution and heartache?

John perceives that Gabriel, or some unacknowledged dark part of Gabriel, would rather see him damned than saved, would rather keep John as a bastard child, "son of the slave woman", as someone to look down upon--similar to the cutting attitude that Gabriel and his sister Florence have toward each other. However, John, born in New York City, a generation removed from Jim Crow, just might become the first person in his family to start to throw off the reproach of Egypt (see Joshua 5:9)--that is, of slavery. That is, if his anger and hatred don't overtake him first.
"Go Tell" is an excellent exploration of how the "Black church" has both upheld and held back African-Americans through slavery, Jim Crow, the Northern migration, and racism.
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on August 29, 2000
The primary action of Baldwin's "Go Tell It on the Mountain" takes place in Harlem in 1935. John Grimes has just turned fourteen and his family expects him to become a preacher like his father Gabriel. However, John realizes that he has reservations about this profession, partially due to a mutual lack of respect and love for his father. After a turbulent scene in which his younger brother Roy (the name is significant, referring to a ghost in Gabriel's past) has been brutally injured in a knife fight, John and his family attend a Saturday night service at the storefront church where his father is a deacon.
The night's passionate prayers evoke flashbacks to the personal histories of the adults in John's family, depicting the events that brought them to Harlem from their respective towns in the South and the development of their attitudes towards religion and love. John's Aunt Florence, Gabriel's older sister, fled from her ailing mother and drunken, disorderly brother and came North to seek better opportunities, only to end up in an unhappy marriage with a man who turned out to be not much different from her brother. Gabriel cleaned up his life after his mother died, became a preacher, and married an older woman who was sympathetic and supportive to him during his troubled times, although he strayed in one fateful instance, for which Florence still harbors resentment towards him. John's mother Elizabeth originally came to Harlem with her boyfriend in a doomed affair, and later she and Gabriel got married after he became a widower.
Although John is the central character, the novel focuses more on the lives of Gabriel, Elizabeth, and Florence, and how their respective backgrounds shaped John's physical upbringing and spiritual development. Generally, it is a statement on religion as an important influence on the American black experience. And it is a brilliant example of style: The structure is unique and effective, the prose is beautifully eloquent in its symbolism and imagery, and the dialogue is sharply realistic and thoughtful.
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on June 22, 2006
In many ways, "Go Tell It on the Mountain" is an act of exorcism, wrestling with the demons of an adolescent past. Baldwin's first novel examines his love-hate relationship with the religious traditions from his youth, tackles (albeit indirectly) his conflicted and nascent homosexuality, and (above all) struggles with his ambiguous feelings about his true-life stepfather, whom he detested while he was an adolescent and whom he tried to understand when he was an adult.

The narrative unfolds in a single 24-hour period (sunrise to sunrise), although flashbacks are scattered throughout to explore the backgrounds of the characters and, in particular, to describe their past wrongdoings. The opening and closing sections describe 14-year-old John Grimes and follow his family as they prepare for and then depart from a religious service. The middle core of the novel, consisting of three chapters, takes place in the neighborhood storefront church on Saturday night, a spiritual oasis in a cesspool of back-alley crime and lowlife iniquity.

These three chapters are the prayerful meditations of, respectively, John's no-nonsense aunt Florence, whose act of liberation from unappreciated familial duties early in life led her to the "freedom" of Harlem; his abusive father Gabriel, who lived a life of easy debauchery until he converted and became a Baptist minister; and John's mother Elizabeth, who is quiet and forbearing and who is beginning to comprehend the extent to which Gabriel has not lived up to the bargain of their marriage. Hovering in the background of this quarrelsome family is Elisha, a young leader at the church, to whom John is attracted both spiritually and, to John's vexation, physically ("in his heart, yearning tenderness for holy Elisha; desire, sharp and awful as a knife, to usurp the body of Elisha").

There's always the temptation to read too much biography in an autobiographical novel. Although the characters and events in "Go Tell It on the Mountain" are surely shrouded in a mask of fiction (for example, it does not appear that Baldwin ever knew learned the identity of his biological father), there are just as surely parallels with Baldwin's own life and family. His stepfather was also a Baptist minister whose animosity towards the young Baldwin was especially pronounced. As a teenager, Baldwin also underwent an intense religious awakening and became a minister for a Pentecostal assembly in Harlem. And, of course, Baldwin rather famously wrestled with his own sexuality. When the novel was initially published, he tried to downplay its autobiographical elements, but, reflecting on the novel three decades later, Baldwin admitted that it "comes out of the tension between a particular father and a particular son. No matter that he was not my biological father."

The only passages I thought cumbersome were those that detailed the sermons preached by Gabriel as he began his ministry as a young man. (The problem with such literary representations is that the best evangelical sermons depend largely on performance, delivery, and audience response--largely to mask the fact that they are inherently formulaic and often studded with cliches, repetition, and all-too-familiar biblical allusions.) Otherwise, the novel is very tightly written and emotionally raw, and it dynamically presents the paradox of human transgressions and moral rectitude, the complexity of a genuine conversion experience, and the ambiguity that remains in its immediate aftermath.
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on June 16, 2005
James Baldwin created a masterful first novel in Go Tell It On The Mountain. I loved his smooth flow from character to character, era to era, place to place. We are given young John's story through his family, one person at a time, and it is through them that we understand the complexity of where he is. Physically, it's Harlem, as the son of Southern parents who have seen only hard times in both the South and the North. Emotionally, John is bouncing back and forth between a life of religious fanaticism and a life of unbound freedom.

Religion is a central force in the book, especially the disappointment and shame of sin. The hypocrite stepfather Gabriel is the darkest force, and the author's knack for showing the complexity of this character and the harm he exacts on so many other lives is perhaps the crowning achievement of the novel. Gabriel's may not be the ugliest or rarest of sins, but they completely devastate his life and the lives of those around him. Gabriel doesn't learn though and he might be regressing all the way back to the debauchery of his own youth. In hints throughout the story and at the end especially, we see John discovering the courage to escape the hypocracy and injustice of his upbringing, and to create for himself a new life of opportunity and promise. It isn't a long book, and I think it was meant to leave you wanting more. But in it's structure and incredible language, this is a very unique and powerful novel that deserves more recognition.
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on February 18, 2005
For me, the central problem of James Baldwin's beautiful and poetic account of growing up in a religious, African American family is the ending. The question is this: does Baldwin take this ending to be merely a description of what sometimes happens or is he implying this is what should happen?

Throughout the novel, religion is seen as a force that stagnates, lies to and weakens the characters. However, by the end, it has become a force that the main character thinks will help him get through all the trials he still must face. It hasn't solved anything. In fact, nothing has been solved at all. We've been merely given a view of all that's come before and how those past events will probably shape the future. For example, John still has to face his unloving step-father - even though he is still unaware that the man isn't his biological father. How knowing he was "saved" will help him is hard to imagine.

The most heart-breaking incident in the book is what happens to John's real father. Though pathos abounds in this book, that is the incident that truly hurts the most.

Throughout, the writing is poetic and precise. Baldwin certainly matured in works like "Giovanni's Room" and developed his themes of homosexuality - a thread hinted at here but left unresolved like all the book's themes.

The problem is just that we're left with so much unfinished. It's almost like Baldwin stopped writing the book in the middle. It seems he wants the import of John's religious experience to make everything else at least bearable. However, how this is to be accomplished in light of such darkness is hard to imagine or even if something else might be more desirable. Moreover, is Baldwin suggesting that all the negatives of religion he has been cataloguing throughout the book are somehow justified?

In any case, "Go Tell It on the Mountain" is a gorgeous book about very ugly things. Good luck sorting out that ending.
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on November 18, 2001
I stumbled upon this book a few years ago and was amazed at how great it was. While Richard Wright's "Native Son" and Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" appear to receive most of the attention as the best novels by black authors during the mid-twentieth century, I still think Baldwin's achievement in "Go Tell It On the Mountain" was a lot more important and long-lasting. I think this is chiefly because his aims appeared to be different, focusing more on the less dramatic ways that blacks have attempted to cope with the frustrations arising out of American Racism as well as the limitations it placed on their prospects for a fulfilling life. It is far more difficult it seems to me, to convey how the vast majority of blacks in those days sublimated their rage and pain through a more acceptable venue like the Black church, rather than illustrate how that very same rage and pain explodes in acts of violence (Native Son) or political agitation (Invisible Man). Perhaps Baldwin's novel receives less acclaim than these other two because it's more of a challenge to read, more difficult to connect with on a visceral level, because it aims at bottom not so much to entertain as to enlighten. I thought it was an absolutely first-rate piece of fiction, and it's method of flowing back and forth in time between one generation and another give it a certain unconventional, experimental quality that was rare for it's era.
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on July 27, 2000
I am truly apalled at some of the reviews and interpretations of what Baldwin was trying to convey in this book. Honestly, and truthfully, this has to be one of the best books ever written by anyone of any race in any country. I've read Dostoevsky (whom I love), Tolstoy, Dickens, Hughes, Walker and many other writers of different nationalities and talents and Baldwin ranks among the most important writers of this century. One of the things that I think people fail to realize (it took some time for me, too), is the purpose of a book. In my opinion, books are not only meant to entertain (some are, but most important books are not), but to give the person reading the book a perspective of someone else's life and experience, and also to allow the reader the opportunity (the responsibility) to apply or interpret what they've read to some how apply to their own lives. We must be always introspective when we are reading something and think of our lives and society and how and people do the things that they do. Any good book will reflect that and ultimately make some things clearer to us and make us have to think that much more about other things that are not.
Baldwin gives an excellent (I cannot think of another superlative)insight into the lives of these people. Not just their lives, though, but how they think and why they think the things they do, how their thoughts give way to their actions and how their actions give way to the consequences that made (make) their lives what they were. I am inspired by that.
If you are a shallow thinker and only want to be entertained, and can only see that what is only in front of you, then I can imagine you would find Baldwin (or any other) great, thought-provoking writer boring (it almost hurt my hand to type that word in the same sentence as Baldwin). So, we must move ourselves outside our boxes, and see more than just what we know of ourselves.
I'm also sorry to say, O. Wilder, you have it all mixed up, you need to read this story again, to see what it's really saying. I'm not even going to address some of the other ridiculous reviews of this book.
I read this book a long time ago (I was 16) and thought it great, but without quite knowing why. I'm 27 now and I realize it for the great work that it is because of what it made me feel inside.
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