book review

Go Tell It on the Mountain: James Baldwin


“It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.” –Leonard Cohen

from Goodreads: “Baldwin chronicles a fourteen-year-old boy’s discovery of the terms of his identity as the stepson of the minister of a storefront Pentecostal church in Harlem one Saturday in March of 1935. Baldwin’s rendering of his protagonist’s spiritual, sexual, and moral struggle of self-invention opened new possibilities in the American language and in the way Americans understand themselves”

I read James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and, while I liked it, it left me wholly unaware of Baldwin’s enormous talent. While reading Go Tell It on the Mountain, I was reminded again and again of Virginia Woolf: Crisp, insightful prose; homoeroticism bubbling just beneath the surface; the capturing of an entire era, whole paradigms, in temporally-constricted and quotidian scenes.

Baldwin’s debut novel is comparable to Mrs. Dalloway in that most of it takes place in the span of a day – in the span of a prayer, in fact – but you’re left with unique knowledge of each character’s psychology, as well as the bigger world they live in, of Harlem, of America.

I was enchanted by Baldwin’s writing, severe and concise.

 He moved exactly like a cat, perpetually on the balls of his feet, and with a cat’s impressive, indifferent aloofness, his face closed, in his eyes no light at all.

Baldwin depicts hatred as a strength, or at least as a thing that can fuel for a time. Here’s the ending of a letter written by a woman to a corrupt preacher who had an affair with her and then sent her and her unborn child away:

“I’m going to have my baby and I’m going to bring him up to be a man. And I ain’t going to read to him out of no Bibles and I ain’t going to take him to hear no preaching. If he don’t drink nothing but moonshine all his natural days he be a better man than his Daddy.”

Oh! I love this. Also earlier, when the protagonist, young John, ruminates on his hatred for his father and his father’s church: “[John] wanted to be …more powerful, … and more cruel; to make those around him, all who hurt him, suffer … and laugh in their faces when they asked pity for their pain.”

I’ve been thinking about violence within verse violence without. The people who commit violence tend to fit a specific demographic: Men. Able-bodied, strong men. But does that mean men are more violent than women, than children, or that they’re merely more able, socially, to express it (and in many cases better physically able to express it – I cannot punch a hole through a wall, to my occasional despair). Here James Baldwin depicts the rage of children and of women: The violence that exists within but is no less substantial and consuming.

I was so blown away by this book that I’ve made it my New Years resolution to read the rest of Baldwin’s novels this year, in order of publication. I can’t wait for the prose- and idea-gems that are in store.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s