Set in a single 24-hour period in March 1935, GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN is James Baldwin's
first -- and highly autobiographical -- novel. Fourteen-year-old John Grimes, the son of a preacher in a Harlem storefront church, has long been expected to follow his father, Gabriel, into the ministry. But John, who struggles with an exaggerated sense of sin, is ambivalent about his future -- a situation much exacerbated by his father's cruelty and hypocrisy, as well as his unequal love for John's brother Roy. As evening comes, John goes with his family to a Saturday-evening worship service at his father's church. While the service proceeds, Baldwin takes the reader inside the thoughts of John's parents and his aunt to reveal the stormy family histories of which John himself remains unaware: his mother's out-of-wedlock pregnancy and subsequent marriage to Gabriel (who is not, as it turns out, John's biological father), Gabriel's refusal to acknowledge a bastard son by another woman, and his aunt Florence's stormy relationship with her ex-husband.
Biblical allusions and a deep and conflicted religious ambience permeate the novel, which takes its title from a black spiritual. Though he did not write the book until he was nearly 30, Baldwin drew heavily on his own experiences growing up in Harlem and preaching in his church for the book's material. In GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN, he takes an excoriating view of the racism and poverty that shaped generations of lives for African Americans, but the novel is also, and more universally, a coming-of-age story. In the book's final section, young John Grimes is seized in a violent and apoplectic fit of spiritual awakening, falling to the floor and writhing with a vision of God. When he stands up, he is reborn and forever changed, though Baldwin suggests that the weight of his family's history will continue to complicate his path: "He was filled with a joy, a joy unspeakable, whose roots, though he would not trace them on this new day of his life, were nourished by the wellspring of a despair not yet discovered." Previous