John Grimes

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James Baldwin (1924—1987) American novelist and black civil rights activist

Go Tell It on the Mountain


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Is a central character in James Baldwin's autobiographical first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953). Modeled after Baldwin himself, John is castigated for being different—intellectually, physically, and sexually. Moreover, John must negotiate a treacherous Harlem terrain where religion becomes a bulwark against the “evils” of the external world.

Part 1, “The Seventh Day”, privileges John's perspective. The action commences on his fourteenth birthday, as the plaintive youth contemplates what he considers his smallness, “ugliness,” and precociousness. John's stepfather, Reverend Gabriel Grimes, is especially abusive, blaming him for all of the family's ills; their battle royal is the novel's central conflict. Baldwin skillfully integrates psychosexual tension into this section. John's sexual thoughts are particularly vexing, as he feels guilt for masturbating and having sexual dreams about his mother and father. However, he finds an alternative to his bleak reality in Brother Elisha, an older adolescent at his family's church who mentors him.

The novel's final section, “The Threshing-Floor”, marks John's religious conversion. Baldwin weaves biblical imagery deftly into this surrealistic episode, as John undergoes a trial by fire for his soul. Though ostensibly God's voice wins, John's conversion is equivocal: He clearly appropriates Gabriel's conception of God as a weapon. John accepts Christianity only to counter his stepfather's cruelty; religion holds no intrinsic value, and John's spiritual re-birth brings little solace. Reminiscent of such sensitive young bildungsroman characters as Stephen Daedelus and Invisible Man, John finds his culture asphyxiating, and his tenuous position at the novel's conclusion makes him one of African American literature's most tragic adolescents.

Michel Fabre, “Fathers and Sons in James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain,” in James Baldwin: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Keneth Kinnamon, 1974, pp. 120–138.Horace A. Porter, Stealing the Fire: The Art and Protest of James Baldwin, 1989.

Keith Clark

Subjects: Literature.

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