‘The balloon of experience is tied to the earth,’ wrote Henry James in The American, ‘and under that necessity we swing, thanks to a rope of remarkable length, in the more or less commodious car of imagination.’ In 1949 James Baldwin was living in Paris – a measure of rope having been unfurled – yet his ties to Harlem grew stronger by the day. There was little of Hemingway or Gertrude Stein in Baldwin’s sojourn; though he enjoyed a little more freedom there, and adventure too, he wasn’t there for friendship or freedom or adventure either, but for writing. Baldwin came to Europe in search of his own voice. He came for a clear view of the past. And this exile suited him, sentences at once beginning to bleed out of memory ands imagination, old wounds opening into new language.
Baldwin’s father was a lay preacher; to his eldest son he was ‘handsome, proud, and ingrown’. The son was born into a religious community, a world where duty joined with pride, where sin battled with high hopes of redemption, where the Saved sang over the Damned, where love and hate could smell similar, and where fathers and sons could be strangers for ever. ‘I had declined to believe,’ Baldwin wrote in his famous Notes of a Native Son, ‘in that apocalypse which had been central to my father’s vision.’
… I had not known my father well. We had got on badly, partly because we shared, in different fashions, the vice of stubborn pride. When he was dead I realized I had hardly ever spoken to him … He was of the first generation of free men. He, along with thousands of other Negroes, came North after 1919 and I was part of that generation which had never seen the landscape of what Negroes sometimes called the Old Country. Baldwin was the kind of writer who couldn’t forget, He remembered everything, and the pulse of remembering, and the ache of old news, makes for the beat of his early writing. At the age of fourteen he underwent what he called later ‘a prolonged religious crisis’, a confusion too deep for tears, but not for prose. ‘I then discovered God, His saints and angels, and His blazing Hell,’ he wrote, ‘I suppose Him to exist only within the wall of a church – in fact, of our church – and I also supposed that God and safety were synonymous.’ At this point Baldwin became a preacher too. He knew that something important happened when he stood up and entered deeply into the language of a sermon. People listened, they clapped. ‘Amen, Amen,’ they said. And all of it remained with him: the smell of church wood and the crying out, the shimmer of tambourines; the heat of damnation; the songs of the Saved, his father’s face; and the New York world outside with its white people downtown who’d say ‘Why don’t you niggers stay uptown where you belong?’ But more than anything it was his father’s face. ‘In my mind’s eye,’ hw writes in Notes, ‘I could see him, sitting at the window, locked up in his terrors; hating and fearing every living soul including his children who had betrayed him, too, by reaching toward the world which had despised him.’
Some novelists, in their early work especially, set out to defeat the comforts of invention: they refuse to make anything up. Go Tell It on the Mountain is James Baldwin’s first novel, a shadow-album of lived experience, the lines here being no less real than those on his mother’s face. For Baldwin, as for Proust, there is something grave and beautiful and religious about the love of truth itself, and something of sensual joy in bringing it to the page. Baldwin’s career as a novelist was spent walking over old territory with ghosts. Things became new to him this way. ‘Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else,’ he said years later. ‘I had to deal with what hurt me most. I had to deal with my father.’
The novel is centred around a “tarry service’ at the Temple of the Fire Baptised in Harlem in 1935. Fourteen-year-old John Grimes, dubious, fearful, and already bitter, is about to walk the path to salvation. There are high expectations of John, ‘to be a good example’, and to ‘come through’ to the Lord. The service will last the whole night, and John is there in the company of the elder ‘saints’ of the church, and with his father and mother and Aunt Florence. There is a strong sense of John being one of the anointed, but we absorb his slow, terrible doubts about himself. Altogether he is not a happy child on this special night:
Something happened to their faces and their voices, the rhythm of their bodies, and to the air they breathed; it was as though wherever they might be became the upper room, and the Holy Ghost were riding in the air. His father’s face, always awful, became more awful now, his father’s daily anger was transformed into prophetic wrath. His mother, her eyes raised to heaven, hands arked before her, moving, made real for John that patience, that endurance, that long suffering, which he had read in the Bible and found so hard to image. Between the novel’s opening and closing – the beginning of the service, with ‘the Lord high on the wind tonight’, and the closing, the morning, with John writhing for mercy on the threshing floor in front of the altar – we read the stories of his relatives: Florence, his aunt; Gabriel, his father; and his mother Elizabeth. In three long chapters we come to know the beliefs, the leave-takings, the loves, the honour and dishonour, that had made up the lives of these three people, lives which have animated a host of other lives, and which, by and by, have come to animate the life of John Grimes too. There are secrets in the novel, as they emerge in a beautiful, disturbing pattern, uncovered words speaking clearly, soulfully, of this one family’s legacy of pain and silence.
In Go Tell It on the Mountain, John has a certain dread of the life that awaits him; he feels doomed and he dreams of escape. He has made decisions. ‘He will not be like his father, or his father’s father. He would have another life.’ It might be said that this has been a vain dream of artists – and teenagers – since the beginning of time, but in Baldwin it is neither vain not merely a dream, for John Grimes represents, in all the eloquence of his wishes, a new kind of American. His father’s fathers were slaves. John’s father, Gabriel, is free, bur he is expected to swear allegiance to the flag that has not sworn allegiance to him, and he lives in a racist land. On this front, Baldwin’s America was to become a battleground, but John, given the date of events in the novel, can never be a Civil Rights cipher. He feels guilty for failing to share Gabriel’s unambivalent hatred of white people, but John has additional freedoms in mind – freedom from the local oppressions of Gabriel being first among them. Go Tell It on the Mountain is not a protest novel, it is a political novel of the human heart. White men may be evil, but they are not the beginning nor the end of evil. Baldwin was interested at this point in corruption at the first level of legislative power – the family.
Baldwin wrote about black people. He did not write novels which understood the lives of black people only in terms of white subjugation. At the same time he recognized every terror of segregation, and Go Tell It on the Mountain is a shocking, and shockingly quiet, dramatization of what segregation meant in the years when the novel is set. Early on we see John contemplating the forbidden world inside the New York Public Library, a world of corridors and marble steps and no place for a boy from Harlem. ‘And then everyone,’ Baldwin writes, ‘all the white people inside, would know that he was not used to great buildings, or to many books, and they would look at him with pity.’ This is a strong thing for a writer to remember, or to imagine, and Baldwin brings it to the page with a sense of anger, and regret. The novel is marked by the dark presence of ‘down home’, the Old South, where all of John’s family came from in search of a new life. This was Baldwin’s primary milieu: the Harlem of migrant black Americans, bringing with them the stories of their fathers and mothers, one generation away from slavery.
This Northerness was important to Baldwin. It was the world he knew from his childhood and the world he cared most about. He had a feeling for the hopes that were invested in the journey North – ‘North,’ where, as Gabriel’s mother says, ‘wickedness dwelt and Death rode mighty through the streets’. In one of his essays, ‘A Fly in the Buttermilk’, Baldwin wrote of another Southerner’s contempt for the North, a man he tried to interview for a piece on the progress of Civil Rights: ‘He forced me to admit, at once, that I had never been to college; that Northern Negroes lived herded together, like pigs in a pen; that the campus on which we met was a tribute to the industry and determination of Southern Negroes. “Negroes in the South form a community.” ’
Baldwin’s sensibility, his talent for moral ambivalence, his taste for the terrifying patterns of life, the elegant force of his disputatious spirit, as much Henry James as Bessie Smith, was not always to find favour with his black contemporaries. Langston Hughes called Go Tell It to the Mountain ‘a low-down story in a velvet bag’. ‘A Joan of Arc of the cocktail party’ was Amiri Baraka’s comment on Baldwin. Some of this could be constructed as standard resentment – reminiscent of the kind expressed by Gabriel towards John for not hating whites enough – and some was a reaction against Baldwin’s popularity with the white literary establishment. But that wasn’t all. By the time he was writing novels, and writing these essays – works of magical power and directness – Baldwin had come to feel that the black ‘protest’ novel was breathlessly redundant. In a recent essay about Baldwin’s writing, the novelist Darryl Pinckney comments on Baldwin’s rejection of Richard Wright, the author of Native Son:
In retrospect Baldwin praises Wright’s work for its dry, savage folkloric humour and for how deeply it conveys what life was like on Chicago’s South Side. The climate that had once made Wright’s work read like a racial manifesto had gone. Baldwin found when reading Wright again that he did not think of the 1930s or even of Negroes, because Wright’s characters and situations had universal meanings. In ‘Alas, Poor Richard’, an essay in the collection Nobody Knows My Name, Baldwin concludes that Wright was not the polemical firebrand he took himself to be. Many of Baldwin’s black contemporaries hated this view.
Baldwin’s first novel, in respect of all this, demonstrates a remarkable unit of form and content; the style of the novel makes clear the extent to which he was turning away from his literary forefathers. It may be sensible to see the novel as a farewell not only the Harlem of his father, but to the literary influence of Richard Wright and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Baldwin was unremitting on this point, and these several goodbyes, offered from his Paris exile, became the creed of his early writing. ‘In most of the novels written by Negroes until today,’ he wrote, ‘there is a great space where sex ought to be; and what usually fills this space is violence.’
Go Tell It on the Mountain is a very sensual novel, a book soaked in the Bible and the blues. Spiritual song is there in the sentences, at the head of chapters, and it animates the voices on every side during the ‘coming through’ of John Grimes. As he steps up to the altar John is suddenly aware of the sound of his own prayers – ‘trying not to hear the words that he forced outwards from his throat’. Baldwin’s language has the verbal simplicity of the Old Testament, as well as its metaphorical boldness. The rhythms of the blues, a shade of regret, a note of pain rising out of experience, are deeply inscribed in the novel, and they travel freely along the lines of dialogue. There is a kind of metaphorical, liturgical energy in some novels – in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, in Toni Morrison’s Beloved – which is utterly essential to the art. It may seem at first overpowering, to waft in the air like perfume, or to have the texture of Langston Hughes’s velvet bag, but it is, in each of the cases, and especially in the case of Baldwin’s first novel, a matter of straightforward literary integrity. Every word is necessary. Every image runs clear in the blood of the novel.
Take John’s mother Elizabeth. Look at the shape of her thoughts on the page, as brought out in Baldwin’s third-person narrative:
‘I sure don’t care what God don’t like, or you, either,’ Elizabeth heart replied. ‘I’m going away from here. He’s going to come and get me, and I’m going away from here.’ ‘He’ was her father, who never came. As the years passed she replied only: ‘I’m going away from here.’ And it hung, this determination, like a heavy jewel between her breasts; it was written in fire on the dark sky of her mind. But, yes – there was something she had overlooked. Pride goeth before destruction; and a haughty spirit before a fall. She had not known this: she had not imagined that she could fall. When reading this novel I am always aware of the charge that sex gives to religion, a bond the novel explores and confirms. We think of Baldwin as a figure of the 1960s, a literary embodiment of outrage in the face of American segregation, but actually, Baldwin, in his novels, writes more of sex and sin than he does of Civil Rights. Gabriel, a preacher speaking fiery words from the pulpit, is actually a secret sinner, fallen in ways that are known to his sister Florence, and known to his wife Elizabeth too. When younger, ‘he drank until hammers rang in his distant skull; he cursed his friends and his enemies, and fought until blood ran down; in the morning he found himself in mud, in clay, in strange beds, and once or twice in jail; his mouth sour, his clothes in rags, from all of him rising the stink of his corruption’.
The novel tells the story of how John comes to know this. Gabriel uses the church not to raise but to conceal his true character: his hypocrisy is everywhere around him, and nowhere more than in the minds of the women who had suffered him, and increasingly, too, in the mind of John, his ‘bastard’ son. Florence’s lover Frank was similarly corrupt, yet he, at least, in ‘the brutality of his penitence’, tried to make it up to Florence. It is John’s terrible fate – and everyone else’s – that Gabriel can neither inspire forgiveness nor redeem himself. He goes on with his lying. He inspired fear. He is hated.
Novels about the sins of men often turn out to be novels about the courage of women. Florence, Elizabeth, Deborah, and the tragic Esther, who is made pregnant by Gabriel and sent away to die, are the novel’s moral retainers, keeping faith with humanity, whilst all around them Faith rides on his dark horse, cutting down hope and charity. Florence says something for all the women in the novel, and for James Baldwin, one suspects, contemplating the fate of the women in his early life, when she looks at the face of Frank. ‘It sometimes came to her,’ Baldwin writes, ‘that all women had been cursed from the cradle’; all, in one fashion or another, being given the same cruel destiny, born to suffer the weight of men.’ Florence remembers the beginning of her own cruel destiny. It began with the birth of Gabriel. After this her future was ‘swallowed up’, and he life was over: ‘There was only one future in that house, and it was Gabriel’s – to which, since Gabriel was a man-child, all else must be sacrificed.’
Baldwin is unusual – and controversial, for more traditional black writers, as well as the countercultural ones ahead of him – in making the African-American bid for freedom complicated. For Florence, and for her nephew John Grimes, ‘free at last’ would have to mean several things, not only free from the Old South, or free from the evils of segregation, but the freedom to enter the world outside, and freedom from the hatreds of the family kitchen. ‘And this because Florence’s deep ambition: to walk out one morning through the cabin door, never to return.’ But the novel knows there is a price to be paid for this too. Elizabeth, a long time away from the South, enjoyed walking in Central Park, because ‘it recreated something of the landscape she had known’.
Baldwin never got over his religious crisis at the age of fourteen. He didn’t forget. ‘That summer.’ he writes in The Fire Next Time, ‘all the fears with which I had grown up, and which were now a part of me and controlled my vision of the world, rose up like a wall between the world and me, and drove me into the church.’ He surrendered to a spiritual seduction, falling down before the altar, and thereafter preaching for three years. Baldwin recalls his father one day slapping his face, ‘and in that moment everything flooded back – all the hatred and all the fear, and the depth of a merciless resolve to kill my father rather than allow my father to kill me – and I knew that all those sermons and tears and all that repentance and rejoicing had changed nothing’.
Baldwin put the essence of all of this into Go Tell it on the Mountain. Gabriel has the preacher’s traditional love of helplessness, and traditional anger in the face of self-sufficiency. Yet the central issues of Gabriel’s life are his hypocrisy, and the sexual desire that accompanies the rejoicing of religious life. His treatment of Esther combines the two (‘I guess it takes a holy man to make a girl a real whore,’ she say) but only Florence seems aware of the truth after Ester is dead. At the close of the novel she seeks to name the tree by its fruit. And John, who is not strange fruit of that tree, might live to curse all lies and go free into the world.
Baldwin, all his writing, insisted he wrote only from experience. That was the kind of writer he was: he meant every word. There would always be something of the pulpit on Baldwin’s writing, and something too of the threshing floor. Go Tell It on the Mountain is a beautiful, enduring, spiritual song of a novel, a gush of life from a haunted American church. Like many writers with a religious past, the young man who wrote this novel was stranded in the space between his own body and the body of Christ, and strung between the father he hated and the Father who might offer him salvation. John Grimes finds the beginning of his redemption in the very place where his father lived out his hypocrisy, the church, where Gabriel spawned so much of the trouble in their lives. Here, at last, after all is said and done, John Grimes can go in search of the Everlasting, ‘over his father’s head to Heaven – to the Father who loved him’.
Andrew O’Hagan was born in Glasgow in 1968. He is the author of The Missing, a book about missing persons, and Our Fathers, a novel shortlisted for the Booker Prize, a Whitbread Award, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the IMPAC Dublin International Literary Award. He is a contributing editor to the London Review of Books.
My Father and Mother
They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength;