Sunday, July 11, 2010

Go Tell It on the Mountain

Just finished James Baldwin's first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), and what strikes me now is how ridiculous Puritanical social mores and folkways actually cause disasters. For the sake of appearances, people do things against their better judgment, because they feel they have to. They are propelled into the always-lurking backdrop of violence in America, and the Jim Crow realities.

As with Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas, many of Baldwin's characters are related in some way, either by blood or by some form of kinship, like a daisy chain. And they often have the same kinds of difficulties getting through to each other.

Go Tell It on the Mountain is grim, set during the Great Depression; I found myself therefore especially enjoying moments of uplift, when characters show shrewdness or kindness. Richard and Elizabeth, John's biological parents -- (John is really James Baldwin as a boy) -- have a warm and interesting relationship. Richard wants to expand their cultural horizons, and takes her around New York City to show her things:

 "Ain't we got to be educated, too -- to live with the motherfuckers?" . . . And when he took her to the Museum of Natural History, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they were almost certain to be the only black people, and he guided her through the halls, which never ceased in her imagination to be as cold as tombstones, it was then she saw another life in him. . ." (p. 165 of the Dell paperback edition).

I also like it when John's Aunt Florence shares a cup of coffee with his mother, back before he was born.

Sad fact is, Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City" in 1973 would have worked just as well for the 1930s and could be a vignette from Baldwin's 1953 novel.  How much is it still true in 2010? 

Today's Rune: Harvest.  


JR's Thumbprints said...

I still think his best piece of writing is "Sonny's Blues." But "Go Tell It On The Mountain" had to be his best novel. He certainly had good reason to live in France.

the walking man said...

"Ain't we got to be educated, too -- to live with the motherfuckers?" If this is true as a Baldwin thought then I have to get ignorant to live with the motherfuckers. God damn the fifties sucked and no things have not changed that much only gotten louder and more covert at the same time.

Charles Gramlich said...

really liked this book. I've read almost everything Baldwin wrote, except if Beale street could talk. This is one of his best but all of it is worthwhile.

Johnny Rojo said...

I've read that there is a small reverse-Great Migration going on-- Northern Urban African-Americans moving back to the South.

I need to add "Go Tell It On The Mountain" to my summer reading list.