This piece is drawn from the introduction to a new edition of “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” by James Baldwin, which is out from Everyman’s Library, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Group, on March 1st. Read Colm Toíbín on “Giovanni’s Room.”
In “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel,” an address delivered at San Francisco State College on October 22, 1960, and later published in the essay collection “Nobody Knows My Name,” James Baldwin pretended he was writing a novel in front of an audience.
“Let’s pretend,” he said, “that I want to write a novel concerning the people or some of the people with whom I grew up, and since we are only playing let us pretend it’s a very long novel. I want to follow a group of lives almost from the time they open their eyes on the world until some point of resolution, say, marriage, or childbirth, or death.”
Baldwin had already published “Go Tell It on the Mountain” seven years earlier, so it appeared that he was not referring to this particular novel. In other talks and essays, he laid out some ideas about what made an unsuccessful novel, citing problems like too neat a frame, sentimentality, and facile lessons and solutions. The novel he was referring to in the speech, though, he claimed, was both “unwritten and probably unwritable.” Neither was it meant to be a “long, warm, toasty” novel. “This hypothetical book is aiming at something more implacable than that. . . . The social realities with which these people, the people I remember, whether they knew it or not, were really contending can’t be left out of the novel without falsifying their experience.”
As the speech continued, a boy emerged in Baldwin’s hypothetical novel, a boy who’d “backslid,” or had slipped away from the church he’d grown up in, to go smoke cigarettes and have sex. This boy was then rejected by the community and died of tuberculosis a year and a half later. This boy was not the only casualty of the church’s disapproval. A young woman lost her mind and ended up in a mental hospital. (Baldwin’s preacher stepfather, who was the only father he knew, died of tuberculosis in a mental hospital in 1943.) Still, Baldwin refused to limit his hypothetical novel to a roster of disasters.
“The imagination of a novelist has everything to do with what happens to his material,” he said. As the speech neared its end, however, it became clear that the two novels Baldwin had already written, and the ones he had yet to write, were part of this hypothetical oeuvre. “Go Tell It on the Mountain” was only his first attempt.
Initially titled “Crying Holy,” “Go Tell It on the Mountain” was written after Baldwin gave up being a youth preacher and left the church to become a writer. He worked on the book for more than ten years, including while he was living in Greenwich Village and Paris, and he only managed to finish it in 1952, after he'd moved to Loèche-les-Bains, a village in the Swiss Alps.
In a 1961 interview with the American broadcaster and oral historian Studs Terkel, Baldwin remembered thinking that he might never finish the novel. One of the reasons he couldn’t finish, he realized, was that he was ashamed of where he came from. “I was ashamed of the life in the Negro church,” he told Terkel, “ashamed of my father, ashamed of the Blues, ashamed of Jazz, and, of course, ashamed of watermelon: all of these stereotypes that the country inflicts on Negroes, that we all eat watermelon or we all do nothing but sing the Blues. Well, I was afraid of all that; and I ran from it.”
He was only able to complete the novel once he stopped running from his father and from the spirituals and prayers that guided, for good or for ill, the lives of his people, both the actual people he mentioned in his address and his novel’s characters. Incidentally, “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is dedicated to Baldwin’s mother and father, who each seem to have a doppelgänger in the novel.
Given the title, one might expect the novel’s epigraph to be the refrain of the African-American spiritual: “Go tell it on the mountain / Over the hills and everywhere / Go tell it on the mountain / That Jesus Christ is born.” After all, this song has been sung by preachers as well as Christmas carollers, by civil-rights marchers as well as popular gospel singers, ever since it was catalogued by the Fisk professor John Wesley Work, Jr., in 1907. This is one of many instances where Baldwin bypasses the obvious while delivering a structurally and substantially original novel, one that surpasses his very high expectations for a great novel. This novel is not just a well-thought-out and well-crafted lyrical work but also a protest chant, a hymn, a rebuke, a memorial, a prayer, a testimonial, a confessional, and, in my opinion, a masterpiece.
“Go Tell It on the Mountain” is framed around the twenty-four hours that make up John Grimes’s fourteenth birthday. The day begins on a sour note when John mistakenly thinks no one remembers. But his mother does remember and she gives him some money, which he uses to explore the city for the day.
John’s stops at different New York City landmarks outside Harlem allow Baldwin (who was, like John, a child of the Great Migration, the mass movement of more than six million African-Americans from the rural South to urban centers in the northern United States) to paint a vivid picture of nineteen-thirties New York and the mixed feelings the city evokes. He writes, of John seeing the skyline from a hill in Central Park,
He did not know why, but there arose in him an exultation and a sense of power, and he ran up the hill like an engine, or a madman, willing to throw himself headlong into the city that glowed before him. But when he reached the summit he paused; he stood on the crest of the hill, hands clasped beneath his chin, looking down. Then he, John, felt like a giant who might crumble this city with his anger.
John’s anger at the city is born out of his exclusion from its splendors and riches. On this of all days, John dreams of a future that’s drastically different from his current life. He dreams of becoming a poet, a movie star, or a college president. He also dreams of becoming a conqueror, “before whom multitudes cried, Hosanna! He would be, of all, the mightiest, the most beloved, the Lord’s anointed; and he would live in this shining city which his ancestors had seen with longing from far away.”
At the end of the day, though, John finds himself back in familiar territory, at the Temple of the Fire Baptized church. Eventually, with the urging of the saints or congregation members, he finds himself entranced by the Holy Ghost and on the threshing floor. The section of the novel devoted to John’s conversion, reckoning, and transformation is part stream of consciousness, part Lamentations, part Book of Revelation, and it electrifies the story’s final pages the same way the service must have rocked the Temple of the Fire Baptized that Saturday night. Baldwin, who both experienced and induced such ecstasy himself as a youth minister, does such a great job capturing what it’s like to be enraptured that I always find myself trembling a little while reading.
On the threshing floor, John has visions, some like the ones he’d imagined earlier in the city, but they are even more fraught and glorious, and even further out of reach. “Lord, I ain’t no stranger now!” the congregation sings as he rises. John is no longer the stranger who’d gone into the city and returned afraid. He is also no longer a stranger to the reader. He is our brother. He is our son. He is our friend. He is us.
In “Down at the Cross: A Letter from a Region in My Mind,” published in his essay collection “The Fire Next Time,” Baldwin writes about undergoing a similar experience: “I underwent, during the summer that I became fourteen, a prolonged religious crisis. I use the word ‘religious’ in the common, and arbitrary, sense, meaning that I then discovered God, His saints and angels, and His blazing Hell.” The blazing hell is one that neither Baldwin nor John could ignore, a place much like the city, where John feels both invisible and reviled because he’s black and poor.
The summer Baldwin turned fourteen was also full of police violence, from which he was not spared. Even when he was younger, at ten years old, he was frisked and verbally assaulted by some police officers who then left him on the ground, on his back, in the street. He was a child, but they could not see it. His young black body was already considered menacing, a threat. “It was absolutely clear that the police would whip you and take you in as long as they could get away with it,” Baldwin wrote. This has not changed very much in the nearly eighty years since then, as we have seen in the many recent incidents of young black and brown men and women and children dying at the hands of police.
Incidents like this were in part what led Baldwin to the church in the first place. “Some went on wine or whiskey or the needle, and are still on it. And others, like me, fled into the church,” he wrote. We sense that John Grimes, too, is doing his best to flee wine and whiskey and the needle in order to stay alive.
“Because I am an American writer,” Baldwin stated in his “Notes for a Hypothetical Novel” address, “my subject and my material inevitably has to be a handful of incoherent people in an incoherent country.” This incoherence, he says, is analogous to having a friend who’s keeping the mother he’s just murdered in his closet, and though we know about it we refuse to talk about it. Maybe this is what the best novels, hypothetic or otherwise, do—unbury the dead, break down doors, and let the skeletons out, all the while provoking conversations we would rather not have.
As the hypothetical-novel speech wound down, it became obvious, too, that Baldwin was speaking about more than a novel. He was also talking about a hypothetical country, one that would offer more opportunities to families like John Grimes’s than it had to their ancestors, a country where John and his brother and friends wouldn’t always be on the outside looking in, and wouldn’t constantly live with the fear of racialized violence—a country where they, too, would feel powerful, and fully a part of the cities that glowed before them. Incidentally, these are the same things that are repeatedly promised to new generations of John Grimeses in every election cycle, only to lead to some degree of disappointment later on.
Baldwin concluded his address with the words “A country is only as strong as the people who make it up and the country turns into what the people want it to become. Now, this country is going to be transformed. It will not be transformed by an act of God, but by all of us, by you and me.”
John Grimes, the dreamer poet, would probably agree.
Go Tell It on the Mountain • Notes of a Native Son • Giovanni’s Room • The Fire Next Time • No Name in the Street • The Devil Finds Work
With the novel Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), a distillation of his own experiences as a preacher’s son in 1930s Harlem, and the essay collection Notes of a Native Son (1955), James Baldwin established himself as a prophetic voice of his era. Some such voices may grow fainter with the passage of time, but Baldwin remains an inescapable presence, not only a chronicler of his epoch but a thinker who helped shape it. One of the great modern prose stylists, he applied his passion, wit, and relentlessly probing intelligence to the fault lines and false fronts of American society while remaining true to his early credo: “One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give.”
“I fell under the spell of Baldwin’s voice. No other black writer I’d read was as literary as Baldwin in his early essays, not even Ralph Ellison. There is something wild in the beauty of Baldwin’s sentences and the cool of his tone, something improbable, too, this meeting of Henry James, the Bible, and Harlem. I can see the scratches in the desk in my room where I was reading ‘Notes of a Native Son,’ Baldwin’s memoir of his hated father’s death the day his father’s last child was born in 1943, one day before Harlem erupted into the deadliest race riot in its history. I can feel the effects of this essay within me still.”
—Darryl Pinckney, The New York Review of Books, April 4, 2014
“Nobody Knows My Name”James Baldwin
What it comes to, finally, is that the nation has spent a large part of its time and energy looking away from one of the principal facts of its life. This failure to look reality in the face diminishes a nation as it diminishes a person, and it can only be described as unmanly. And in exactly the same way that the South imagines that it “knows” the Negro, the North imagines that it has set him free. Both camps are deluded. Human freedom is a complex, difficult—and private—thing. If we can liken life, for a moment, to a furnace, then freedom is the fire which burns away illusion. Any honest examination of the national life proves how far we are from the standard of human freedom with which we began. The recovery of this standard demands of everyone who loves this country a hard look at himself, for the greatest achievements must begin somewhere, and they always begin with the person. If we are not capable of this examination, we may yet become one of the most distinguished and monumental failures in the history of nations.