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Go Tell It on the Mountain | Study Guide

James Baldwin

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Go Tell It on the Mountain | 10 Things You Didn't Know


James Baldwin's first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, was published in 1953. It's a semi-autobiographical story about a boy growing up in Harlem and his painful and humiliating relationship with his stepfather. Baldwin finished the novel in Paris after his stepfather's death, when time and distance had helped him recover from the difficulties of his home life.

The novel was an immediate success. Focusing on the clash of intellect and faith, the role of the church in African American life, and coming of age in 1930s Harlem, the story resonated with both black and white readers. Its treatments of racism and sexuality were ahead of its time, and the story—with its universal themes of desire, anger, discrimination, and religious confusion—still appeals to readers today.

1. John's abusive stepfather in Go Tell It on the Mountain is based on Baldwin's own abusive stepfather.

James Baldwin's stepfather David was a Southern preacher who called his stepson ugly and said he had the mark of the devil on him. Baldwin described his stepfather as "indescribably cruel in his personal life" and "one of the bitterest men I have ever met." The character Gabriel—stepfather of the main character, John, in the novel—is clearly based on David Baldwin, just as John's religious competition with his stepfather echoes James Baldwin's own experiences as a young preacher.

2. The FBI spied on Baldwin.

From 1960 through the 1970s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) collected thousands of pages of information about James Baldwin. His phone was tapped, and he was followed through Europe. The reasons behind this harassment appear to be Baldwin's color, sexual identity, leftist politics, and role as a writer and critic. However, the FBI wasn't particularly good at its fact checking; notes in the files stated Baldwin was 6 feet tall (he was 5 feet 6 inches) and white and listed the title of his first novel as Go Tell It to the Mountains.

3. Baldwin borrowed travel money from actor Marlon Brando.

James Baldwin became friendly with actor Marlon Brando when both lived in New York City's Greenwich Village in the 1940s. Baldwin later moved to Paris, where he finished Go Tell It on the Mountain. When the book was accepted for publication, Baldwin didn't have enough money to return to New York to see his editor, so he borrowed money from Brando to fly to the United States.

4. Some well-known African Americans criticized Baldwin's writing.

Baldwin's open descriptions of homosexual relationships drew strong criticism from Eldridge Cleaver, a member of the Black Panther Party. He claimed Baldwin's writing showed the author's "agonizing, total hatred of blacks." Poet Langston Hughes stated that Baldwin was "much better at provoking thought in the essay than he is in arousing emotion in fiction."

5. Baldwin and his writing mentor had a terrible falling-out.

Baldwin met writer Richard Wright in New York, and Wright helped Baldwin get a fellowship that allowed him to seriously pursue a career in writing. In 1940 Wright published his best-selling Native Son, and in 1948 Baldwin published the essay "Everybody's Protest Novel," which claimed black protest novels didn't portray blacks as human beings, and which Wright took as an attack on his work. The two met again in Paris and had a public argument at a café; their friendship never recovered.

6. Baldwin "discovered" himself after moving to Paris.

Baldwin moved to Paris to escape the constant racism he endured in New York. He feared if he stayed, his anger would push him toward either violence or suicide. While in Paris, he wrote much of Go Tell It on the Mountain, which he believed was the work that ensured he would be a writer.

7. Baldwin loved the TV adaptation of Go Tell It on the Mountain.

In 1986 PBS broadcast an American Playhouse adaptation of Go Tell It on the Mountain. In the previous 33 years there had been little commercial interest in adapting the story. In fact, no one had ever wanted to film it before due to a perceived lack of commercial interest, the author claimed. He said that he was "very, very happy" about the adaptation, noting, "It did not betray the book."

8. Baldwin's agent told him to burn the manuscript of his second novel.

Go Tell It on the Mountain was a success, but Baldwin followed it up with the novel Giovanni's Room, about a homosexual relationship between two white men. Baldwin's publisher, Knopf, turned the book down, and Baldwin's agent advised him to burn it. Eventually Dial Press published the book, and The New York Times wrote, "Even as one is dismayed by Mr. Baldwin's materials, one rejoices in the skill with which he renders them."

9. Baldwin was a great admirer of the poet Emily Dickinson.

Baldwin was a great reader of everything, from Fyodor Dostoevsky to John Cheever. He particularly liked Henry James's idea of "the center of consciousness" and used it in his work. In an interview with the Paris Review, he mentioned Emily Dickinson in particular, stating that he read her work in part because it was so far removed from his daily concerns and provided a new way of seeing things.

10. Nobel and Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Toni Morrison wrote a eulogy for Baldwin printed in The New York Times.

James Baldwin died on December 1, 1987, in France. Writer Toni Morrison, his close friend, published a eulogy memorializing him in The New York Times. In it, she wrote that when she was with him, the season was always Christmas, and that he had brought her three gifts. The first was his language, "A gift so perfect it seems my own invention." The second was courage, "The courage to live life in and from its belly as well as beyond its edges." And the third was his tenderness and love.

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