Go Tell It on the Mountain (novel)

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Go Tell It on the Mountain
First edition
AuthorJames Baldwin
CountryUnited States
GenreSemi-autobiographical novel
Publication date
May 18, 1953[1]
ISBN0-440-33007-6 (Paperback edition)
LC ClassPS3552 .A5 G6

Go Tell It on the Mountain is a 1953 semi-autobiographical novel by James Baldwin. It tells the story of John Grimes, an intelligent teenager in 1930s Harlem, and his relationship to his family and his church. The novel also reveals the back stories of John's mother, his biological father, and his violent, religious fanatic step-father, Gabriel Grimes. The novel focuses on the role of the Pentecostal Church in the lives of African-Americans, as a negative source of repression and moral hypocrisy and also as a positive source of inspiration and community. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Go Tell It on the Mountain 39th on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Time Magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.[2]

References to other works[edit]

Baldwin makes several references to the Bible in Go Tell It on the Mountain, most importantly to the story of Ham, Noah’s son who saw his father naked one day. Noah consequently cursed Ham’s son Canaan to become the servant of Noah’s other sons.

Baldwin refers to several other people and stories from the Bible, at one point alluding to the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, and drawing a parallel to that exodus and the need for a similar exodus for African-Americans out of their subservient role in which whites have kept them. John's wrestling with Elisha evokes the story of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious supernatural being in Genesis.

The rhythm and language of the story draw heavily on the language of the Bible, particularly of the King James translation. Many of the passages use the patterns of repetition identified by scholars such as Robert Alter and others as being characteristic of Biblical poetry.[3]

Major themes[edit]

  • Autobiography: James Baldwin grew up in Harlem and never knew his biological father. His Baptist minister stepfather was “Brooding, silent, tyrannical ... and physically abusive, he was also a storefront preacher of morbid intensity.”

[4] Also like John, Baldwin underwent a religious awakening at the age of 14, when Baldwin became a Pentecostal preacher. His later novels expressed his growing disillusionment with church life, and they also feature homosexual and bisexual themes.[4] His novel Giovanni's Room serves as an example of these themes and is taken as an indicator of Baldwin's sexuality.

There are some hints of homosexual themes in Tell It on the Mountain, for example John's fascination and attraction for Elisha.

Societal factors: The consequences affecting the individual because of societal norms. John Grimes is a confused adolescent boy, but most of his confusion is driven from questioning himself. These questions include his sexuality and the reasons that he is, "at war," with his father. Upon examination of the reasons for which he questions himself, it is determined that norms placed on him by society and more importantly the church, which is embodied by his father, deem his actions wrong. John cannot look at anything without having it painted in the light of the church, therefore,[5] he is committing sin because of his own nature, which is the cause of his confusion. With this auto-biographical novel, Baldwin is particularly invested in the reason why he split from the ideals of the church after being raised so rigidly within its confines. The very first page, "Part One: The Seventh Day, And the Spirit and the Bride say, Come..." is included to highlight his view of religion and the conflicts brought about the very framework of Christianity. It is not constrictive, but inclusive—"let him that is athirst, come"—there is no restriction with God, and yet, he was raised in a church (highlighted by Elisha and his girlfriend in the novel) where the simple act of temptation by a lover is damnable to hell.

The story includes racial injustice, both as a background theme, and in one flashback sequence as leading to John's biological father's (Richard's) suicide. Richard had been wrongly imprisoned and beaten, despite having proclaimed his innocence.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations[edit]

In an attempt to copy the success of the 1977 mini-series Roots, which was also an African-American family saga,[original research?] the Public Broadcasting Service produced a made-for-television movie based on Go Tell It on the Mountain in 1984. Stan Lathan directed the film, with Paul Winfield starring as Gabriel in his adulthood and Ving Rhames playing Gabriel in his youth.[6]

The work was translated into French in 1957 by Henri Hell and Maud Vidal under the title Les Élus du Seigneur.


  1. ^ "Books Published Today". The New York Times: 19. May 18, 1953.
  2. ^ "All-Time 100 Novels". Time. October 16, 2005.
  3. ^ Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry, Basic Books, 1987
  4. ^ a b Anderson, Michael (March 29, 1998). "Trapped Inside James Baldwin". The New York Times. Retrieved September 6, 2015.
  5. ^ Baldwin, James (1951). Go Tell It on the Mountain. New York: Bantam Dell. pp. 11–12. ISBN 9780385334570.
  6. ^ Internet Movie Database