Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin

Purgatory…

😦

Fourteen-year-old Johnny Grimes has been brainwashed into mental agony by his religious fanatic of a father, his religious fanatic of a mother, and all the other religious fanatics they chum around with. So much so that when, on the morning of his birthday, he does what teenage boys do, he believes that God will damn him to hell for eternity and spends the day wondering whether he should seek salvation, or go out and have fun instead. His mad dad Gabriel is not exactly an inspiring role-model – self-declared saint he may be, but that doesn’t stop him beating his wife and children, bullying everyone around him and preaching hellfire endlessly. And if Johnny thinks a bit of onanistic seed-spilling has earned him a place in Hell, wait till he works out he’s gay…

Book 87 of 90

I abandoned this one at the halfway point on the grounds that it had bored my atheist brain into a coma. If I wanted to be preached at I’d go to church, but not one full of religious maniacs at the extreme end of the spectrum, who screw up their children deliberately – most parents only do that by accident. On the rare occasion that Baldwin lets his characters reveal themselves to the reader it’s quite interesting – Aunt Florence’s story in particular is well told – and the basic premise of a child dealing with being brought up in a family of religious fanatics with a bullying, violent man at its head has a lot of potential, especially since we know it’s autobiographical; and the writing is good in parts. But unfortunately Baldwin seems to have decided to cunningly hide the interesting sections within page after page where he simply quotes the Bible or prayers or sermons ad nauseam – the kind of sermons that make my old pal John Knox look caring and cuddly. When he decided to give screeds of Gabriel’s first Revivalist sermon word for word, complete with hallelujah responses from the crowd, I decided enough was enough. In Gabriel’s world view I, as an unbeliever, will doubtless be damned to everlasting torment in the fires of Hell when I die, but I see no reason to condemn myself to purgatory in advance.

Amazon UK Link

* * * * *

This was the choice for our Review-Along and I look forward to reading everyone else’s opinions. I sincerely hope (and expect) that you all enjoyed it more than I – not a high bar! 😉 I’ll add links to everyone’s reviews as I spot them, and I hope you’ll all look out for our non-blogging friends’ responses to the book in the comments section below.

Katrina’s Review

Rose’s Review

Laila’s Review

Madame Bibi Lophile’s Review

Kelly’s review

66 thoughts on “Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin

  1. OK, so that’s a ‘no’ from you, is it, FictionFan? 😉 I am sorry to hear that you didn’t like it more than this, although I understand your points. It’s character development and the plot that keep a reader interested in a book, and when you don’t feel them coming to the fore, it just takes completely away from the book. I think that’s probably especially true in this case if the religious part of it all doesn’t hold attention.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m afraid my preacher allergy kicked in! I couldn’t quite decide what he was aiming for. On the one hand he seemed to be showing the religion as a form of fanaticism, but on the other hand he was still preaching it as if he believed in it. Not for me, but I’m sure other review-alongers will have had a better experience with it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. […] I think there were quite a few folks planning to “review-along” this time, so I look forward to seeing what others got from the book. I tend to read at face value and sometimes miss any symbolic stuff. I plan to come back later and update this post with a direct link for those interested in FictionFan’s review (or any others). Update to FF’s review: click HERE […]

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  3. I am usually a big fan of your one-star reviews, FF. This one has caught me unawares. As you know, I wasn’t sure if I’d get the book read and the review written in time and I didn’t. Like you I abandoned this one but for quite the opposite reasons to you. I knew I couldn’t take it in, do it justice, racing through it as I was. I put it aside for a better time. So, reading the reviews which are currently live, how do I feel? Yours and Rose’s – both reviewers I trust – ought to be enough to tell me that I dodged a bullet yet I’m going with Mme B. I had no illusions that this would be an easy read and clearly it isn’t, but there’s something which still draws me to it. Its autobiographical nature? The quality of the writing? The bleakness of the lives of the characters? I haven’t worked it out yet and maybe I won’t until I choose to give it a proper crack. Suffice to say that neither you nor Rose have put me off 😊 Not yet at least!

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    • The only thing I found hard about it was the nonsense he was preaching. He seemed to be both saying that they were religious fanatics and yet expecting the reader to buy into the religion as if it was something to be taken seriously. I should say I’m not anti-religion, but I am anti-nutters masquerading as “saints” and talking rubbish. And quoting screeds of said rubbish with no commentary or purpose just seemed like a not too subtle form of torture! 😉 However, millions of people have enjoyed the book, so clearly my reaction is allergic! I hope you’ll find it worthwhile if you ever decide to read it!

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  4. Ha!! Your review was more entertaining than the book itself! Thank goodness the next review-along (The Chrysalids) worked out for me. Otherwise I would have been totally turned off of review-alongs! 😅 (and to think I didn’t even get to count this one towards my Classics list)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, I’m glad I’m not alone in my reaction – misery loves company! 😉 Must admit I’m pleased the next one is The Chrysalids since I’m sure to enjoy it – glad to hear you did too! And hopefully The Hunchback will be good… 😀

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  5. Having just read Rose’s review and now yours, I’m still kind of curious about this book. It seems like the worst religion has to offer but I’m curious if I would have the same reaction to the church and Bible bits.

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    • As you know (I hope!), I’m not anti-religion, but I am anti this kind of religious extremism where you can behave how you like and still be guaranteed a place in Heaven by virtue of praising the Lord. I’d be interested in your opinion of it if you ever do decide to read it. Millions of people have thought it was brilliant, so I’m quite willing to accept that my reaction arose out of my allergy to this kind of hallelujah preaching.

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      • Oh yes, I know you’re not anti-religion! I recognize this as an extreme form of religion and it sounds like a type I would be anti too! I’m mostly curious whether, having lived my life in the church and sometimes around extreme religion, I would read a book like this with a different context than you do. Or perhaps it would all make me just as angry!

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    • Oh, it is autobiographical – he’s quite clear about that. But unfortunately all the quoting the Bible and sermons and so on got in the way of the story he was trying to tell, for me at least. I would equally object to someone writing a novel about Shakespeare and just filling it with screeds and screeds of quotes from the plays!

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  6. I’m sorry you couldn’t get through this one, FF. It was certainly a challenging read for me when I read it a few years ago. I gave it four stars but didn’t precisely “enjoy” it. Here’s my review from back then:

    https://bigreadinglife.wordpress.com/2019/01/12/thoughts-on-go-tell-it-on-the-mountain-by-james-baldwin-ccspin-19/

    I will say if you decide to read Baldwin again, I’d go with some of his nonfiction or Giovanni’s Room. I still haven’t read Beale Street yet but I want to.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve just re-read your review and you definitely got more out of it than I did, even if you didn’t exactly enjoy it. I’m afraid this kind of religious extremism always makes my allergy kick in and since in general I’m a live-and-let-live type of person I don’t like being forced into a position of being anti-religion – because mostly I’m not. I don’t think I’ll ever read Baldwin again. I’m afraid I got the distinct impression that he believes the nonsense he was preaching here (or why spend so much of the book preaching it?), so we are not destined to be kindred spirits!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Sorry this one didn’t work for you. I can see the fanaticism getting to me as well, but having read Madame Bibliophile’s review, the aspects on the treatment of women and patriarchal attitudes that seem the same as elsewhere in the world do appear to be something I might want to read. Interesting reading these different perspectives on this book

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    • Had he skipped the preaching I would have appreciated some of it more, though on the whole I think it’s one of those books which is seriously over-rated because people forgive its literary faults on the grounds that the picture of oppression is important. But simply quoting screeds of the Bible and sermons and so on was the equivalent of someone writing a novel about Shakespeare and filling the pages with massive quotes from the plays! However, clearly I’m in a minority on this one (as usual!) so hopefully if you do read it sometime you’ll enjoy it more than I did. 😀

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    • Well, it’s quite short, and it would be fun if you were able to fit it in while it’s still fresh in everyone’s minds! You might love it – Madame Bibi did, and saw all kinds of stuff in it that I was too annoyed to notice!

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  8. I had a feeling you would probably end up hating this. It makes me feel a bit better though, as I’m afraid I couldn’t get through it either. I’m a practicing Christian, though not a Pentecostal, and found the relentless fanaticism hard to deal with. It reminded me somewhat of some of the stories my mother used to tell me about previous generations of her family, who belonged to a different Christian set, though seemed to hold some equally extreme and narrow interpretations of their faith. I did wonder a little about the extent to which Baldwin still believed some of the things he was condemning, it certainly seemed quite conflicted. This is to be expected of course, so it is accurate and authentic from that point of view, but I found the descriptions of abuse quite harrowing, so I’m afraid I had to stop. I’m glad others have been able to enjoy it, or at least get something from it, and I can see why it has become a classic and is important, though it wasn’t the right book for me at all. Hopefully the Hunchback might be a bit more to our taste, thanks as always for hosting the reviewalong.

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    • Yes, it’s not Christianity – or any other mainstream religion – I object to; it’s very specifically this kind of cult-like stuff that insists that deliberately inflicted suffering is an essential component of the search for salvation. I was brought up by two atheist parents – one a lapsed Catholic and the other a lapsed Protestant, which as you can imagine was a lot of fun in Glasgow in the ’60s and ’70s! So imagine how much added fun it was that they gave me a Jewish name… haha, it always reminds me of the boy named Sue. My parents certainly ensured I grew up tough! 😉
      I felt quite strongly that although Baldwin was criticising that particular church, he was still preaching its beliefs. I felt he was saying the people were hypocrites, but fundamentally the ideas were right. But other people are reading it quite differently, so who knows? One feels he could have spent less time sermonising and more time clarifying exactly what message he was trying to get across! I have much higher expectations of The Hunchback and can’t wait to get stuck into it… 😀

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  9. I’m surprised – I didn’t read this the same way, I didn’t take it as Baldwin preaching I thought he was showing us the fanaticism for what it really was – like Joyce and Catholicism. All very interesting, and I’m enjoying everyone’s reviews, wouldn’t life be boring if we all thought the same!

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    • I felt quite strongly that although he was saying the people were hypocrites, he was still preaching that the ideas were right. But the fact that we’re all interpreting it differently suggests to me (in my bitterness 😉 ) that he could have spent a bit less time regurgitating sermons and vast swathes of the Bible, and a bit more making his message clear… haha! It was a pity, but as you say it makes for an interesting review-along when we all feel differently! I won’t be sorry to turn to The Hunchback, though…

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    • I must say I was expecting everyone else to enjoy it much more than I did, but the reviews and comments have been pretty evenly split. Ha, I wouldn’t want to put you off entirely, though, since you may fall into the “love it” camp… 😉

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    • Yes, I’m sure it would have annoyed me even if I was a Christian from one of the sane churches, but I really hate this kind of hellfire preaching, and he just used far too much of it. When I realised I’d read five full pages of one of these Revivalists sermons, unbroken, I decided we weren’t destined to ever be friends… 😉

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    • Ha, I’ve been surprised that so many of us felt that way – cheers me up! Although I’m an atheist I’m not violently anti-religion, and I don’t usually have problems with religion in books, but Baldwin just regurgitated too much preaching…

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  10. I’m sorry you didn’t get on with this one. Thanks for the warning though. As someone who is against any kind of preaching (in books and in real life), I will definitely stay away from this one. It doesn’t even matter if it’s views of beliefs, I share. I’m just ridiculously sensitive towards people who try to tell others, what to think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I’m very much a live-and-let-live type. I have a deal with the universe – I won’t shove my opinions down everyone else’s throats if they agree not to shove theirs down mine! So pages and pages of sermons was never going to work for me, even, as you say, if I agreed with him . However, loads of people think it’s a wonderful book, so don’t let me put you off completely… 😀

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  11. Being extremely allergic to religious fundamentalism myself, I see what Baldwin was doing here very differently. As an adult he did not have these beliefs though certainly grew up among and with them, I felt he was putting a reader into the midst of what that was like. Apparently he succeeded too well in your case! I agree it’s not the easiest place to be!

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    • I really didn’t get that impression. To me it felt that he was saying the people were hypocrites, but the fundamental(ist) ideas were right, that we should all seek salvation and expect to be miserable until we find it, and maybe after too. But it was more the style of the book – pages and pages of sermons and Bible quotes for no good reason. Less, as they say, is more! I would have objected just as much if I’d been reading a novel about Shakespeare and the author had filled half the pages with direct quotes from the plays.

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      • I think this is one we’ll have agree to disagree on… But I hope at some point you try his essays, especially The Fire Next Time. One of the two pieces gives context to the role the Black church has had and how vital it’s been to every aspect of Black American life, even for nonbelievers such as himself.

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        • Well, it would be no fun if we all agreed about every book! 😀 Hmm, I shall note your recommendation, but I fear it will be a while before I want to read any more Baldwin or anything else about hellfire churches!

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  12. I haven’t read any Baldwin and although I’ve been curious because of his connection to church history, I think I might give this one a miss. Although these kinds of churches certainly exist, I get a bit tired with only ever seeing the worst of church represented in literature! And especially since it seems Baldwin was still preaching the hellfire and brimstone approach despite recognising its problems.

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    • Yes, exactly. Apart from anything else, it pushes me towards feeling anti-religion which is not something I’ve ever wanted to be. The vast majority of churches are a positive force for good and it’s a pity all we ever hear about is when religion goes wrong. And hellfire preaching always annoys me – why on earth would anyone worship a God who insisted his followers should be miserable and scared all their lives? So Baldwin forcing me to read page after page of such sermons for no good reason was never going to work…

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  13. As you know, I don’t read American, Fiction Fan – except possibly for Raymond Chandler, .who was was at least as much English as American. – and Irish.

    I was disappointed – remember I am the token bloke – to learn that all the others are atheists. I had no idea.

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    • Ha, I don’t think they’re all atheists – quite a few of the people who visit belong to one religion or another. But happily, as far as I know, none of them belong to an extremist cult like the “church” in this book!

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  14. I wish it had occurred to me that I didn’t have to finish a review-along book! Reading this book was hard work and so was writing a review.
    I’m not surprised that you hated Go Tell It On the Mountain. Gabriel’s chapter was a difficult read and even though I feel as if Baldwin meant for readers to feel overwhelmed by the religious fanaticism, particularly in his section of the book, this seems to be the point where he lost the readers who couldn’t stomach being preached at any more.
    See you in hell. Or heaven, since it seems like everyone we know will be there.

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    • Hahaha, I always think Heaven must be Hell if it’s full of people like Gabriel! 😉 I tried hard not to abandon it because it was a review-along book. I’d have given up very early on otherwise. I wasn’t convinced Baldwin had stopped believing the nonsense he had his characters spouting – I felt he just felt they were hypocrites for not living up to what they preached. But whatever he was trying to do, I felt he did it badly. Giving page after page of sermons is not a good way of writing a novel! I would have felt the same if I’d been reading a novel about Shakespeare and the author had bunged in massive quotes from the plays to fill up half the pages! Haha, well, it’s over thankfully! Onward to The Hunchback – I’m pretty sure most of us will enjoy it… 😀

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      • I can’t decide if Baldwin used the preaching to show up the characters as hypocrites, or if it was meant to overwhelm the reader in the way that John was, which possibly led to him experiencing his own version of the mania towards the end of the story. Either way, whatever, as Miss S would say. We’ve finished with that!

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        • Yes, everyone seems to be seeing that differently and I suspect that might be down to each person’s own experiences of religion. For me, living in a country still trying to shake off its own kind of hellfire preaching and its miserable consequences, it “triggered” me! If I was going for religion at all, give me the happy-clappy Jesus-wants-me-for-a-sunbeam type! But I’m with Miss S – whatever! 😀

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  15. Sorry for my late reply. I wondered how this would sit with you FF. I experienced Go Tell It as a window into, and immersion in, a different time as the author had experienced it, trauma, inequity and all. I found myself engaging with it as a cultural experience as much as a religious one. It is heavy with images of sin and guilt and thwarted redemption and yet I found the sombre language and rhythms of reading created a literary experience I could engage with. I sing in a community choir and we’ve sung a number of gospel songs over the years. In reading this, I often related some of the Biblical imagery to these songs and the freedom (and salvation) seeking stories behind them. This linked me into a larger story of African American oppression and the impact such oppressions can have communities. I also read it as a coming of age story and emerging sexual awareness with the added complexities of burdensome religious beliefs for the young man to find his way through – it was very much in my mind that this was a story at least partly based on Baldwin’s own life (and it was a relief knowing that he eventually did move through these binds to find his own path). It was not an easy story, but for me it is an intense and eloquent telling of hard truths.

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    • Ah, now, your reaction was what I was hoping and expecting my reaction would be! Unfortunately I felt he didn’t do it well – I know I’m in the minority on that, but what’s new? If he had omitted the endless sermons, prayers and Bible quotes – well, cut back on them considerably rather – it would have been a better book, in my opinion. I can only explain it as I have done in reply to other comments – if this had been a novel about Shakespeare, I would have been equally annoyed if pages at a time were given over to simply quoting from the plays. I don’t need to read a full sermon to get the gist of what the religion was preaching, especially since it may be crazed but it’s not unusual. Maybe having grown up and lived in a society where this form of hellfire preaching was used for generations to suppress the poor and justify violence against women and children means I have a familiarity with it that Baldwin’s early readers wouldn’t? Whatever, I certainly have no desire to plough through screeds of nonsense seeking for the good bits! Haha, I’m genuinely glad you had a better experience with it than I did though! 😀 Onwards and upwards! I’m looking forward to starting The Hunchback…

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  16. I thought you might hate this one, and I was right! I haven’t read it myself (and never will) but from the reviews I’ve read it sounded mighty depressing, so good for you for stopping and putting it down once and for all – life is too short when we’re above ground! haha

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