Go Tell It on the Mountain Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1953

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: 1880–1935

Locale: Harlem, New York City

Characters DiscussedJohn Grimes

John Go Tell It on the MountainGrimes, a fourteen-year-old boy who, everyone says, is destined to be a preacher and a great leader of his people. He is insecure, intelligent, and ambivalent in the love/hate relationship with the Reverend Grimes, who has taken over as his father, and his church. John is a pubescent artist who finds within himself a terrible conflict over his religious heritage. The novel relates what happens on his fourteenth birthday, a day only his mother remembers. The final chapter finds John writhing on the floor of a sanctuary, his soul the prize in a battle he does not comprehend.

Roy Grimes

Roy Grimes, John’s younger half brother. He is indifferent to religion and expected to be in trouble; he does not disappoint. Roy is the favorite of the Reverend Gabriel Grimes, whereas John is the child of his mother’s heart–and sin.

The Reverend Gabriel Grimes

The Reverend Gabriel Grimes, a tyrannical, puritan man, the husband of Elizabeth and father of three of her children, but not of John. Gabriel cannot love John because he cannot forgive the circumstances of his birth; he idealizes his “natural” son, Roy. John represents a child whom Gabriel had conceived with a lover out of wedlock, then abandoned. John thus serves as a reminder of the failure of his own flesh. John also symbolizes for the preacher the former sinfulness of his second wife, Elizabeth.

Brother Elisha

Brother Elisha, a seventeen-year-old preacher in the storefront church of John’s family, the Temple of the Fire Baptized Congregational Church. He is a young, handsome man, consumed by religious fervor, and he is the object of John’s spiritual and physical longing.

Florence Grimes

Florence Grimes, Gabriel’s sister and the only person who will stand up to him. She hates him and knows the secrets of his dissolute youth and his fall from grace even after he professed himself saved. In many ways, she is his conscience and his scourge.

Elizabeth Grimes

Elizabeth Grimes, perhaps the most complex character. She has no conflict with her faith. She is a true believer in the sense that she bears the cross of her past sin–John’s conception–as well as the burdens of her poverty, blackness, and hidden hatred of white people, a loathing brought on by her lover’s suicide. Richard, John’s real father, represented for her a choice between God and lust, a corruption to which she had gladly succumbed. The two leave the South, but before they can be married, yet after Elizabeth is pregnant with John, Richard is jailed for a crime he did not commit. After being acquitted, he cannot live with his understanding that as a black man he is truly “invisible,” denied his humanity. He slashes his wrists, despite Elizabeth’s great love for him. After his death, Elizabeth is lonely, poor, and guilt-ridden; she turns to Gabriel, who promises to become a true father to John.

Sources for Further StudyBaldwin, James. Conversations with James Baldwin. Edited by Fred Standley and Louis H. Pratt. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989. The conversations are the widest-ranging collection in one book. Their subject areas are broad, including race, hatred, sex, the new South, and the role of the writer. The interviewers include a similarly broad array of writers, philosophers, and people in political and social movements, such as Studs Terkel, David Frost, Nat Hentoff, and Josephine Baker.Campbell, James. Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin. New York: Viking, 1991. Examines Baldwin’s life and writing in the context of the Civil Rights movement, his abandonment of Christianity, and his relationships with other major writers.Gibson, Donald B., ed. Five Black Writers: Essays on Wright, Ellison, Baldwin, Hughes, and LeRoi Jones. New York: New York University Press, 1970. There are four excellent chapters on Baldwin’s work, including his philosophy of being, his interpretation of the African American community in relation to the larger American society, and defenses of his work in response to critics.Inge, M. Thomas, Maurice Duke, and Jackson Bryer, eds. Black American Writers: Bibliographical Essays. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978. The long segment on Baldwin not only reviews his major works, including Go Tell It on the Mountain, but also includes his additional manuscripts and interviews that he granted about his writings.Köllhofer, Jakob J., ed. James Baldwin: His Place in American Literary History and His Reception in Europe. Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Peter Lang, 1991. This collection of essays by a polyglot group of European literary critics and theorists is, in effect, a festschrift on the occasion of Baldwin’s death. It includes the results of a symposium of international scholars who assess the impact of Baldwin, the man, and his work on European readers. Of particular interest to this group of scholars is Baldwin’s representation of African Americans to European readers.Lynch, Michael F. “Staying out of the Temple: Baldwin, the African American Church, and The Amen Corner.” In Reviewing James Baldwin: Things Not Seen, edited by D. Quentin Miller. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000. Presents Baldwin as a “deacon” speaking to readers about the African American experience and Christian faith. Contains many references to Go Tell It on the Mountain.Olson, Barbara K. “’Come-to-Jesus Stuff’ in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain and The Amen Corner.” African American Review 31 (June 22, 1997): 295-301. Compares Baldwin’s play The Amen Corner (pr. 1954) with his first novel to determine whether they are ironic depictions of Christianity or vindications of it.Porter, Horace A. Stealing the Fire: The Art and Protest of James Baldwin. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1989. Inspired by the author’s dissertation, this book is a series of thoughtful, critical essays on Baldwin’s early works and ideas and professes to reinterpret his “genesis as a writer.” Essentially, Porter finds in the early works Baldwin’s ambivalence as a writer and as a black man.Standley, Fred L., and Nancy V. Burt, eds. Critical Essays on James Baldwin. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. Contains an excellent introductory essay on the literature of Baldwin studies. It serves as a survey of some of the principal sources for the study of Baldwin, together with the discussion of the evolution of Baldwin criticism. It contains general essays as well as essays on his fiction, nonfiction, and drama. Of particular interest are essays by Fred Stanley and Shirley Allen on Go Tell It on the Mountain.Weatherby, W. J. James Baldwin: Artist on Fire. New York: Donald I. Fine, 1989. A biographical “portrait” of Baldwin based on conversations and interviews with his friends as well as the recollections of Weatherby, who knew him for more than twenty-eight years. This biography takes as its starting point and theme the mystical view that Baldwin had of his life. It also is particularly instructive on the autobiographical aspects of Go Tell it on the Mountain.
Categories: Characters