Places: Go Tell It on the Mountain

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1953

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: 1880-1935

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Harlem

*Harlem. Go Tell It on the MountainPredominantly African American neighborhood in New York City’s Upper Manhattan. Harlem is the scene of the real-time narrative of the novel, an urban community in which the lives of the central characters intertwine. Harlem is also symbolic of the historic northward migration of African Americans seeking escape from the Jim Crow South in the early twentieth century. As a physical marker of historical transition, Harlem symbolizes an ambiguous free space for the Grimes family, providing the sanctuary of a black-defined neighborhood in America, but also signifying restricted space on another level for the characters. For example, when John Grimes and his biological father, Richard, try to create a life outside the boundaries of Harlem, they must struggle with external racial barriers and internalized mental barriers to do so.

*American South

*American South. As a region, the South resonates with symbolic importance in the memories, prayers, and visions of the novel’s characters. None of the real-time action of the novel occurs in the South; however, the South is symbolic of the psychological and historical origins of the Grimes family and other key characters. The South also works symbolically on other levels. It signifies the legacy of slavery in American history, with all of its physical, mental, spiritual and political implications for the characters, for African American history, and for the country as a whole. As embodied in the consciousness of the characters, the South also signifies the continued reality of American apartheid, which through the literary device of visionary prayer is projected “north” and played out in the present of the novel, and, by extension, it is projected into the 1950’s context of the novel’s original publication. As the place from which many of the key characters come, the South profoundly affects “where they are.”

Pentecostal church

Pentecostal church. Harlem church in which John Grimes, his family, Elisha and the “Saints” gather for prayer services on the threshing floor as the symbolic (and ironic) center of African American history and consciousness. This temple is also the place where the characters confront American history and culture, through the intense visionary experience of their prayers. Interpreters of Go Tell It on the Mountain disagree regarding whether or not John Grimes has a religious conversion on the threshing floor, and whether whatever kind of conversion he does experience is toward, or away from, the tradition represented by Gabriel and the black church. However, among these differing interpretations, there is no dispute about the importance of the threshing floor as the altar, so to speak, where John “descends” into history and where he experiences his ultimate epiphany.

Movie theater

Movie theater. Midtown Manhattan theater that John visits on his birthday, the day of his profound rebirth. The movie theater becomes a secularized temple for John, a place where the film he sees symbolizes the world of art, open sexuality, and creativity. Drawn toward the “temptation” of art, John struggles throughout the novel to see his history and the history of his people, as a source for the liberating possibilities of artistic expression.

*Central Park

*Central Park. Large park in the middle of Manhattan that serves as a transitional space, working symbolically within the richly textured biblical imagery of the novel as a whole. Early in the novel, John crosses the park, the wilderness, to climb to the summit of a hill, and is gripped by a prophetic presentiment of freedom, power, and transcendence. His brief but sharply focused encounter with an elderly white man in the open space of the park symbolically affirms the possibility of a mutually acknowledged shared humanity. This encounter occurs in a space away from the city streets, where the characters are protected for a brief moment from the identity pressures and pre-set patterns of American society.

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.
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