Tuesday, May 29, 2012

James Baldwin

James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain is a book that I've wanted to read for a long time. Last week, I had the chance to do so. 

I can imagine there's considerable scholarly commentary swirling around this book. That said, I did have a few observations: 

First, the novel really is brutal. The story, the characters: everything is built on exposing the harsh realities of the African-American experience in this country during the first half of the twentieth century. It's also a book, though, built on exposing the complexities of the African-American community. 

True, Baldwin's characters confront the inequities of the white world: but they engage in internal battles as well. There's no way around the fact that some of the most malicious characters in this novel are the black men closest to Baldwin's central character, John.

Another point: were I to characterize this book, I'd file it -- I was thinking last night -- under ecstatic realism. Baldwin's novel is built on a religious zeal, a spiritual intensity. And that fervor defines his story: it's everywhere.

The spiritual element of the book is brutal in itself: his characters evoke faith in order to express (and conceal) hatred, fear, and guilt. The religion exposed in Baldwin's novel is one built on a measure of ecstasy (reminiscent of the early Quakers, for instance) and a simultaneous measure of ruthlessness.

But Baldwin was a gifted stylist, and reading his work is an odd pleasure: it's a reminder that an author can write beautifully, while telling a horrifying story. And that's a tremendous accomplishment, indeed.

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