“Go back to where you started,” James Baldwin wrote, “or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it. Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself: but know whence you came.” Baldwin was the son of a preacher and the grandson of a slave, and his voice continues to resonate 50 years after the publication of his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953).
The story was moulded by Baldwin’s painful relationship with his stepfather, David, a disciplinarian preacher from New Orleans who repeatedly told his stepson that he was ugly, marked by the devil. When I first read it 10 years ago, I knew little of Baldwin’s life and work, but something in his prose hit me, almost winding me with its intensity. I’d never read a novel that described loneliness and desire with such burning eloquence.
Rereading Go Tell It on the Mountain in the light of Baldwin’s later sustained attacks on the church (particularly The Fire Next Time, 1963), it’s clear that he was deeply critical of religion; and yet I’m not convinced that his work became more secular. The church never gave up its hold on Baldwin, who was preaching in a Pentecostal church at 13, but he gave it up to write. As late as 1985 he talked of how “once I had left the pulpit, I had abandoned or betrayed my role in the community”.
Like many African-American artists at the time, including Richard Wright, Ollie Harrington and Chester Himes, Baldwin headed for Paris, a city that offered – at least on the surface – respite from stifling sexual and racial discrimination. He arrived in 1948, armed with a tattered manuscript, little French and $40. With no regular income or fixed address, he endured poverty, illness and depression (as well as a brief spell in jail for the theft of a bed sheet), but he was soon writing for avant-garde literary journals, including Paris Review and Zero, and in 1950 Commentary published a brief version of what would become his first novel, under the title “Death of a Prophet”.
That same year, Baldwin met and fell in love with Lucien Happersberger, a 17-year-old Swiss picaro who, concerned about the writer’s state of mind, invited him to spend the winter of 1951-52 in his family’s chalet in Loèche-les-Bains. It was there, as Baldwin recalled, “in that absolutely alabaster landscape, armed with two Bessie Smith records and a typewriter, I began to try to re-create the life that I had first known as a child and from which I had spent so many years in flight”.
Set in Harlem in the late 1930s, the novel describes a day in the life of 14-year-old John Grimes, the son of Gabriel, a fierce Pentecostal preacher, as he struggles with his growing sexual awareness and the warnings of the church that thunder through the novel: “You is in the Word or you ain’t – ain’t no half way with God.”
But while aggressively critical in places of Pentecostalism’s rigid distinctions between the saved and sinners, the spirit and the flesh, Baldwin’s novel is tinged too with nostalgia and wonder. The description of John’s conversion as he wrestles on the threshing floor is a testimony to the church’s ability to destroy and renew: “John had not felt the wound, but only the agony… only the fear; and lay here, now, helpless, screaming, at the very bottom of darkness.”
As Baldwin said in an interview with the Village Voice in 1985, “terror of the flesh… is a doctrine which has led to untold horrors”. Throughout Go Tell It on the Mountain , he emphasises the physicality of worship and the thin line between religious and sexual exertion. As the storefront congregation worships, “their bodies gave off an acrid, steamy smell” which is not far off the “the unconquerable odour… of dust, and sweat” surrounding the “sinners” in the street outside. During worship, as Baldwin repeatedly reminds us, the physical body can be hidden but not forgotten behind the holy robes: Elisha’s “thighs moved terribly against the cloth of his suit”.
Although Baldwin would not fully describe a homosexual relationship until Giovanni’s Room (1956), the relationship between John and Elisha, like that of David and Johnnie in his short story “The Outing” (1951), is characterised by a combination of sexual and religious feelings. At the very moment when John is in agony on the floor, as “the Holy Ghost was speaking”, he feels “a tightening in his loin strings” and “a sudden yearning tenderness for Elisha… desire, sharp and awful”.
Baldwin’s insistence on a sexualised spirituality remains radical today. As he wrote in If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), “when two people… really love each other, everything that happens between them has something of a sacramental air”. In Baldwin’s view, it is the loving (and often sexual) touch of another person, not God, who “saves” another human being. “If one can live with one’s own pain,” Baldwin wrote in Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968), “then one respects the pain of others, and so, briefly, but transcendentally, we can release each other from pain.”
· Douglas Field is editing a book about American cold war culture, to be published by Edinburgh University Press next year.
Source: The Guardian