Baldwin's Mountain

November 11: On this day in 1948 twenty-five-year-old James Baldwin left the United States on a one-way plane ticket to Paris. The aim of the move was partly to enjoy being part of "The New Lost Generation," as one of Baldwin's essays would later describe those expat years. But the primary goal was to become a writer, and when Baldwin returned to the U.S. three-and-a-half years later it was to deliver the manuscript of Go Tell It on the Mountain, the autobiographical novel which, he said later, made not only fame but mental health possible: "Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else."

 

Baldwin grew up in Harlem poverty, his father unknown, his stepfather an unbending, Pentecostal preacher with a cruel streak, and with mental problems for which he would eventually be committed to an institution. He scorned Baldwin's bookishness, and liked to tell him that he was as ugly as his mother; any signs of homosexuality would have provoked a fundamentalist's intolerance. In an effort to both repress his own personality and to triumph over his tormentor, Baldwin became a minister in his stepfather's Fireside Pentecostal Assembly at the age of fourteen, and for three years was his rival in the pulpit. Titled "Crying Holy" and then "In My Father's House" in draft, Go Tell It on the Mountain was an attempt to tell and be released from this past. In its climactic scene, Baldwin's hero, the fourteen-year-old John, comes of age in the only manner available to him, by escaping his preacher father and being born again on the church "threshing-floor." The novel's final paragraphs take place at sunrise, the sun "waking the streets, and the houses, and crying at the windows":

And he felt his father behind him. And he felt the March wind rise, striking through his damp clothes, against his salty body. He turned to face his father—he found himself smiling, but his father did not smile.

They looked at each other a moment. His mother stood in the doorway, in the long shadows of the hall.

"I'm ready," John said, "I'm coming. I'm on my way."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…

advertisement
Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

And women too.  Luminaries from Colin Firth to Nick Cave and Jonathan Franzen chose the poems that bring them to tears, and the result is a stunning collection of poignant verse from writers like Auden, Whitman, Bishop, Larkin, Neruda and many others.  Warning: choking-up hazard.

The King of Pain

Trapped beneath his entertainment system, reality TV mastermind Rick Salter reflects on his life and tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. Seth Kaufman’s romp is an outrageous meditation on pain and entertainment in a deranged world in which the two are often interchangeable.

The Good Inn

Frank Black, frontman for the Pixies, has written a transgressive historical fiction with shades of Thomas Pynchon (focused as it is on the history of explosives and cinematic pornography), all set in a hallucinatory Edwardian Europe.