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.

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