Baldwin!

Damn!

Don’t know how I went so long without reading Baldwin’s fiction.

My recent look into his essays, sparked by reading Ta-Nehesi Coates’ wonderful Between the World and Me, led me to read Go Tell it on the Mountain.

What a mind-blowing novel! His characters and the intricately woven, powerful story are so captivating, and the whole impact of it just so devastating, that I don’t know why he’s not more popular. Wait. He’s a gay black guy who wrote in the 50’s. Maybe that explains it.

With such a sympathetic telling of the story of these “sanctified” (and otherwise) black people in early 20th century America that you’d swear he was one of them, rather than a lapsed saint who left the church after a spectacular beginning as a young preacher, Baldwin manages to reveal more of the psychology and sociology behind that world than could be explained in a raft of doctoral thesis papers.

Like much great literature, it manages to capture in its art many of our hard-won understandings from the patient study and analysis in the social sciences.

I’m sure he must be prominent in literature classes, as his mastery of prose is so magnificent and his finely crafted language carries multiple levels of sub-text.

He has an impeccable ear for the dialect, and I find myself carried back to my days in the Southern Baptist environment in which I grew up. Many of the phrases and the cadence of the language reflect what I heard in my youth here in the South.

But it’s the fascinating insight into the psychological and sociological realities underlying the practice of this ecstatic version of Christianity that make this book so truly astounding. With some of the most imaginative writing I’ve ever read, Baldwin carries us deep inside the psycho-sexual fantasies with which conversion experiences, “slain in the spirit” swoons, sermons and other church goings-on are richly imbued.

Though there are a few characters who stand back looking askance at all this tom-foolery, for the most part, Baldwin tells the story lovingly and uncritically – though below the surface, the implications are clear.

Of course, though also done with a light touch absent any bitterness, there is a strong social story showing the effects on the characters of the black diaspora, of the racism that pervades their lives both south and north, and the desperate lives to which so many were driven.

In addition, you see clearly the role of the church and the Christian teachings in supporting these people caught in truly abysmal social and economic circumstances – as well as their exploitation by those in seats of power.

It is a truly astounding little novel, and I highly recommend it as holiday reading! I plan to continue through his early novels and short stories in the Library of America collection I have, so I’ll share reactions to others as I feel led by the Lord… wait, as I feel motivated!

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