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Picture of James Baldwin, author of Go Tell It on the Mountain. Photo by Claire Burch

November 11, 1948
James Baldwin   (1924 - 1987)
James Baldwin, Mountains
by Steve King

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On this day in 1948 twenty-five-year-old James Baldwin left the United States on a one-way plane ticket to Paris. When he returned three-and-a-half years later -- not for long -- it was with the manuscript of Go Tell It on the Mountain, perhaps his most famous book. It was certainly the book 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."

Not that "The New Lost Generation" (the title of a Baldwin essay) wasn't in Paris for the fun. Baldwin and his group enjoyed the same Left Bank hangouts, and though they might have spent more nights in the Arabian hashish hangouts than Hemingway, they spent the same dawns "telling stories, sad and earnest stories, in grey, workingmen's cafes." But Baldwin was homosexual as well as black, and although he was in Paris because it did not particularly care about such things, he was also in Paris to write, and the writing seemed permanently blocked. When he spent his second Christmas in jail, arrested for having taken a casual lover whose moving-in gift was a bedsheet stolen from his last hotel, Baldwin was depressed to the point of an attempted suicide. In the end, he had to leave Paris too in order to complete his first novel. The newly-retitled Go Tell It on the Mountain was literally written on a mountaintop -- in a small Swiss village, the house provided by a new companion. Having wrestled with and fled from the troubled past he had taken as his subject, he seemed to now find the distance or understanding to face it: "The morning I typed the end to my manuscript I knew that I had come through something."

Baldwin grew up in Harlem poverty, his father unknown, his stepfather unbending, a Pentecostal preacher with a cruel streak, and with mental problems for which he would eventually be committed to an institution. He would tell Baldwin that he was as ugly as his mother, and scorn his bookishness; any signs of homosexuality would have been treated fundamentally. In an effort to both repress and triumph, Baldwin became a minister in his father'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 autobiographical hero, the fourteen-year-old John, is born again on the church "threshing-floor," to a place beyond his real father's reach. 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."
Having come to terms with his personal past, Baldwin felt that he could now go on to those racial issues which would occupy -- handcuff, say some literary critics -- his writing for the rest of his life.

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Related authors:  Frantz Fanon, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright
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