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La conversion (1953)

par James Baldwin

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A young black boy in the 1930's tries to win the respect of his stepfather.
1950s (14)
AP Lit (194)
My TBR (116)

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Summary: An account of John Grimes fourteenth birthday, centering on his brother Roy’s stabbing, his estrangement from his father, and the Saturday night “tarrying service” at a pentecostal church, revelatory of the lives of those around John and his own “salvation.”

It is John Grime’s fourteenth birthday. He’s the well-behaved older son who can never please his father Gabriel, who struggles with his awakening sexuality, a deep sense of both sin, and resentment of his father’s religion. After doing his chores, his mother gives him some money to spend on his own birthday gift. He goes to the movies. When he returns, he finds his younger brother Roy has been cut up in a knife fight. His father is so angry he takes it out on his wife Elizabeth and John before he finally whips Roy, until Gabriel’s sister Florence restrains him. John slips out to clean the church with his older friend Elisha for the evening “tarrying service,” a pentecostal prayer service on Saturday night before the Sunday service.

The second part centers around the prayer service, and the three prayers of Florence, Gabriel, and Elizabeth, with flashbacks to their earlier lives. Florence, to get away from the town where three white men raped a girl, Deborah, but even more, from her brother Gabriel, always favored, moves to New York, marries Frank who never settles down, leaves her for another woman, and dies in the war. She’s the worldly wise Aunt who sees through her brother’s spiritual facades. Gabriel starts out living a wanton life, then is “saved” and becomes a great preacher. Deborah, the raped woman prayed for him and supported him at his lowest. He marries her in an act of both gratitude and condescension, as no one else will have her. It is a childless marriage and grows cold. Gabriel’s affair with Esther leads to a child. She goes away to have the child with money stolen from Deborah, dies in childbirth, as does the child in his youth–the first Roy (for Royal), named by Esther remembering what Gabriel said he wanted to name his son. Gabriel lives with deep guilt for what he has done and the deaths that resulted, and his deception of now-deceased Deborah. Elizabeth’s prayer recalls the loveless aunt who rescued her from growing up in a brothel, parting her from her father, her flight and affair with Richard who gets her with child, then commits suicide after being arrested for being Black at the wrong place and time. Through Florence she meets and marries Gabriel, who sees the marriage as a kind of atonement for his sin. But he never loves Elizabeth’s child, John like their own son, also named Roy.

The third part begins with John on the floor experiencing a vision that recalls the hostility of his father toward him, his hatred of his father’s religion and struggle with the weight of his sins, and finally, “going through” to blessed salvation, bringing rejoicing from all the saints, and brotherly comfort from Elisha. But Gabriel is yet harsh and disbelieving. One cannot help if he resents the grace he sees in John’s experience that he has never certainly known for himself, for he could never live with Elizabeth joyfully, but only oppressively. There is a lot of guilt here, that centers around Gabriel, but also may reflect the version of Christianity Baldwin experienced. Much of that guilt is experienced around sexuality, even the awakening desires both Elisha and John experience. The alternatives seem to be ecstatic release in prayer at the altar, rebellion via a flight to the secular city, or a stern and censorious form of religion.

One wonders where all this will end up for John, who seems a younger version of the author, caught between the angry step-father and the caring older “brother” (is he more than that, reflecting Baldwin’s homosexual orientation?). Baldwin never takes us beyond that single day in John Grimes life, yet it appears that the day is the first step into a greater freedom that Gabriel can only resent but never know. ( )
  BobonBooks | Nov 14, 2022 |
This is the first Baldwin book I have ever read and, although it was short, it was packed with intense, important issues. Since he is known for big critiques on racism, I just assumed that would be the central theme of the book but, from the title, I should have figured out that it was actually religion. He exposes the hypocrisy and abuse of religion and how it effects the Black community as both a way to overcome oppression and a continued cause of it. I know it is semi-autobiographical which makes it much more profound to me. There are also themes of sexism, racism and sexuality and this book is as relevant today as it was when it was written. ( )
  JediBookLover | Oct 29, 2022 |
Fantastic family drama. A family’s history unfurls slowly over the course of a day in the Pentecostal church. Baldwin’s characters speak the Bible fluidly, and weave it through America’s history of racism. ( )
1 voter jscape2000 | Aug 28, 2022 |
Go Tell It On the Mountain is James Baldwin’s first novel. Published in 1953 to almost universally favorable reviews, Baldwin himself was held up as a young novelist of much promise, as indeed he proved to be. The book is often considered by critics to be his best novel.

This is a semi-autobiographical coming of age story. John, the protagonist in the story, is the son (he learns later that he’s actually the step-son) of a stern fundamentalist preacher. The story takes place on John’s fourteenth birthday and revolves around his blossoming awareness of himself, both sexually and religiously.

Much of the book takes place in flashback, and includes deep dives into the characters of John’s father Gabriel, his mother Elizabeth, and his aunt Florence. These stories are imbued with sex, religion, the church’s warnings on the sins of the flesh, and the dangers of being black in an America only a generation removed from slavery.

Baldwin, like John, was the stepson of a fierce fundamentalist preacher born of a slave. (There is some uncertainty about his stepfather’s exact birth date. It’s possible he was born before Emancipation and thus a slave himself as a young child.) Baldwin followed briefly in his father’s footsteps, delivering fiery sermons in his father’s church at the age of 13. But by seventeen the fire and excitement of the church had faded, and instead, as he wrote in an essay, “there was no love in the church. It was a mask for hatred and self-hatred and despair.”

It’s clear from the intensity of the writing that this is a deeply personal book for Baldwin. His depiction of the characters are multifaceted and empathetic. Their struggles are intense and very realistic.

In keeping with the story of a Pentecostal preacher’s son, a good portion of the book is related through religious experience, and using terminology common to fundamentalist thought. While this does help give additional insight into the characters it can also make it harder to understand for anyone personally unfamiliar with that experience (like me).

This is especially true in the last part of the book, which relates the story of John being “saved” in the church on the evening of his birthday. John is struck with visions and falls to the floor. His visions are related through religiously weighted allegory as he struggles with his own sin, his relationship with his father, and his conflicted feelings for Elisha, a slightly older youth active in his father’s church.

Now that I’ve read the book and have had a chance to reflect on it I can say that it is powerfully written and intensely felt, and a brilliant novel. But at the same time it’s also dense, dark and depressing. I set the book down many times, and each time I let a few days pass before picking it back up again.

I read Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room last year and gave it five stars. The two books are both semi-autobiographical and share the author’s intense storytelling style and brilliantly depicted characters. But without the religiosity Giovanni’s Room is a much easier read. In my review of Giovanni’s Room I said that I hated to come to the end of the book. But Go Tell It On the Mountain left me drained. While I was glad that I’d read it, I was also glad it was over.

Rating: Three Stars ⭐⭐⭐
( )
  stevesbookstuff | May 30, 2022 |
My first Baldwin (his as well!), and a book i likely would have hesitated to read had i known what it was about....but strangely, I definitely got caught up in it. It is basically one somewhat tumultuous day in the life of the Grimes family in Harlem on John's 14th birthday, and a trip to Saturday night church meeting......gripping??? NO. Yet, we are then taken on a trip through the history of the adults and what brought them to this point in time, revealing that we are all such complex products of our past, good, bad, & indifferent. We witness the entire story through John's perspective as he struggles to find out how to choose a path forward in his own life. It felt very real, and in spite of the very heavy fundamentalist Bible-thumping theme, I was anxious to move forward all the time. ( )
  jeffome | Apr 2, 2022 |
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Nom de l'auteur(e)RôleType d'auteurŒuvre ?Statut
James Baldwinauteur(e) principal(e)toutes les éditionscalculé
Bosch, AndrésTraducteurauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé
Brown, DanIllustrateurauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé
Cosgrave, John O'HaraIllustrateurauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé
Danticat, EdwidgeIntroductionauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé
Dillon, DianeArtiste de la couvertureauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé
Dillon, LeoArtiste de la couvertureauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé
Lazarre-White, AdamNarrateurauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé
O'Hagan, AndrewIntroductionauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé
Yentus, HelenConcepteur de la couvertureauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé
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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
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For my father and mother
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Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father.
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First edition was in 1953. Corgi editions show copyright date as 1954. The US Catalog of copyright entries for Jan-June 1953 details that application for copyright stated that 'the section "Exodus" appeared in the Aug. 1952 issue of American mercury, and "Roy's wound" in New world writing, 1952'.
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