Go Tell It on the Mountain was James Baldwin's first novel, ten sporadic years in the making. Like many first novels, it relies heavily on autobiography for its basic framework. Like his protagonist, John Grimes, Baldwin grew up in Harlem under the puritanical supervision of a religious stepfather. David Baldwin, like Gabriel Grimes, was a Baptist lay-preacher. The elder Baldwin's mother had been a slave, and he had left the South in the 1920s. James, like John, experienced a powerful religious conversion at the age of fourteen. He became a minister at Fireside Pentecostal Assembly, where he preached for three years. Perhaps most relevant, the terrible father-son conflict so central to the novel draws on the similarly crippling paternal antagonism and filial hatred in the life of the author.
Baldwin was born in Harlem in 1924. He never knew his biological father. He attended New York City public schools, where he worked on school publications and received encouragement in his reading and writing. After graduation in 1942, Baldwin took several day labor jobs before moving to Greenwich Village to write. In 1944 he met Richard Wright, the author of Native Son, who liked Baldwin's manuscript enough to recommend it for a grant. Baldwin won the grant, but publishers rejected the resulting draft. In 1948 he moved to Paris.
Baldwin spent the next six years in France and Switzerland, publishing influential essays of criticism in American journals and working on his novel. Knopf accepted Go Tell it on the Mountain for publication in 1952. The novel appeared in 1953, followed by a collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son, in 1955, and another novel (Giovanni's Room) in 1957.
In the late 1950s Baldwin emerged as a prominent and eloquent voice in America's Civil Rights movement. As an activist, journalist, lecturer, and essayist, he achieved the status of unofficial African-American spokesman on racial issues. It was in his non-fiction writing in particular that he perfected a voice of conscience, witness, and reckoning. Widely acknowledged as a peerless personal and political essayist, Baldwin also continued to write novels, short stories, scripts, plays, and journalism well into the 1980s. He died in France of cancer of the esophagus in 1987.
In addition to the books named above, other Baldwin works include the novels Another Country (1962), Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968), If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), and Just Above My Head (1979); the essay collections Nobody Knows My Name (1961), The Fire Next Time (1963), and The Price of the Ticket: Collected Non-Fiction, 1948-1985 (1985); the plays The Amen Corner (staged in 1955)) and Blues for Mr. Charlie (staged 1964); and the collection of short stories, Going to Meet the Man (1965), which features the masterful "Sonny's Blues."