Go Tell It on The Seven Storey Mountain
In the Republic of Imagination Azar Nafisi compares Huckleberry Finn to John in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. She also compares John to Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. ‘Catcher’ was published around the same time and stole most of the available thunder. I think that Holden and Huckleberry make a good comparison, one that I’ve written about in my previous ‘informal essay,’ i.e., my infamous blog, The Font of Craddockian Wisdom. As chance would have it, I have found a book that makes a better comparison with GTIOTM, and the book is Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain; hence the title of this essay: Go Tell It on the Seven Storey Mountain.
Thomas Merton was a Trappist Monk who was born in 1915, exactly one century ago. Trappists are affiliated with the Catholics. Thomas was mentioned by Pope Francis during his recent visit to the United States, and I had just joined a church, St. Paul’s Episcopalian. After the service they served coffee and pastries, and when they rolled out a cart of books, a lending library, I knew I had found my church. Even the wine in the Eucharist was good, not cheap swill or plain grape juice. One of the books was by Rainer Maria Rilke, and another was by Thomas Merton. It was a clear example of Synchronicity.
On the surface Merton’s book and Baldwin’s book are as different as night and day–as black and white. Complete opposites. One is by a Black man who is raised in the church but ultimately rejects it, as he feels it would reject him as a gay Black man. The other is by a White man raised by an Artist father who ignores the church, except as a picturesque subject for a painting. Nevertheless he is drawn to the church and chooses the celibate life of a monk, a life of prayer and contemplation. Despite being the antithesis of Baldwin, and their journeys going in opposite directions, they both share a similar language. While Huck and Holden speak vernacular, slang of their days laced with a heavy dose of humor, John and Thomas speak very proper English, with just a hint of dry humor. The language of Baldwin is almost Biblical, like the prose in the King James Version of the Bible. The King James Version was done in the same time and place as Shakespeare–there are even rumors that Shakespeare worked on it as a ghost writer. The English language had just reached full ripeness. Anyway, both writers share a reverence for the English language.
I’m still on the ground floor of The Seven Storey Mountain but so far it reminds me a lot of Go Tell It On the Mountain, except for the part about it being its exact opposite. I have so many books that I wanted to learn the Dewey Decimal system so I could make some sense of it. It’s hard to find a certain book that you know is in the Library of New Alexandria (what I somewhat sarcastically call the boat-load of books that I am hoarding) so I looked it up online. Once I got a sense of how the Dewey Decimal System worked, I saw how the library in my hometown was laid out. If I take the elevator to the top floor (2M, the ‘M’ standing for Mezzanine (the word ‘Mezzanine’ reminds me of Mezzrow the white jazzman and hemp enthusiast, and I won’t go further on that tangent because I was already in a parenthetical comment to begin with and the parenthesis are starting to nest)), if you take that elevator and then walk back you are in the 800s: Literary Criticism, Poetry, and Collected Letters; then the 700s: Art, Music, and other works of Imagination. The 600s are Practical Arts and Crafts: Cooking, Furniture making, and so forth. The 500s are Science. The 400s Philology, the study of words, grammar, spelling, but also foreign languages. 300s are Social Studies, but also Anti-Social Studies: murderers, terrorists, and lawyers. 200s are Religion and Theology. 100s are books of Philosophy, and Psychology. Below 100 are books about Libraries, but also UFOs, the paranormal, the lost City of Atlantis. I found a great book there about the ancient Library of Alexandria as well as a book about Atlantis and another about Black Swans, which are unexpected events that seem inevitable in retrospect. But my two best recent discoveries I found while wandering the labyrinth of the library were Seeds of Destruction by Thomas Merton and a book of uncollected essays by James Baldwin that included the very essay that I was most curious about after hearing the title: “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare.” The Merton book was also a collection of Essays about racial tensions, kind of a The Fire Next Time. It also included a letter from Thomas Merton to James Baldwin, an open letter praising Baldwin’s writing and declaring that he was on his side in the struggle for civil rights. I felt that the connection I sensed between Baldwin and Merton had been vindicated as well as my method of searching for signs of Synchronicity. Both books had seemingly leaped into my hands during a random stroll through the shelves. Both books that I am discussing in this essay, Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, and Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, present personal histories. Both ask ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Where did I come from?’ Both explore their identities and put themselves in context with their histories, both family and general.
For Baldwin, that family history stretches back to his grandmother who was born in slavery. It is interesting how the Black church adopts and adapts Christianity. It is a great fit, sustaining them through times of trouble and tribulations. They see themselves as the Israelites, suffering under the Pharaoh. While John’s father Gabriel becomes a preacher and gives up his dissolute life of fighting, drinking, and to some extent womanizing (though he still succumbs to temptation fathering children out of wedlock) he is not without sin, as he hits his wife, blaming her for letting his favored son Roy get into the same kinds of trouble he himself got into as a boy. Roy returns his father’s love with hatred for the way he treats his mother. The illegitimate son named Royal also comes to a bad end, never being acknowledged or aided by Gabriel. Gabriel’s sister also hates him for these sins and also because in spite of them he was their mother’s favorite. She is also bitter and disappointed with Men in general, as her husband was such a letdown. John wants his father’s love, but is denied it, though he shows great aptitude and intelligence and would make an excellent preacher. In fact, his father condemns him because white people also notice his brightness, and he feels that John is fraternizing too much with the enemy. This kind of racial hatred of white people would seem to be unchristian, but was rife within the Black church, along with self-righteous hypocrisy and a love of gossip, as well as intolerance of gays. While these aspects of the Black church cause John to ultimately reject it, his main quarrel is that his father rejects him in spite of what he does. This has a lot to do with the fact that Gabriel is not John’s biological father. John’s real father was an autodidact who educated himself so that Whites would not be able to look down on him. Tragically, this made him stand out so that he was persecuted and jailed. He was broken and ended up taking his own life. John has inherited his real father’s intelligence, and will continue his struggle, though hopefully he will not share his father’s tragic fate. Along with these issues the subtext that runs through GTIOTM is that of John’s gayness. This would come out more in later books, especially in his next book, Giovanni’s Room, which his publishers would advise him against releasing. They felt that this would alienate his audience, as they saw him as being a brilliant spokesman for the civil rights movement. He was that, but he also spoke for the civil rights of gays and other misbegotten souls, other outsiders.
Christopher Robert Craddock (c) 2015