Book Review: Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin

James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain is exquisitely written and filled with poignant truths. Here’s one concerning the resentment of children toward dutiful parents:

Through a storm of tears that did not reach his eyes, he stared at the yellow room; and the room shifted, the light of the sun darkened, and his mother’s face changed. Her face became the face that he gave her in his dreams, the face that had been hers in a photograph he had seen once, long ago, a photograph taken before he was born. This face was young and proud, uplifted, with a smile that made the wide mouth beautiful and glowed in the enormous eyes. It was the face of a girl who knew that no evil could undo her, and who could laugh, surely, as his mother did not laugh now. Between the two faces there stretched a darkness and a mystery that John feared, and that sometimes caused him to hate her. (p. 22 of 1963 Dial Press edition)

Here’s one concerning the resentment of wives toward dutiful husbands:

Sometimes it occurred to him to do the Saturday shopping on his way home, so that she would not have to do it; in which case he would buy a turkey, the biggest and the most expensive he could find, and several pounds of coffee, it being his belief that there was never enough in the house, and enough breakfast cereal to feed an army for a month. Such foresight always filled him with such a sense of his own virtue….She would sit in the kitchen, cold with rage and staring at the turkey, which, since Frank always bought them unplucked and with the head on, would cost her hours of exasperating, bloody labor. (pp. 93-94)

Upon the whole, though, the book is dominated by the binary relationship between sin and salvation. “‘You think that’s all that’s in the world is jails and churches? You ought to know better than that, Ma.’” (p. 25) Somewhat monotonously, few characters in the book do know better than that. The existence of a third way is hinted at very occasionally, as in “Perhaps his life had been wicked, but he had been very good to her” (p. 177); but Baldwin never suffers his characters to elaborate upon it, nor does he ever do so as narrator, for the result, no doubt, would be didactic. Rather, Baldwin lets the binary stand, leaving it to the reader to lament.

Even if the fork in the road offers only two choices, one path should lead to redemption…shouldn’t it?

Book Review: Hercules, My Shipmate, by Robert Graves

Robert Graves’ book (retitled The Golden Fleece) is an argument for the historicity of the Argonauts’ voyage, as he explains in the afterword. The result is a passable adventure story, with a somewhat two-dimensional portrait of human nature.

Those who urge us to read the Classics claim that they contain valuable lessons on human nature, but I find myself dissatisfied by the limited aspects of human nature that they reveal. In Hercules, My Shipmate (as in The Odyssey, I recall), all the characters seem to be consumed by pride (in many cases simply an obsession with virility bordering on machismo) and divided from each other by religious and cultural differences. Consequently, life is shown to be nasty, brutish, and short, with few exceptions. In other words, the lessons on human nature imparted in classical tales soon become monotonous.

A comparison with Shakespearean tragedy is instructive. In Shakespeare’s plays, tragic flaws are personal. In the Classics, they are cultural. In the first pages of Macbeth, it becomes clear that Macbeth suffers from ambition but that Banquo does not. Macbeth thus stands out. In the Classics, all mankind suffers from ambition, as well as from avarice, machismo, lust, and the whole panoply of vices. Some variation is evident in talent – he’s a good archer and she’s a good runner – but not in morality; and all are equally subject to Fate.

One special observation about Hercules, My Shipmate: Whereas today’s writers are discouraged from including extraneous detail, Graves packs it all in. The following passage is typical:

Then [Hercules] marched against Neleus, the baleful brother of Pelias, who lived at Sandy Pylos and had sent troops to the help of Augeas; he killed Neleus and all his sons, except the boy Nestor (who lived to take part in the siege of Troy), and did not even hesitate to attack the Priest of Hades, who entered the battle disguised as a skeleton in the hope of striking a superstitious dread in his heart. Hades had been the enemy of Hercules ever since Hercules had robbed him of Alcestis, the wife of Admetus; but Hercules, undismayed, threw the jaw-bone of a sow at him and wounded him in the side. In this battle fell the Argonaut Periclymenus… (437)

But for all that, the book is engaging, and the fate of Jason (which strikes me as a prototype for that of Meriwether Lewis) is illustrated very symbolically, in a way I’m not likely to forget.