A Hollywood Love Story (as Written by James Baldwin)
D. Quentin Miller
Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work (1976) has proven challenging since its publication because readers and critics have trouble classifying it. The challenge may be related to a common feature of Baldwin criticism, namely a tendency to compare late career works to early ones and to find them lacking: the experimental nature of later works of nonfiction like No Name in the Street (1972), The Devil Finds Work, and The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985) does not square easily with the more conventional essays that made Baldwin famous in his early years. I attempt to reframe The Devil Finds Work not through a comparison to other Baldwin essays, but rather through a comparison to his fiction, specifically the novel Giovanni’s Room. I posit that a greater appreciation for Devil can result from thinking of it as a story, specifically the story of a failed love affair.
The author travels to St.-Paul-de-Vence, the site of Baldwin’s final decades, with the
intention of understanding expatriation and/or exile more deeply. The intention of this
visit is to fill in some of the gaps in Baldwin’s official biographies, which do not tend
to dwell on his time spent in Provence as much as his time in Paris, Turkey, New York, and
elsewhere. By interviewing a woman who knew Baldwin well during those years, the author
manages to add new layers to his understanding of Baldwin’s late years, but finally
arrives at the understanding that writing (rather than analyzing) is the main goal of the
expatriate writer. Inspired by Baldwin’s muse, he stops contemplating his subject and gets
to work, finally connecting the act of writing to expatriation by doing it.