William Marling
on James M. Cain: Hard-Boiled Mythmaker
Pure Cain
September 21st, 2011
HOW CAN YOU NOT like Mildred Pierce? 

Whether it's Kate Winslet or Joan Crawford or James M. Cain's original, Mildred models an appealing blend of economic ambition, motherhood, and romance betrayed. With a new version of Mildred Pierce airing recently on HBO, reassessments are in order, not least because Cain himself was so attuned to economic hard times like our own.

David Madden championed Cain long before it was fashionable. I have in hand my 1968 copy of his Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, which is dedicated "To James M. Cain, twenty-minute egg of the hard-boiled writers." This collection of criticism is still important, and in Madden's introduction he boldly set up Cain as a perspective on the hard-boiled world of Hemingway, Chandler, Hammett, Bellow, and McCoy. That viewpoint made the constellation of literature taught on campus look quite different, even in 1968. Although the multi-talented Madden was principally a fiction writer (his fourth novel, The Suicide's Wife, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize) and director of the creative writing program at LSU, in his free moments he continued to champion Cain. He wrote James M. Cain (1970) and Cain's Craft (1985), and organized the first ever James M. Cain Conference, held at the unlikely venue of Baylor University amid the arcana of the Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning Collection. I was there, and believe me, listening to Madden begin his paper by evoking an imaginary theater marquee and intoning "JAMES ... M ... CAIN" was, for some years, my definition of academic cognitive dissonance.

Cain is mainstream now, but no less shocking. Students come to him chiefly in creative writing courses, where instructors cast his gems before students as models of clean prose: "'They threw me off the hay truck about noon' — see if you can combine setting, character, and conflict like that." But not so many aspiring creative writers read all of The Postman Always Rings Twice, much less the rest of Cain's oeuvre. It is now legit to teach Cain in American literature courses, if you ignore arched feminist eyebrows, but students are often genuinely shocked. How can he imply such nasty things about love, lawyers, the state, and human nature?

Roy Hoopes' monumental Cain: The Biography of James M. Cain (1982) helped to answer those questions. It seems that Cain was living libidinally in the 1920s and finding his style between the wit of Dorothy Parker and the sarcasm of H. L. Mencken, while reporting from West Virginia coal fields and New Jersey docks. In March of this year Hilton Als returned to the biographic in the New Yorker, linking Cain's more positive representation of women in Mildred Pierce to his "befriending" Kate Cummings (Cain often befriended women other than his current wife). But no writer transcends his period simply by befriending the right people. I myself placed Cain in a socioeconomic context in The American Roman Noir (1995). What he has to say on that score still resonates. It is now clear that Cain was among the most adept economic fabulists of his epoch, a talent he honed at the Baltimore American beginning in 1917. In The Embezzler (1940), he even named the archetypal crime of the Depression, a judgment later confirmed by John Kenneth Galbraith.