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.