I was recently in a room with a group of writers, and the talk turned to James M. Cain. There were, I recall, five writers there, each of us about to teach a graduate writing workshop. The four others — perhaps only incidentally? — all were women, a mix of novelists, biographers, essayists, and poets (some multiply accomplished). I mentioned this essay, as something I was working on. The others instantly laughed, but not as though I had made a joke, or confessed a stupid action. This was the laughter of a shared secret. Everyone in that room, it turned out, was rereading, or had just reread Cain.
Each of my writer friends spoke of Cain with a sort of shiver in her voice, variously intimating the author of The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Serenade, and Mildred Pierce also possessed forms of secret knowledge. One said that Cain is the sound of America for her. Others mentioned sex — the power, and folly, and destruction of passion for Cain, as well as his depictions of ambitious women, weak men, and the occasional yet still striking single mother. Then — the last remarked — there’s that style.
Cain ultimately didn’t invent anything. He is often celebrated as the axial figure in the history of the crime novel, marking the shift from the detective, as in Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, to the criminal, as in Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and Patricia Highsmith. Yet that transformation was already implicit in the literary fiction of the 1920s and 1930s that cultivated violence and gangsters — F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) Ernest Hemingway’s ‘The Killers’ (1927), and William Faulkner’s Sanctuary (1931). Cain’s partisans routinely debate whether it was he or Hemingway who spawned the American demotic for literature, but those colloquial tones were rattling everywhere by 1930, in William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, and Thomas Beer as well as Hammett and Hemingway. Did the demotic even require such a tardy delivery? D.H. Lawrence for his Studies in Classic American Literature glanced back from 1923 to still earlier American novelists and poets. ‘The furthest frenzies of French modernism or futurism have not yet reached the pitch of extreme consciousness that Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman reached,’ Lawrence proposed. ‘The European moderns are all trying to be extreme. The great Americans I mention just were it. Which is why the world has funked them, and funks them today.’
Chandler and Hammett now sustain canonical status; Thompson, Goodis, and Highsmith engage their distinguished cults. Cain alone survives — for all his best-sellers (eight between 1934 and 1948), and the hit films adapted from his novels — as a writer’s writer, on the rarer authority of what my friend tagged ‘that style’.
Our room of writers, all obsessed with language and sentences, likely was responding in Cain to what aroused Albert Camus when he famously recast that style for his novel The Stranger. The film and sound editor Walter Murch told Michael Ondaatje in The Conversations that, ‘I spent a lot of time trying to discover those key sounds that bring universes with them.’ The sounds of Cain’s sentences, particularly his first-person fictions of the 1930s and 1940s, vividly shadow pure-product American characters, but they also instantly summon worlds. Here are some signature opening lines from his early novels and serials:
"They threw me off the hay truck about noon." --The Postman Always Rings Twice (1936)
"I drove out to Glendale to put three new truck drivers on a brewery company bond, and then I remembered this renewal over in Hollywoodland." --Double Indemnity (1936)
"I was in the Tupinamba, having a bizcocho and coffee, when this girl came in." --Serenade (1937)
"All this, that I’m going to tell you, started several years ago." —Career in C Major (1938)
"I first met her when she came over to the house one night, after calling me on the telephone and asking if she could see me on a matter of business." —The Embezzler (1948)
"In the spring of 1931, on a lawn in Glendale, California, a man was bracing trees." --Mildred Pierce (1941)
A concoction of carnality and California, highways, cars, fast food, and lunges at stardom, this Cain universe is insistently tangible, rooted in objects and work, fascinated by road signs, tabloids, radio, and insurance tables, yet tilting toward fable, even surrealism. Recall the puma who appears in court at the end of The Postman Always Rings Twice, or the nightmare phantasmagoria in Double Indemnity, as Phyllis emerges panting across the dark rails, hoisting her dead husband. The women are enterprising, sometimes viewed as rapacious, sometimes as diabolic, and the men rarely as smart or bold as their desires, and all the mortals are restless. Defensive, anxious about their class, race, money, or achievement, Cain’s people slenderly know themselves, much as Cain once said he could only write well by assuming another’s voice. ‘There’s something very peculiar about me that I don’t understand,’ he told his biographer, Roy Hoopes. ‘I cannot write in the third person — and it seems to have something to do with this sense of a lack of accomplishment. I have written three books in the third person and they came off all right, but did not have the bite of the others . . . Now, when I write in the first person, that’s different. But to write anything, I have to pretend to be somebody else.’
Sometime between November 1931, when he quit journalism and the East Coast for Los Angeles and the movies, and the publication of The Postman Always Rings Twice by Knopf early in 1934, Cain arrived at the cunning, bluff and skittish style that is one of the indelible feats of American noir.
James Mallahan Cain was born at the opposite end of the American psychic topography from southern California, in Colonial Annapolis, Maryland, on 1 July 1892. All his grandparents had emigrated from Ireland during the 1850s, settling in New Haven, Connecticut. His father, James W. Cain, a Yale graduate, taught mathematics and English literature at St John’s College in Annapolis. His mother, Rose Mallahan, was a trained lyric soprano, with ‘the Brunnhilde voice’, as Cain later evoked her. Living in an ivy-covered brick faculty residence on the St John’s campus, the Cains maintained a cultured household for Jamie (as he called himself until he started school) and his four siblings, a brother and three sisters. Both his parents were attractive and popular, and his father,
not so much a scholar as a wily academic operator who eventually assumed the presidency of Washington College, across the Bay in Chestertown, appears to have intimidated his son. A ‘handsome, gabby, likeable rake’, as Cain recalled in an unpublished memoir, his father ‘mold[ed] all three of his weaknesses, his love of drink, his love of talk, and his fear of work, into one pillar of massive strength’. By contrast, the recurrently double-promoted Cain entered college at age fourteen, and although tall he described himself there as a ‘a midget among giants’. His face pockmarked under a helmet of unruly hair, he was nicknamed ‘Pedro’ and designated in the senior yearbook as ‘the awkwardest man of the class’.
After he graduated Washington College in 1910, at age seventeen, Cain drifted into odd jobs around Maryland — copying ledgers for Consolidated Gas and Light of Baltimore; inspecting roads for the State Roads Commission; principal of a high school in Vienna — before he moved to Washington, D.C. to pursue a calling as a singer. He financed his singing lessons, selling insurance for the general Accident Company — stocking information that would backdrop his novels The Postman Always Rings Twice and, particularly, Double Indemnity. His status as a failed singer stayed a conspicuous plank in Cain’s private mythology. ‘Writing to me,’ he told Edmund Wilson, ‘was distinctly a consolation prize’, but the singing lessons lasted only the single summer of 1914 before they ceased. Music is everywhere in Cain — who else would represent the murder of Nick Papadakis in The Postman Always Rings Twice as the stopped echo of a high note? But for all his fascination for classical music, Cain could never portray singers convincingly. Mildred Pierce nearly skips the rails when, after perhaps six months of vocal training, Veda suddenly emerges on the radio as a ‘miracle voice’ coloratura soprano. John Howard Sharp in Serenade is scarcely more plausible when he discusses his music. Manny Farber once praised Samuel Fuller’s scripts as ‘grotesque jobs that might have been written by the bus driver in The Honeymooners’. Sharp is Ralph Kramden as an opera star — at least Kramden’s fantasy of an opera star. Sharp, for instance, performs Carmen — cold — at the Hollywood Bowl, after the scheduled singer falters:
You think that’s impossible, that a man can go on and sing stuff that he never even saw . . . I didn’t even bother to look what the words were. I bellowed ‘Aupre`s de ma blonde, qu’il fait bon, fait bon,’ and let it go at that . . . In the Toreador Song, on the long ‘Ah’ that leads into the chorus, I broke out the cape and made a couple of passes at the bull. Not too much, you understand. A prop can kill a number. But enough that I got that swirl of crimson and yellow into it. It stopped the show, and he let me repeat the second verse.
No less sensationally, Cain sketched his own decision to become a writer as an American Pauline conversion. Sitting on a bench across from the White House, no less, in Lafayette Park in September 1914, depressed over the ruins of his musical career, he claimed he heard his voice say, ‘You’re going to be a writer!’
Cain would not publish his first short story — ‘Pastorale’ — until 1929, and a novel until 1934. Hoopes’s otherwise shrewd biography tends to chart the interval as a sequence of edifying stages along life’s way toward an inevitable destination: take a left at Teaching English, then a right at Newspaper Journalism, don’t forget to stop for H. L. Mencken, and once you pass the Satirical Dialogues just before Screenplay Flats, you’ll know you’re almost at Fiction.
Some of these sites are worth dwelling on, even if Cain’sprogress to Postman might have transpired or expired in any multitude of other routes. As he worked over and sent out short stories, now lost, he returned home to Chestertown, taught English and mathematics at the preparatory school of Washington College, and lived in a dormitory. For his English classes, Cain stressed the imaginative release of grammar, syntax, and punctuation — the only elements of writing that, apparently, he believed could be taught. ‘When you learn how to punctuate, you’ll be free to be yourselves’ — Cain recounted his instruction of his students to David Madden. ‘Instead of being in a straitjacket of what can be put between commas with a period at the end, you can write as freely as you talk, and know you can set it up so it reads.’ Particularly in his novels of the thirties and early forties, Cain was a writer for whom elastic syntax and the shaping of resilient sentences is an adventure. He could seize formal rigor, precision and variousness probably only matched in American crime fiction by the David Goodis of Down There. If, as Julian Symons once speculated, Cain’s ‘chief limitation’ was ‘coarseness’, that vulgarity, he insisted, was ‘not of language . . . but of feeling’. Perhaps to reinforce Symons’s caveat about coarse feelings, Cain remembered his young students in scenes that invoke the lust at first sight moments in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. His abandoned memoir recalls a girl from a summer algebra class he taught a few years later in Easton, Pennsylvania:
And then in one of those classes she appeared. She was, I would say, twelve, and her second day in class she showed up in black silk stockings . . . The pair of legs were the most beautiful I’ve seen on a twelve-year-old, who folded them in her seat in such a way as to let me glimpse Honolulu, as Zsa Zsa Gabor called it — then let her eyes lock with mine.
Cain stopped teaching in 1917, except for a brief stint later at St John’s College, and for the next fourteen years was employed as a journalist — first as a reporter for the Baltimore American (1917), then for the Baltimore Sun (1918 and 1920-1923). After he moved to Manhattan in 1924 he wrote editorials for Walter Lippman in the New York World (1924-1931), and eventually a signed column in the Metropolitan Section (1928-1931). When the World shut down in 1931 he worked as managing editor of The New Yorker. Cain meanwhile entered the Army in 1918, and as a private in the 79th Infantry
Division fought in the Meuse-Argonne offensive (his 1929 story ‘The Taking of Montfaucon’ memorialized the campaign). He also edited the Division newspaper, The Lorraine Cross. For his most ambitious reporting sally Cain covered the treason trial of William Blizzard, president of the United Mine Workers in West Virginia, for the Sun. During this early Red Scare clash, he sided with the union, despite threats from the state police, and the mine owners lobbied the paper to have him fired. He wrote reflective stories about the episode for the Atlantic Monthly and The Nation, and returned to the coalmines for a first attempt at a novel, eventually jettisoned to the wastebasket. After meeting Mencken, Cain started to publish in the American Mercury, articles, then satiric dialogues, and finally short fiction. He joined Mencken’s boozy Saturday Night Club, then his Sunday Night Club, and as Cain later wrote, the infamous iconoclast ‘freed me from the thrall of the local literarians . . . liberated me from the village pump’. Cain despised the ‘corporate awfulness’ of his World editorials, but the humorous dialogues in vernacular dialects both rural (Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia) and urban (New York) proved so popular that in he made a book of them, Our Government.
Following the appearance of ‘Pastorale’ in the March 1928 American Mercury, Cain slipped in an occasional short story among his dialogues and articles — ‘The Taking of Mountfaucon’ is the most persuasive and lasting. But not before he departed for Hollywood late in 1931 to write for Paramount did he really start to produce fiction. Cain disliked movies — ‘there was no such thing as a good one,’ he claimed. John Howard Sharp seems to speak for Cain in his tirade against Hollywood from the self-styled high-art angle of his singing:
I didn’t like Hollywood. I didn’t like it partly because of the way they treated a singer . . . To them, singing is just something you buy, for whatever you have to pay, and so is acting, and so is writing, and so is music, and anything else they use. That it might be good for its own sake is something that hasn’t occurred to them yet. The only thing they think is good for its own sake is a producer that can’t tell Brahms from Irving Berlin on a bet, that wouldn’t know a singer from a crooner until he heard twenty thousand people yelling for him one night, that can’t read a book until the scenario department has had a synopsis made, that can’t even speak English, but that is a self-elected expert on music, singing, literature, dialogue, and photography, and generally has a hit because somebody lent him Clark Gable to play in it. I did all right, you understand . . . I kind of got the hang of how you handle things out there to get along. But I never liked it, not even for a second.